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Alex Jones: The Internet's Loudest Documentary-Maker
The Online Audience and the New Revolution in Documentary Films

London Telegraph | April 15, 2007
Chris Stevens

Cheap editing software and an online audience are changing documentary films

Documentary filmmakers used to edit their footage by manually cutting up giant reels of celluloid with a razor blade. The price for entry was high, and the chances of an audience ever seeing your film were staggeringly low. But now fledgling directors equipped with cheap editing programs such as iMovie have found a new outlet on the internet, and an audience of millions who just can't get enough.

Dylan Avery
DIY documentaries: Dylan Avery was partially responsible for 'Loose Change', the 9/11 conspiracy argument created on an aging laptop

The new wave of internet documentaries deal with everything from 9/11 conspiracy theories to skiing in Iran. Young directors have taken advantage of the distribution power of video sites like YouTube and the availability of capable and cheap computers to produce finished films that, at least on the surface, look factual, watchable and authoritative.

One of the most popular internet documentaries is Loose Change. Downloaded over four million times, it challenges the official version of events surrounding the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It uses fast-paced cuts, dramatic music and interviews spliced with voiceover to convince the viewer that 9/11 was "a carefully planned, controlled demolition" orchestrated by the US government. Preposterous though the documentary's premise is, it's still one of the most popular video downloads in the world, and was put together using an old Compaq Presario laptop running off-the-shelf editing software. Dylan Avery, the director who created Loose Change, spent a year using this system to edit stock footage and news reports into a 90-minute film. The result was so successful that Charlie Sheen recently agreed to provide Avery with a voiceover for a future cinema release of the documentary. The film also inspired a counter-documentary, Screw Loose Change, which aims to debunk the claims of the original film using the same footage with new subtitles.

It's not just conspiracy theories that make compelling subject matter. Some filmmakers have created online documentaries that are shot entirely in virtual worlds. Douglas Gayeton's film, My Second Life, charts the experiences of a man called Molotov Alva who leaves his "carbon-based life" behind and begins to live exclusively in the online world Second Life. Alva lands in the virtual world of Second Life and narrates the documentary like a travel writer exploring a new country - imagine Alain de Botton transplanted into a virtual world and asked to explain things there. It's eerie and irreverent - all the more so if you're unfamiliar with the surreal world of Second Life. The first instalment of the documentary shows Alva wandering around naked and featureless before discovering clothes and then choosing a face.

The most impressive online documentary-makers challenge our mainstream news, and Jasin Nazim's film, Skiing in Iran, is one of the better examples of this. This documentary quietly dispels some of the assumptions we make about a country in "the axis of evil". Before he travels to Iran to carve some fresh powder on the slopes, Nazim's friends ask him, "What are you going to do in Iran? Go sand skiing?". The resulting footage shows how the country is actually a skiiers' paradise. The snow puts European resorts to shame and the lift passes cost £3.50 a day. As with so many of this new breed of documentary makers, Nazim edited his film on a cheap laptop.

Any aspiring filmmaker with a decent entry-level computer, a video camera and a strong story can shape the opinions of huge swathes of people. But there is a danger that because a lone documentary maker can now speak in the visual language of mass media, they can give artificial credibility to a message that is far from factual; by making a choice cut here, adding the right music there, and placing a quote out of context here, the film can all add up to a convincing lie.

One internet documentary that turns this accusation around by exploring factual inaccuracy in the mainstream media is Pallywood, According to Palestinian sources (tinyurl.com/onr3g). This documentary by Richard Landes, a professor at Boston University, shows footage of the Arab-Israeli conflict from alternative camera angles in an attempt to demonstrate that some Palestinian video journalists stage events. Landes argues that the mainstream media are too quick to accept and broadcast freelance news footage. Then there is the internet's loudest documentary-maker, Alex Jones. Jones is vocal and impassioned; Michael Moore, but angrier. His site, infowars.com, is a sweet shop of conspiracy theories and political subversion. Jones' following is huge - he even had an animated part in Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, in which we see Jones being bundled into the back of a dark van after ranting into a megaphone about oppression by the US government.

Not only are many of these new internet documentary-makers giving us alternative perspectives on the news, but they're also presenting us with extremely well-crafted films in the process. Some are thought provoking, others are utterly unbelievable, but at least most are entertaining. So, should you fear the latest conspiracy theorist with his copy of iMovie? Yes, he might just convince you he's right.

The kit you will need

Stick to a traditional MiniDV camcorder that uses tapes to record and has a Firewire (also known as IEEE1394) connector. Tape camcorders are better value and higher quality than DVD or hard disk camcorders at the moment. DVD is a lower-quality recording format than MiniDV and consumer hard-disk camcorders are notoriously hard to capture and edit footage from - steer clear.

If you're using an Apple Mac, the iMovie software is bundled with your machine. This can edit regular MiniDV video and high-definition video. The documentary Tarnation was edited with a regular copy of iMovie and it got a cinema release. If you're more adventurous you could take a look at Apple's Final Cut software. If you're using a PC then it's worth investing in Adobe Premiere Elements.

The top five internet documentaries

Loose Change ( www.loosechange911.com )
One of the most popular internet documentaries yet created. Dylan Avery, Korey Rowe, and Jason Bermas edited this 9/11 conspiracy argument on an aging laptop - it's now been downloaded over four million times. Watch the riposte, Screw Loose Change, at lolloosechange.co.nr.

My Second Life ( www.tinyurl.com/2798o2 )
A documentary shot entirely on location in the internet's most popular virtual world, Second Life.

Skiing in Iran ( tinyurl.com/382b4s )
An American skier and his family challenge our preconceptions about Iran by carving up the slopes and generally having a great time. And there's not a mad mullah or nuclear warhead in sight.

Michael Jackson's Sonic 3 ( tinyurl.com/kv22d )
Rumour has it that Michael Jackson was originally asked to pen a score for this classic Sega game - this documentary argues that some of his work still remains hidden in the soundtrack.

One Inch Punch ( tinyurl.com/fqur8 )
A look at Bruce Lee's famous "one inch punch" technique and how it shaped martial arts.

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