Tracking Documentaries

Jonathan Kahana, author of Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary, has a couple of interesting posts over at the Columbia University Press blog. The first revisits a list of the “best documentaries of all time” that he was commissioned to write for an in-flight magazine, with the stipulation that all of the films he cited be available on DVD. He followed that post up today with another post listing some great documentaries that should be available on DVD but aren’t, including An American Family and Chris Marker’s Letter from Siberia.

I mention Kahana’s post, in part, because he addresses a point that I try to develop in my own book about the perception that digital media, such as the DVD, will provide us with universal access to the entire history of moving-image culture.  Certainly in the era of “long tail” marketing, there is a lot of stuff out there, but as formats change, we can lose access to quite a bit.  Plus, as Kahana points out regarding An American Family, disputes over rights to the film seem to have held it back from DVD distribution.   And although the DVD is seen as more permanent than VHS or other formats, that’s not always the case.

I do think that projects such as Reframe, the Tribeca Film Institute-Renew Media collaboration to provide lesser known films for digital download, can provide new alternatives, but it also seems likely that the films we’ll have available on any given format will continue to be at least somewhat variable.  No matter what, Kahana’s lists are worth checking out and include many of my personal favorites or films that I’d like to see.

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