Behind the Scenes Interviews

The Atlantic Selects brings short docs to a wider audience

Branded as a “showcase of cinematic short documentary films,” The Atlantic Selects is a one-woman show run by film curator and journalist Emily Buder. The series, which currently consists of about 220 videos, has been running for two and a half years and was created by Buder, who is in charge of finding unique films, writing about them and posting them on The Atlantic website and YouTube page.

Storybench spoke with Buder about the creation of the series, how she chooses and programs films, and the significance of documentary films in the digital storytelling world.

Could you describe the responsibilities of your role as a film curator for The Atlantic, and how this series came to be?

Emily Buder: I run an international documentary series of films that lives on homepage and on YouTube. When I was hired, the idea was that we wanted to have a documentary series that featured freelance filmmakers’ work, but there wasn’t much of a directive beyond that. I decided that I wanted to create a series that was really intentional and highly curated that would showcase a diverse range of voices. 

What I decided to do was brand it like an online film festival. The idea behind it was that a lot of documentaries get made and they travel the festival circuit, internationally and sometimes just domestically. Beyond that though, they didn’t have a place to live and they don’t ultimately get seen by all that many people — it’s limited to who’s in the theater at these festivals. Many of these festivals are also kind of remote and regional. 

So I wanted to give really high-quality short documentaries a platform to reach a wider audience. I also really wanted to raise The Atlantic‘s profile and visibility in the film industry space. 

Why did you think it was important that The Atlantic have visibility and brand recognition in this space?

We didn’t really have a presence in the documentary or narrative world of filmmaking. I thought this might be a good opportunity for us to have a sub-brand of The Atlantic that connects us to that world and gives us a place in it. So that has been a really great, successful experiment. 

On the other side of things, I wanted The Atlantic audience to have the opportunity to discover different kinds of storytelling and new ways into material that they might not be accustomed to watching or consuming. 

A lot of our audience is pretty heavily American and it skews a bit older demographically. People come to The Atlantic and see we are a hundred year old brand, so we have a very established reputation. People know, or  think they know, what they’re going to get when they come here. We often look at an event in the news cycle through a critical lens and I found that documentaries offer a really good companion to that way of engaging with issues and events all around the world. 

Why do you think some stories are better told through a visual or video form?

What documentaries offer that sort of written articles don’t is a really strong sense of person and place. It’s not that those two things can’t be achieved in a written article, but there’s nothing like being placed into a situation with a person — seeing them, hearing the sounds of the environment and reading the emotion on their face — it kind of is like a portal into whatever it is the story’s about.

I think at the end of the day, I thought that it was really important for The Atlantic audience to be open to that kind of storytelling. I’ve found the series has been really successful. We have 440,000 subscribers on YouTube now, and the audience seems to be hungry for a different way into new stories and/or people around the world that they might never meet in real life. It’s been a really great experiment from all angles.

Can you give an example of a story you’ve found that has been more engaging as a documentary?

I’m programming this film today actually that is about an incident that occurred in Melbourne, Australia. This man boarded the bus and it was really crowded. He was commuting home and suddenly this fellow rider started spewing racial hatred and kind of went on a racist tirade against a couple of people on the bus who were immigrants. This filmmaker took out his cell phone and filmed it. He actually worked in viral marketing, so he realized that he had the ability and opportunity to show people and essentially shame this man on a global platform. Somebody did actually write an article about it and it was interesting, but it wasn’t nearly as revealing or personal.

Basically what happened was, this Australian man realized that he had started this sort of vitriolic tsunami online and it wasn’t helping. It wasn’t achieving the effect that he was hoping it would achieve. He was being portrayed as a hero in the media, but it was enabling everybody else to sort of pile onto these people who were harassing the other bus riders. There was no real productive dialogue happening about racism. It was what he terms a “witch hunt” against these people. 

So I read the article about this incident and then watched his documentary and what his documentary had was his personal journey. It was him being interviewed about the realization that the situation was more morally ambiguous than you ever thought it could be. Initially, he thought it was pretty black and white — racist, not racist. But it turns out these characters had very complex backstories. One of the characters was an offender of the hate speech and on the bus in the viral video and had just been released from jail. He was under a lot of stress and was looking at the camera talking about how remorseful he is and how this situation really did teach him something. So it’s easy to kind of read an interview with him or a quote or two in an article and dismiss him or think about him in a one dimensional way. But you can’t when you’re watching a documentary because you’re looking at his face, you’re listening to his tenor, you’re seeing how he’s crying, you know it really does bring the moral ambiguity into sharp relief. That’s just an example of the kind of documentary I’m looking for too, the kind of documentary that has a better life on film and cinema than it does on paper.

