Viral Videos Are Rendering Checkbook Documentaries Obsolete


Ten years ago, one of the hottest nonfiction films in America was a “checkbook documentary” titled Born Into Brothels. Checkbook documentary is my term for any documentary that, especially at film festivals, motivates people in the audience to jump up afterwards with checkbooks in the air asking, “How can I help?” In the case of that film, how can they benefit the lives of eight children of prostitutes living in poverty in the red-light district of Kolkata, India.

The literal image of that checkbook doc response is probably not as common in reality as it is in my memory from attending Sundance, where Born Into Brothels debuted and received an audience award in 2004, and other events where the makers and, often more importantly, the subjects of such films are present. Regardless, these are docs that compel people to give, not to an organized cause or large amount of people in need but specifically just those individuals who appeared on screen as documentary characters.

A lot of people saw Born Into Brothels in 2005, especially after it was nominated for and then won the Academy Award. It put Kolkata’s Sonagachi district into focus and that spotlight may have resulted in general aid going there, particularly to children of the region. But mostly it benefited the kids singled out by the film, some of whom would up in America, brought over to attend high school and universities such as NYU a few years later. It didn’t save the world, just a small group.

I thought of Born Into Brothels and other films like it this week when I saw that Donald Gould, the homeless man whose piano talents went viral this month thanks to a bystander’s video, was granted a full college scholarship in order to complete his music theory degree at a local university. He’s also receiving financial assistance from his new online fans through a fundraising site. One man in need is receiving tens of thousands of dollars for playing a single song. Not bad.

That came about right after the story of Daniel Cabrera, the boy in the Philippines who was photographed doing his homework outside of a McDonald’s. That’s viral photography rather than video, but it’s the same difference. The pictures and story were circulated around the web and now that specific kid and his homeless family are similarly receiving donations of money, educational scholarships, food and more. It’s a heartbreaking turned heartwarming human interest story and hard to resist.

I’ve always been disturbed by the idea of specified charity like this, whether it’s in response to a documentary or a short video or just a still photograph. But that’s besides the point. What I’m getting at, and maybe this is nothing new, is that Gould and Cabrera became famous as causes of the day much more quickly than had they been the subjects of documentaries, and they may be benefiting better than any doc subject ever has, too. Gould’s video, for example, has nearly 11 million hits on YouTube, likely making it much more widely seen than Born Into Brothels.

Checkbook docs seem to be fading away from public interest anyway, at least on a larger scale. A more recent film like Blood Brother can still do pretty well at Sundance (it won the audience award and the jury award), because the checkbook crowd continues to frequent the major festivals, but then it isn’t that successful — at least not relative to Born Into Brothels — at the box office. Today, kids like the ones appearing in those films are better off if only a brief glimpse of them being individually amazing shows up on YouTube.

Not all documentaries concentrated on a cause can be so easily and completely replaced by the simpler media. A lot of issues, from treatment of the mentally ill to treatment of captive sea mammals to sexual abuse in the military, are more effectively addressed in long form with multiple cases highlighted to show the scope of the problems. Viral imagery of a polar bear stranded on a floating piece of ice isn’t enough on its own to drive the overall idea of climate change. But it could get people to want to help that one polar bear.

On the other end, a single viral video might not get people concerned about all the homeless people of this nation. But Dylan Henry, the guy who uploaded his mother’s video of Donald Gould that began the man’s new fortune, is now trying to expand on the focus and aid to others. “Donald is a truly talented man, but in all honesty he is one out of thousands of others in his situation with similar talent and background,” he wrote on the Indiegogo page for a new project he’s working on. “I want to find them in cities across the country and give them worldwide exposure to help them get off the streets.”

Henry’s effort, titled “Humanizing Homelessness” sounds like just another homeless charity, albeit one where each individual briefly gets the spotlight and thousands of dollars direct. It’s slower to funding because it looks like it’s more about Henry, and he isn’t as compelling as Gould. Meanwhile, the benefactors of the project still seem like a small number compared to the whole, but it is nice to see this hasn’t ended with the one video, the one man and the narrow focus and support.

Maybe now someone can make a documentary about Henry’s idea to further broaden the address of the problem as a full-on issue film. And maybe one-one-thousandths of the number of people who saw Gould’s video will go see it.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.