Open-Source Me

Chuck Olsen takes the first-person doc into the blogosphere

Blogumentary, a clever mix of documentary film and online weblog, makes the case that many of the important conversations in politics and media in recent years have either originated with or been disseminated by independent online publishers--a.k.a. bloggers. Directed by Twin Cities-based blogger/filmmaker Chuck Olsen, the movie goes further to suggest that blogging has nudged the mass media out of its dogmatic slumber and into a new form of conversational journalism even as indie blogs remain busy connecting regular people and important ideas in ways never before imagined.

This new and evolving form of online publishing is known by many names: "personal media," "open-source journalism," "collaborative media," "micro-journalism." But Olsen says he's flexible with the terms blog and documentary, and uses this to his advantage by fusing the two reality-based formats in his film.

The diverse cast in Blogumentary includes Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's campaign manager; Stuart Hughes, a BBC reporter and blogger who lost his leg to a landmine in Iraq; and Olsen's mother, who started a blog during her battle with cancer. Olsen also pays a visit to the local right-wing blog collective Power Line, which recently landed a profile in Time magazine after becoming the entry point for the debunking of the 60 Minutes memos that vexed Dan Rather.

To interview bloggers around the world, Olsen, who works by day as a web specialist at Twin Cities Public Television, pulls out some unique DIY digerati tricks. In one scene, he records an interview with a Brazilian blogger using the video software found in Instant Messenger--the ideal delivery tool for a split-personality medium.

In this sense, Blogumentary is an experiment of desktop publishing that uses two essential programs--Final Cut Pro and Blogger--to illustrate the blurring of the line between producer and consumer. (The companion website, which includes an extensive video archive, can be viewed at blogumentary.typepad.com.) The film also challenges long-cherished notions of copyright, authorship, and objectivity. Olsen calls it an "open-source documentary" and is licensing hours of raw interview footage to Creative Commons, a new form of media licensing that, unlike traditional copyright law, allows content to be modified and redistributed. Which in turn allows the movie to confront the economic imperatives of another long-cherished institution: the film festival.

Just days before Blogumentary's world premiere at Oak Street Cinema on Friday (at 7:30 p.m. as part of Get Real: City Pages Documentary Film Festival), Olsen was still assembling the final cut. He peeked up from his Mac long enough to answer a few questions in a Northeast coffee shop.

 

City Pages:A documentary about blogs? How many people have raised an eyebrow at that one?

Chuck Olsen: Everybody--especially bloggers, even though they're intensely interested in it. I always say that Blogumentary is not about the internet: It's about people, or what's behind blogs. I'm not really focused on the technology, which will probably disappoint some people, but will make the film more watchable for the general public.

CP:Who do you think the audience is for this film?

Olsen: Anyone interested in media and politics and people. I have a lot of interviews with bloggers, and only a small number of them made the final cut. A different film could be made from that footage--a film on the culture of blogging or the technology of blogging or many other topics.

CP:And that's why you are calling this an "open-source documentary"?

Olsen: From the very beginning, I was interested in the idea of other geeks and filmmakers making their own "blogumentaries" using my footage--whether focused on journalism or techie stuff, or just as raw creative material. Two years ago, applying the open-source software concept to media was a somewhat radical idea, but open-source film is now an established concept. I plan to release most of the raw interview footage online.

CP:Does this open-source framework conflict with how film festivals are run?

Olsen: I'm about to find out. I want to be true to the spirit of blogs and the open-source movement, which is free and open and transparent and generous. Unfortunately, that collides with the economic model of festivals, where scarcity and control creates demand and gets people in the door. Festival policies toward online clips vary, but I've been told if a festival's programmers really want your film, they won't have a problem with it. I'm hoping to take a hybrid approach. I've been posting footage and edited clips on my blog for the last two years. But watching clips or footage online is a very different experience from watching the completed film in a theater. Besides the obvious differences in audio/visual quality, I've been putting most of my effort into the theatrical cut, which is not mutually exclusive from watching clips online. I think plenty of people will do both. I hope festival programmers realize that this is an opportunity, not a threat.

CP:By its very nature,Blogumentary is not even a single, identifiable thing.

Olsen: Right. A lot of people didn't realize until recently that I'm actually doing a film. Blogumentary is partially a website, partially a large collection of archived video interviews, and partially a documentary. It's become an amorphous entity without beginning or end.

CP:And the film itself might change through time as you keep collecting interviews?

Olsen: Films are supposed to end, but with a documentary, you're trying to take a snapshot of a changing world. Even right now, with the Get Real screening days away, I have to stop myself from trying to get new interviews with bloggers. At some point, for my own sanity, I'll have to declare the documentary done and frozen. Then it'll be like an encyclopedia set: You'll get a new documentary update every year for your library.

CP:When did you start this idea?

Olsen: I started Blogumentary--the blog--in September of 2002, and by December I became totally obsessed with blogs. I started to ask myself, "Why do people put their lives out there like this? What are they like in real life? How is that different than their blog life?" So I had a personal curiosity in the phenomenon, but there was also a blog explosion going on around that time. When I set out, I didn't even know what the documentary was going to be about.