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What’s the process for choosing these short films and documentaries that get featured through this series?

I come from a film journalism background, so I have a lot of contacts in the film industry and that includes the makers and the distributors. I’m in contact with them and they are constantly traveling the world, engaging with all different kinds of stories. I have a lot of distributor contacts, too, who are funding some of these projects and looking for ways to find them larger audiences. So, those filmmakers and distributors will send me documentaries that they think would be a good fit for the series. That’s one avenue that I receive selections in. 

I also scour the international festival circuit for documentaries that may never see the light of day in America but that I think American audiences would be interested in.

I also have a submission pipeline on The Atlantic website. It’s an email address and it links to my email address. I’ve been running this series for two and a half years and promoting the series at festival panels, being on juries and just generally raising its profile has really created a robust avenue for me to find new filmmakers and new films. Those films that come through email actually do tend to be pretty high quality and I’ve been really grateful to the people who’ve been sending in their films to me. 

What makes a film or story stand out to you and is there anything specific you look for during the selection process?

A lot of documentaries are about populations or people or stories that don’t generally get a lot of visibility. As a filmmaker, you have the responsibility to tell that story in as honest a way as possible. I think some documentaries fall into the trap of seeming like they’re maybe glorifying or romanticizing somebody’s misery, and that’s a big conversation in documentary ethics. So, what I’m looking for is an approach to the material that’s both artistic and has a point of view but isn’t condescending to the person and isn’t emotionally manipulating the audience. It is just bringing you into a situation and into a person’s story, a place, a feeling, an event, and letting you make your own decisions about it 

Generally though, I’m looking for things that are different. Maybe it’s a small story from a small corner of the world. Maybe it’s a really emotionally engaging story about someone’s struggle in our own backyard that generally doesn’t get a platform to speak about these things. I’m really just looking for emotional, cinematic and artfully done films.

Do you have a favorite film out of the ones you’ve programmed?

One of the films that I’ve loved the most in the past year is called The Unconventional. The filmmaker had a married couple friend who had two special needs kids. They have some sort of undiagnosed genetic mutation, which makes them have normal brains on MRI scans, but they are nonverbal and neither of them can walk. So basically what the documentarian does is he lives with these parents for about a month or so and he shows us their day-to-day lives. It shows all of these small triumphs that they have, like the ways they communicate with their kids and also the inner struggles that they have between them as a couple and also individually. It’s basically everything that happens with parenting special needs kids behind closed doors, and it’s really immersive. 

I just thought it was something I’d never seen before because it was really raw and uncomfortable and messy, but it was also full of love. These parents are so devoted to their kids, they’re under no illusions about how this has changed their lives, but they love their kids and you can’t help but cry at the end of the film.

Another really interesting one that is more typical of international sensibility, and I’ll explain, but basically you don’t really know what you’re watching at first. You’re brought into the lives of this couple who are at a ski resort and they’re talking, and you can tell that they’ve been married a long time.

Oh, I watched this one! This is how I found the series. It’s called Connected, right? With the blind skiing couple? This one was so good!

Yes! It really was, I love this one.

I’m a big skier, so I just stumbled upon this video looking for different forms of ski journalism essentially, and I thought this was amazing.

That’s awesome. It’s so interesting to hear how people come across the videos in the first place, you know? But it’s also amazing that you connected with this one cause it’s like an off-kilter approach and it takes a lot of patience and investment in watching it for it to pay off because the filmmakers not handing you a lot of information. But those, in my opinion, are the best kinds.

What do you see the future of this series being? Is there a way that you want it to continue to grow? 

Well, my sort of pipe dream for the series is to start commissioning films and getting more involved at an earlier date. The truth of the matter is there’s no real money in short documentaries. There’s prestige in it for sure, and it can be a very big launching pad, but a lot of these filmmakers are self-funding their documentaries, which I don’t think is fair. 

What I would love to be able to do is have a trusted filmmaker that I know or a filmmaker that I don’t know, that seems to have a very firm grasp on the material, come to me and say they want to follow this story and I would like to help them develop it and be involved in the shaping of it. 

Do you have a team that helps you look for these films, or is it all you?

