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New York Times' Op-Docs is an outlet for documentary filmmakers

by John Horn with Rosalie Atkinson | The Frame

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A scene from the short documentary, "4.1 Miles." The film won a Peabody Award and was nominated for an Academy Award. Daphne Matziaraki

The New York Times' new online forum, Op-Docs, is giving documentary filmmakers a platform to share original, nonfiction content. 

Since its launch six years ago, Op-Docs has helped launched the careers of multiple new documentarians, including University of California-Berkeley journalism student Daphne Matziaraki. Her film, "4.1 Miles," won a 2016 Peabody Award and was also nominated for a 2017 Academy Award in the short documentary film category.

A scene from the short documentary, "4.1 Miles."
A scene from the short documentary, "4.1 Miles." Daphne Matziaraki

Op-Docs' executive producer Kathleen Lingo said "4.1 Miles" embodies what the forum is all about: 

The film is about a Coast Guard captain on the island of Lesbos, who goes from patrolling the water in his sleepy, fishing, tourist village to literally rescuing thousands of people a day. And to see the crisis through his eyes, captured all in one day, is just so immensely powerful and so hard to watch. It's so engaging. So there's definitely something to the power of visual journalism — visual storytelling — and film to make statements on issues that the written word does, but in a different way.

Despite being developed by the New York Times editorial department, the Op-Docs don't express opinions the way their writers might. Lingo says:

Our films are much less directly political, [but] pivoting off the news, the way that our editorial board or columnists do. The Times does so much "newsy" stuff that I think Op-Docs is kind of a break from that.  We work with a lot of documentary filmmakers whose names you'd know — like Errol Morris, he's contributing. Laura Poitras has contributed, but also we also try to find voices from first-time filmmakers because when you get new voices in there, you get new points of view that you never even expected to hear.

Although some of the films are sent to the Op-Docs team fresh from the festival circuit, many of the shorts come in a rough-cut stage:

That's really when we like to start working with filmmakers, because the same way an op-ed writer works with an editor to craft an essay, we also work with filmmakers to craft an Op-Doc. So it's really a collaborative process.

Each short film has to meet the New York Times' rigorous accuracy policy before it gets drafted into the fold. Coordinating producer Lindsey Crouse has fact-checked each Op-Doc. That's 244 films, according to Lingo: 

I think she might be the first person in the world who has fact-checked a virtual reality film. And fact-checking visual material is also different. I mean, we do look at the scripts and say, Where'd you get this statistic? Is this right? But there's also the issue of looking at what's on screen. Creativity is totally fine, but you've got to be transparent with your audience. So what crosses the line for us is when there is a manipulation of time or sequencing of events in order to make a particular point that we absolutely won't allow. 

Much like the paper, there can be a quick turnaround on breaking news Op-Docs:

The fastest turnaround was in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. We had a filmmaker in Paris reach out to us within a few hours, connecting us to a friend of hers that'd made a documentary on Charlie Hebdo. He had filmed with them the first time they'd drawn Muhammed for the cover of the magazine. So that we turned around in 24 hours. 

To hear John Horn's interview with Kathleen Lingo, click on the player above.

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