CP:The structure of this documentary is unique. The organizing principles are similar to a blog in that...

Olsen: In that it's unorganized [laughs]?

CP:...it is a serious look at blogging, but it's also personal.

Olsen: I wanted a documentary about blogs to be true to the medium, so it must come from my perspective. I wanted to create something that was informative and hopefully entertaining, but my personality is a key part of it.

CP:One of the first things you say in the film is, "When you start a blog, you are the media." Should bloggers aspire to be journalists?

Olsen: Blogs are obviously different things to different people. With all the skepticism of the mainstream media today, people have become motivated to deviate from traditional journalistic forms. Some people in the online community who started out as journalists are trying to produce a training curriculum for bloggers to learn about the craft of journalism. I think that's a good idea, but I also like that bloggers don't have to deal with those restrictions--I like that everyone goes about it in their own quirky way.

CP:Since Drudge, it's almost trite to ask this question anymore--but are you worried about a downside to this form of instantaneous journalism?

Olsen: Some of the competitive elements of journalism spilled over into blogging. It's like, "We were wrong first!" is acceptable. The best response to this worry is that over time the power of many comes up with the right answers. Because of comments and the viral nature of blogs, mistakes usually end up correcting themselves. Micro-journalism is like a self-correcting organism. Right now, bloggers--like the general public--are so critical of the media. And that's good, but we've reached a point where we have to start asking when we will offer a vision of the future. We need to give solutions rather than tearing everything down.

CP:In the film, you outline the way that Trent Lott's downfall emerged from bloggers. Do you think we'll see more cases where bloggers create news events?

Olsen: The relationship between news and blogs is chaotic right now. On the one hand, you have mainstream news trying to co-opt blogs and starting their own. On the other hand, there's a very combative relationship between blogs and news. Only when bloggers work themselves into a frenzy--screaming to the media, "You fucked up!"--does it become a news event. My hope is that the news media will collaborate with bloggers rather than trying to fight them off, make fun of them, or compete with them. Bloggers can help the news get it right the first time. News should be a conversation.

CP:The two stories that bloggers are given the most credit for are good examples: the public outcry that led to Lott's resignation and the analysis of the60 Minutes documents that got Dan Rather in trouble.

Olsen: While both were important investigations that happened almost entirely online, they were also both destructive. They tore down Trent Lott, and they tore down Dan Rather. So while those stories are great examples of online citizens collectively finding truth, I just hope that in the future we also contribute with positive forces.

CP:You visited the Power Line collective, whose members are very skeptical of what they think is the "liberal media." They ended up being a key factor in the investigation of the60 Minutes memos. What was that experience like?

Olsen: They live out in Apple Valley, and I was a little scared going out there. I was going into the heart of the right-wing blogosphere, and I'm a total lefty. One of them asked me if I was doing an objective film. "You're not going to Michael-Moore us, are you?" Later on, when I was posting some video of them talking about 9/11, I realized that I can't "Michael-Moore them" because of the way I'm producing this as an open-source film. Anyone can see the raw footage for themselves if they think I've edited them [to look] funny. During the interview, they started to get really comfortable talking to me and forgot where my political beliefs land. They started saying things that to me sound like they came from another planet. They think that Al Gore almost stole the 2000 election. But of course, they're very popular; the whole right-wing blogosphere is huge. It's a good indicator of what you can do with blogs regardless of your political inclinations. What happened with the 60 Minutes memos was a good thing, but it came from people who happen to be rabid.

CP:You talked to Matthew Gross, the "blogger-in-chief" of the Howard Dean campaign, which used the internet and blogging in unique ways this election cycle. How do you think history will write the story of Dean and his internet "revolution"?

Olsen: I come down very strongly on the side that regular people decided they were going to get involved in a political campaign to a level that was absolutely revolutionary.

CP:But wasn't there also an element of a dot-com political bubble-bursting? The campaign imploded in the end.

Olsen: I agree with [Dean's campaign manager] Joe Trippi that this wasn't a dot-com bubble burst: It was a dot-com miracle. The entire process of choosing an elected official was so much more open than anything we have had in the past. Most of the criticisms that people have about the Dean campaign are no different than what happens in all political campaigns. People are in an echo chamber offline as much as they were online. Because the Dean campaign opened itself up to criticisms, it became more of a conversation. It was so much better at involving people in the process in a way they weren't involved before. It allowed anybody to feel like they were part of the campaign. One could go in an Add Comments [section] and it could give a whole new perspective on an issue. As a reader, you are more participatory with this medium. Even if you don't have a blog, it's more active because you can leave comments behind. During the Dean campaign, there were people who left comments on the Dean for America blog, and they thought of those comments as their blog. In a way, they were right.

CP:Do you think we should have more blogs?

Olsen: Lots of people don't want or need a cell phone, and lots of people have no use for a blog. I'd like everyone who has something to say to start a blog. Author Sandra Cisneros said, "You can never have too much sky." Blogs connect people, so you can never have too much blog.

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