It’s all me. It’s limiting in the sense that it means that I can only put out three films a week. Ideally I would love to have one every day, but that would be more of an undertaking and would require a team. 

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I would love to have a team at some point, too — that’s another dream. If we did ever start commissioning things, we’d have to do things that way. Right now there’s a lot of work in licensing, contract negotiations and then I’m writing an individual article for each of these films, that’s like 600-800 words and that has original reporting and research. Sometimes I spend all day on an article if it’s about something that is research heavy and needs a lot of context. So I am pretty strapped for time, but in general I would love a team.

How did you get started in doing film journalism?

I went to film school and I thought I wanted to make films out in the field. Instead, I decided I wanted to align myself with a production company, and I worked in development, reading scripts for a while. Some of those films went to Sundance and it was a really educational experience. 

The problem with that for me is that it wasn’t as academically rigorous as I wanted it to be. You’re more of a gatekeeper than anything else, which I think is a great role, but I wanted more of an active role. You’re giving notes on scripts, but it’s limited. 

So, I went to work for IndieWire, which I read religiously at the time — all indie film news and analysis and reviews and interviews. I ran their social media platforms. They didn’t have anyone really running them with any strategy. So I came in and figured out a way to talk to the audience in an effective way and really grew those social media platforms from the ground up. Then I expressed interest in writing as well, and they just kept throwing me articles and I sort of became a full time writer there. I was producing so much and the content itself was doing well, so they just thought, well, if I want to write then I can. That was much more engaging because I liked the active nature of writing, and I think my brain needs that. 

After that, I moved over to No Film School, which is very film specific. Not that IndieWire isn’t, but it’s more filmmaker-technical specific. I was the managing editor there for a couple of years. I expanded our strategy to do filmmaker interviews across the festival circuit, and we were getting gleaning insights from working filmmakers on specific things related to their production or creative process. So that was really fun, too. 

Then I came across this job and I had already been writing a lot about documentaries. I was already very familiar with what was out there and this seemed like a really good opportunity to work for a huge legacy media brand and bring something to them that only I could bring that they didn’t have already. That’s not a very common situation that you find yourself in. It’s probably the only thing I could’ve brought to them at that point. So that’s kind of how it all came to be.

Sometimes I feel like if I’m not covering “hard news” or “breaking news” or doing that kind of reporting, that there’s this stigma, like I’m not doing real journalism. I was just curious if you’ve ever experienced anything like that?

Absolutely. I do think there is a stigma, especially among fellow journalists. I think a lot of people have preconceived notions of a journalist being somebody who goes into a politically fraught situation, finds a source, establishes contact, gets secret information from them and then breaks the news. The truth of the matter is that’s not most journalists. Especially at The Atlantic, the people doing that here are reporting on politics and international affairs, but everyone else is doing things like talking to scientists who just published a research paper and asking them information about their findings, doing their own research and synthesizing that into a more digestible narrative. That science journalism or cultural criticism is certainly still journalism. Somebody approaching something creatively that sheds light on the issue at large is just as much journalism.

In terms of the stigma, it’s interesting to me. For example, you go to The New York Times and then you go to The Atlantic, and we are doing two different things. The New York Times has a very specific approach to writing. It’s very straightforward, not a lot of fluff, not a lot of analysis unless it’s the opinion section — mostly just straight up reporting the news. In some ways that’s more of a trade than it is an art. Not to denigrate that, it’s just that it’s something a little bit different. What we’re doing over here with the less hard news is really trying to capture the imagination, the emotions and the viscerality of a story, and put it in conversation with other stories. Then we insert our own very specific subjective insight into it in some way that we think might ruminate truth. 

Those are just different. They’re both journalism, but they’re two different approaches and they should be acknowledged as being different but equal.

Finally, do you have any advice for young journalists who may be interested in doing this type of work and writing about films?

The best thing you can do is find a paying internship. I think that the only way is to try to put yourself in the place where you know you’re going to have a platform for your stories. There’s just really no such thing as truly independent journalism that’s not aligned with platform. Everybody cares about the platform and where it’s going to land and the audience.

I think there’s a lot to be learned by observing your colleagues. Try to get a paying internship and just read a lot of journals and be familiar with the things that you like about other people’s writing and approach. If you can go behind the scenes of somebody’s process, that is great because that’ll especially help you once you’re in the environment and start producing your own work.

Samantha Barry
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