A New PBS Documentary Tells the Story of One Revolution (and Begins Another) — Plus: An Exclusive Video Clip

A new documentary on the history of American feminism, airing tonight on PBS, flips the script: most movies have websites; this website has a movie

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Makers: Women Who Make America, a documentary premiering this evening on PBS (8 PM ET, check local listings here), traces the history of the American women’s movement. It’s an intimate, ground-level look at the story, as told by the women who—in so many different arenas—were fighting on the front lines. Those voices include lesser-known individuals like Kathrin Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston marathon, and feminist icons like Gloria Steinem, who in this exclusive video clip (above) recalls a march through the streets of New York, on Aug. 26, 1970. The event, which was the first mass demonstration of its kind, was part of a nationwide day of protest sponsored by the National Organization of Women. Planners had no idea how many would show up—but the response was bigger than anyone could have guessed and the day was an important moment in a major social revolution.

At the same time, a revolution of a different kind is being championed by the Makers producers, one that is taking a new look at the way documentaries are made and re-defining the audience experience.

“Gloria Steinem has this great line that it takes 100 years for social change and we’re 50 years in; we’re hoping that Makers will inspire the next 50 years but, if we’re going to get to that, it’s the next generation that’s going to get us there,” says filmmaker Dyllan McGee. “We wanted to build something that would speak to the millennial audience the way that they’re consuming media, and it’s short-form video that seems to be where they are.”

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So, while it’s nothing new for a movie to have a website, the Makers makers went in the other direction. The project started nearly a decade ago, when McGee set out to make a movie about Steinem, who told her that a better movie would be about more than just her own story. So McGee, who says she was shocked to learn how little she herself knew about the women’s movement, went back to the drawing board.

“We realized that you can’t make a film out of a bunch of individual stories,” McGee says. “It was during the time when video was just beginning to explode on the web, the first real moment when you knew that a big digital platform could work, so we decided to flip-flip the model.”

The result was MAKERS, a web-based collection of bite-size clips of women talking about their personal stories. A few years later, a partnership with AOL put serious heft behind the project—and with PBS on board to air a documentary version of what they collected, MAKERS took shape.

“This is the first of its kind for us, the combination of a broadcast partnership and content for the web,” says Maureen Sullivan, AOL’s senior VP for women’s content, who likens the MAKERS videos to TED talks that don’t require the viewer to be prepared to put aside 20 minutes of his or her time. “One of our challenges with MAKERS was that we know people are going to say they want to watch the stories, but how to we edit the footage in a way that allows them to get short bursts? With online video viewing, what happens is you watch five two-minute videos, but it’s hard to sit down and watch one ten-minute video.” The appeal for AOL was the project’s potential for what Sullivan calls “video at scale,” the ability to break the story down into as many small pieces as they wanted to, and the infinite potential to keep adding more.

But the disparate clips couldn’t tell the whole tale. The challenge for on documentary side was how to take all those clips and turn them into a coherent story. “The documentary allows us to weave a longer narrative,” says McGee, who gives the example of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor: their individual stories are gripping, but the film editor’s eye and the addition of a narrator—Meryl Streep, in this case—can help the viewer see how the two justices’ parallel stories fit together. Some stories from the website didn’t make it into the film, which has a fairly traditional narrative arc, but McGee says the reverse-order production definitely meant that the film’s focus is broader than it would have otherwise been: “When you build a documentary you work from the top down, you think about the narrative and then you go out and find the stories. What we were able to do is find the common threads and the themes in the stories and then build the narrative out of those moments.”

(MOREA Brief History of Women’s Protests)

Now that the documentary is premiering, having a pre-establised web presence should also allow it to live on for longer. One idea for the future, McGee said, is to figure out how to display the short clips in a timeline format, adding some context through chronology. And, of course, there will be more Makers joining the ranks.

“There are a lot more stories to tell. Our mission is to not only collect these stories but to have the broadest audience possible for them, and that’s going to take even more creative thinking,” says Sullivan. “How do we capture the maximum number of stories but with high level of production quality? That was always our goal: we want it to be an ever-growing community. The film does a good job talking about how important community was in the last 50 years of the women’s movement, and hopefully we can continue that.”