June cross – changing the world one documentary at a time

June Cross pioneered the documentary filmmaking specialization at Columbia School of Journalism and is the director of the documentary journalism program at the school. She is also the winner of the 2021 Peabody Award and a National Emmy. An inspiration for students in her class, she sheds light on documentary filmmaking, the future of documentation in a social media dominated world and about her future projects. A keen, relentless impact maker, shifting perceptions in the world and highlighting issues – one documentary at a time, Cross’ work is truly bold focusing on conversations that are a part of mainstream consciousness still not a part of mainstream conversations.

Please tell us more about what inspired you to create a self-documentary over two decades ago when documenting self wasn’t as popular?

I think making a self documentary was already gaining momentum when I decided to make “Secret Daughter”. Specifically in the context of racism which has been a part of important conversations in America. I think despite being two decades old, the conversation about racism is still very prevalent, in fact even more so today. I made a documentary when I had gained over two decades of experience in journalism. That helped me with objectivity and distance from the subject while making the documentary.

Where do you see the documentary filmmaking going today with mediums like social media today? To what extent has social media impacted documenting self?

Documentary filmmaking and social media are two separate platforms. It’s like comparing two different things. It’s possible to make longer format videos on social media like YouTube and Instagram but it’s still very different from making a documentary about self. The youth, specially in their 20’s does not have the objectivity or distance from the subject when it’s about themselves. Hence bite sized content despite being personal is different from documentaries. With social media, everyone is constantly putting themselves out there on Facebook and other platforms. However, if someone wants to document their life from these archives twenty years down the line, we don’t really know how that content will be accessible to us. That’s the main thing I even tell my students today. We are putting all our content out there on Facebook but how are we going to archive it in the future in a more meaningful way? Moreover, with Facebook, everyone is constantly trying to document themselves and their lives.

What is the importance and future of making documentary films – specifically documenting self?

I think the current times we live in are very uncertain. Most people are struggling in their personal life and often want to get away from reality. They are not seeking to watch documentaries which highlight struggles and focus on realities. I know people who often want to watch fiction or shows on television or anything entertaining and light. The idea is to get away from reality for a little time while watching television. Despite documentaries highlighting very important issues, the fact is that people don’t want to watch documentaries in their free time.

Your documentary “Whose vote counts” won the Peabody Award in 2021. Can you please tell us about three key takeaways from the documentary?

I think three key takeaways from the documentary are :

– Your vote counts more than you know

– Voter suppression is real and race is a part of the voter suppression issue.

– The world is tending towards more oligarchy where we do not have access to all the information and people are doing everything they can to ensure things stay the same way.

What can be done on OTT platforms like Netflix to highlight documentaries and make them a part of the mainstream?

Documentaries are already a part of mainstream platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. It’s easy for anyone to search documentaries in the search tab and they can get a list of recommendations. In fact, even in the US, most documentaries that are shortlisted for the Oscars are available on streaming platforms. This might not be the case in other countries. I believe people are not watching enough documentaries, hence they are not a part of mainstream Netflix recommendations.

What are some future documentaries that you are working on?

Fundraising is one of the most challenging parts about documentary filmmaking. Besides some production houses, no one is looking to make documentaries. Most people aren’t interested in documentaries unless there’s a major celebrity featuring in it. Moreover, the current times we live in are uncertain and most people want to look for an escape in cinema which is not possible while watching documentaries that highlight realities. Currently, I’m not working on any more documentaries. I’m working on a play about Frederick Douglas.

Vidhi Bubna
Vidhi Bubna
Vidhi Bubna is a freelance journalist from Mumbai who covers international relations, defence, diplomacy and social issues. Her current focus is on India-China relations.