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Short Form for Social Media: POV and Snapchat Present Expiring Video Documentaries

“I thought about how people interact with their phones, and viewing a video on a handset is very different from the experience you have in the living room," says director Lizzie Jacobs.

Messaging service turned multimedia mobile application Snapchat was designed for the sharing of images, videos and messages that are short-lived and self-deleting. Now five years after its launch, during which time the company turned down a reported $3 billion acquisition bid from Facebook, Snapchat has become a distribution platform for short-form documentary films.

In October, Snapchat partnered with the PBS documentary series POV to produce two short interactive films, the first such projects to be created specifically for the platform. Just as Snapchat media is ephemeral, so is the POV Snapchat Films series, which ran on the Snapchat Discover channel of NowThis Media.

The first of these was Lizzie Jacobs’ “We’ll Still Be Here,” which was shown for a single day on Oct. 23; “The Way It Should Be,” by Terence Nance and Chanelle Aponte Pearson, streamed on Oct. 30. Each with a running time of about six minutes, the films were edited to accommodate the concise nature of Snapchat. The ultra-short form documentaries were also tailored specifically for viewing on mobile devices.

“The Way It Should Be,” by Terence Nance and Chanelle Aponte Pearson, streamed on Oct. 30.

“I did make this film specifically with the Snapchat Discover app in mind,” says Jacobs of “We’ll Still Be Here,” which highlights a group of dominoes players who continue their gaming tradition as their New York neighborhood changes and evolves. Jacobs’ goal with the film was to highlight how the corner dominoes players stand out in their world.

“I thought about how people interact with their phones, and viewing a video on a handset is very different from the experience you have in the living room,” she adds. “When you watch at home, you are pretty telescoped to the TV, but the experience is very different on your phone. This might be one of the things people notice as they watch the documentary.”

Jacobs, who has spent a decade working at StoryCorps, a nonprofit oral history project, admits that she is used to a more traditional filmmaking process. “The question we went into the project with was whether this was even possible. Would it work?” Jacobs explains. “We found that the answer was yes.”

Snapchat Discover could pave the way for other short-form videos too. While there are always outlets such as YouTube and Vimeo for aspiring filmmakers, it can be hard to attract an audience there.

“One of the great assets of the mobile phone is that it can do so much,” says Adnaan Wasey, executive producer of POV Digital. “So why have filmmakers been confined to a linear format online that would be more appropriate for a television?”

This is a question that Jacobs had to address as well.

“For short-form documentaries or narratives, there aren’t a lot of outlets,” she notes. “There are fans of shorts, but it is harder to get to the average viewer. Snapchat can help push it out there. This could be the crucial piece.”

NowThis Media’s Snapchat Discover channel

POV’s Wasey agrees. “We’ve been able show that Snapchat’s interactive features—swiping and sharing—can be used to tell new kinds of stories that mix exploration and dialogue,” he says. “I would be disappointed if creators didn’t follow our lead to start producing more interactive video that takes into account the way we use phones.”

If there is one shortcoming, it is the “blink and you’ll miss it” nature of the platform, as Snapchat Discover has maintained the expiration of these films.

“It is gone from Snapchat already,” says Jacobs. “They may reprise it at some point, but it was true to the nature of Snapchat. Twenty-four hours and it was gone!”

While Jacobs says she hopes her film will exist at a later date after the window with Snapchat is closed, what was streamed on Oct. 23 is what there is—she didn’t make a cut specifically for Snapchat and no “extended cut” exists.

“I could cut it as a traditional short, and it could live on with a different access point, but right now there is no other version,” says Jacobs, who had just a month and a half to shoot, edit and deliver the film.

Wasey says that using a social media app to deliver these films can open a dialogue with viewers in a way that traditional documentaries have not been able to. “Robust social media platforms like Snapchat offer an exciting means to tell new kinds of stories and engage a new audience. We’re excited to not only be able to show the filmmaking community what’s possible, but also to do it alongside teams of ambitious independent filmmakers with a history of breaking new ground.”