The New Kings of Doc
Riding a digitally born revolution, these documentarians are making the once-sleepy genre as fast and as furious as it was always meant to be.

Sometimes you need an accelerant before you can start a fire. In the case of the documentary—the often slower, precious, and Luddite sibling of the feature film—that fuel is, ironically enough, technology. Aided by digital delivery systems such as Vimeo and Zeega, smarter and cheaper equipment (GoPro, the Canon 5D), and instant access to curated content (thank you, Netflix), a new wave of documentarians have given the genre its most auspicious moment in—well, ever.

"Technology is the great equalizer," says Bryn Mooser, cofounder with David Darg of the revolutionary news and activism site RYOT, which is raising guerrilla-style docs to the level of art. "I liken it to when the home four-track tape recorder came out—punk music was born, right?" Says Darg: "With an iPhone, you can shoot docs that look as good as what somebody did 10 years ago with expensive equipment and a crew, and without the marketing and distribution costs."

Such methods have ushered in different breeds of both documentarian and fan—one obsessed with artistic freedom, the other with instant gratification. Sean Dunne's straight-to-Vimeo feature Oxyana—a haunting look at a mining town destroyed by OxyContin abuse—earned him the award for best new documentary director at this April's Tribeca Film Festival. "In the past, it would have been 'Hey, Hollywood, can you give me some money so I can go to West Virginia to do this?' They'd have demanded input into how it was made, and maybe the doc would have ended up in a couple of art houses," says Dunne, who's been uploading documentary shorts for five years. "I love watching docs in theaters, but that's not the way people want to see them anymore."

RYOT takes interactivity a step further: Every video and news story includes a clickable action box that links directly to an organization aiding, say, victims of the cholera epidemic in Haiti. "The information is easy to digest and find," says the actress Olivia Wilde, a RYOT producer and celebrity evangelist. "It makes apathy impossible."

Wilde heralds RYOT's ability to speak to a younger generation, which, as she sees it, prefers sincerity to cynicism, storytelling to straight facts. Case in point: Zachary Heinzerling's emphasis on narrative in his poignant portrait of a marriage, Cutie and the Boxer (which won the directing award at Sundance this year). "I was creating an experience where you get sucked into a story," says Heinzerling, whose filming process altered the behavior of his subjects, exposing truths they might not otherwise have revealed. "It is much more directed than traditional documentaries, which is sometimes a scary word in that world."

Bert Marcus is of the generation demanding tweaks to the genre—in his case, emphasizing entertainment as much as information. For How to Make Money Selling Drugs, he came up with the idea of treating America's failed war on drugs like a video game, with each segment bringing the viewer to another level—from foot soldier to international drug lord. As he sees it, the future of documentaries is simple: "Get a younger audience to view them as something they want to see rather than have to see."

Olivia Wilde, 29, David Darg, 35, and Bryn Mooser, 34 (pictured, above, from left)
Credit Check: ryot.org
Interactive Activism: Mooser: "Traditional documentaries have a one-way flow: 'Here's what's happening in this world.' What technology has made possible is 'Here's what's happening, and here's what you can do about it.'" Wilde: "RYOT's message is 'It's fun to be involved, to know what's going on and care.'"

Sean Dunne, 32
Credit Check: The Archive, American Juggalo, Oxyana
University of DIY: "I remember interviewing Joel Schumacher for something, and he said, 'You know, the movie business is not looking for you. You have to make it happen.' I took that to heart, that it was on me—just do it yourself."
Bert Marcus, 31
Credit Check: Teenage Paparazzo, How to Make Money Selling Drugs; upcoming: Champs
It's in the Stars: "It's hard to get publicity and mainstream theatrical distribution for documentaries, which is why we always include celebrities—ones whose lives have been dramatically affected by the subject."
Zachary Heinzerling, 29
Credit Check: Cutie and the Boxer
The New Normal: "The line between nonfiction and narrative is going to continue to blur. People will become more comfortable with the idea that something is manipulated. They'll see what the filmmaker is trying to say, as opposed to worrying that the film adheres to a strict set of rules or traditions."

• • •

The Documentarian's Documentary
The words used to describe the profoundly disturbing The Act of Killing—hallucinatory, mind-bending, disorienting—are often associated with drugs. And the documentary, singled out by numerous filmmakers featured here as the most remarkable of the year, does indeed induce an altered state—for the viewer and the viewed. Joshua Oppenheimer spent almost 10 years with members of the Indonesian death squads responsible for murdering 1 million alleged Communists and other "undesirables" in the sixties; he got so intimate with them that they agreed to reenact the killings in lurid and surreal low-budget-movie scenes. Since the torture methods were often based on scenes from Hollywood films, it's like opening a set of Russian dolls: a sort of film-within-a-film-within-a-documentary. "It's insane and brilliant," says Zachary Heinzerling. "It's totally shifted what people define as documentary—it turned the form on its head."

• • •

The 2013 Hollywood Mavericks
 

The Transformer

The New Kings of Doc

The Antiestablishment Exec

The Dynamic Duos
 

The Soundtrack Wizard

The Netflix Natives

The Cutting-Edge Comedians

The Character Actresses
 

The Crowdsourcer

The Creative Capitalists

The Prestige Producer

The Rookie Filmmakers
 

The Indie Auteur