news How to Survive the Documentary Apocalypse by Staying Small and Strange — Column

A few years ago, “true crime” became a marketable trope, and the documentary market has been in slow-motion decline ever since. The millions that streamers invested in non-fiction overinflated expectations for the form, stretched it thin, and the bubble burst earlier this year. In January, few documentaries generated much buyer interest out of Sundance. In this column, I proposed that filmmakers might be best-served by killing the word “documentary” to avoid getting rejected outright.

Sam Green has taken a more pragmatic approach. His delightful, immersive essay film “32 Sounds,” which opens in New York’s Film Forum this week more than a year after its debut as a live performance at Sundance’s virtual 2022 edition, has a malleable form and modest scale that lets it thrive without the unreasonable expectations of success. The project’s long-term viability provides a valuable case study for how unconventional, smaller-scale non-fiction filmmaking can remain sustainable. Staying small and strange is a way to stay safe.

For the uninitiated, Green’s work straddles the line between cinema, music, and performance art. Ever since 2010’s “Utopia in Four Movements,” Green has developed a body of work around the concept of the “live documentary,” as he delivers amiable voiceovers in front of a screen, usually accompanied by musicians. For 2013’s “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller,” he partnered with Yo La Tango; with “32 Sounds,” he reunites with composer JD Sampson, building on a conceit they previously explored with the shorter work “7 Sounds” in 2021 (that one was designed to be experienced through headphones on an iPhone, preferably while sitting outside).

His latest work takes the form of a freewheeling, metaphysical exploration of audio experiences, ranging from manufactured sounds of a tree falling in the forest (ha!) to a bird chirping for its extinct companion, but Green weaves together his collage with an astute fixation on the modern history of listening to the world.

“As a filmmaker, how do you make work in a world that’s awash in images? I’ve had to reckon with that,” Green told me this week over Zoom. “On a personal, we’re all scrambled and distracted and alienated. The film is an examination of that idea — being alienated, overwhelmed with media, the human condition.”

When I first watched “32 Sounds” on my computer during virtual Sundance, it was a riveting interactive experience. The binaural sound mix mandated the use of headphones and made the case for a home theater experience in which none of the nuances of the work were lost. Yet now, after some 50 live performances around the country, Green has done something new with his homegrown form by partnering with theatrical distributor Abramorama and preparing a recorded version of “32 Sounds” for its Film Forum release (a VOD opening is around the corner). Film Forum audiences receive headphones upon attendance, which turns this site-specific documentary into an eventized release even without the live component.

It’s gratifying to witness a work that can mutate over time and succeed in multiple forms of distribution, rather than struggling to find the best home and slipping through the cracks. Filmmakers often scoff at considering distribution strategies during development, but Green does that as an extension of his creative process.

A still from 7 Pounds by Sam Green, an official selection of the New Frontier program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Sam Green’s “32 Sounds”


“If you’re a filmmaker now, you have to be nimble and able to work with different iterations of cinema,” he said. “If you’re not sharp, versatile, and trying new things, you’re dead. Or you’re teaching.” He laughed. “I was never getting funded by Netflix or anything like that, so I’m just carrying on as usual. My projects continue to be hard to pitch. My next project is a documentary about trees. I’m not going to go to a pitch forum and sell that. I’ve been thankful not to be dependent on that part of the documentary world so far.”

On the other hand, he’s an indirect beneficiary of the initial documentary boom. Green made “32 Sounds” for around $800,000 with a mixture of grants and equity, much of which came from Impact Partners, the same company behind behemoths like Netflix’s “Harry & Meghan” miniseries. However, he also relied on a network of resources well beyond the film industry, including a live media residency with MASS MoCA that allowed him to workshop the live version.

“The film world is capitalism,” Green said. “The performing arts world is still some kind of socialist model. Those shows don’t always need to break even in ticket sales. It helps me to be in that kind of economy.”

That flexibility allowed him to improvise as new opportunities for the work come up. After Green performed “32 Sounds” live at BAM last year, he was approached by outgoing Film Forum director Karen Cooper about a recorded version and contacted Oscar-winning sound designer Mark Mangini (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) on a new 7:1 mix.

“A big part of the film’s magic is the spatial element, so figuring out how to translate that into a 7:1 mix was hard, but in some ways it ended up better,” Green said.

By mandating an experience exclusive to headphones, “32 Sounds” has a much longer lifeline than his previous efforts. “It’s the only way to make a documentary about sound that could show in all sorts of theaters, many of which are crummy,” Green said. “This ensures everyone has the same sonic experience. It’s the epitome of the artist controlling the audience experience.”

My favorite sequence in “32 Sounds” is its dance break, when Green and Sampson essentially turn up the volume and encourage the crowd to get up and party. When I watched the movie in Sundance’s 3D virtual theater, a number of viewers guided their virtual avatars around the room and made them jump to simulate the appropriate vibe. Still, I suspected at the time that IRL crowds would boogie down a lot harder. “With live shows, I’ve noticed that people are really getting into it,” Green said. “I think everyone’s a little tired of just Netflix. I’m heartened by that.”

Green’s work might seem too niche and eccentric for any specific business takeaways, but I’d argue the opposite: It’s instructive because it’s niche and eccentric, proof that working on the margins and challenging the medium’s boundaries can lead to more innovative ways of getting art into the world. In that regard, “32 Sounds” deserves to be heard in more ways than one.

As usual, I welcome feedback to this week’s column:

Browse earlier installments of the column here.