A Peek At The Interactive

I recently found myself needing to research the world of interactive and online documentaries – a form which has barely yet had time to define itself, and yet which is already giving shape to some stunning pieces of work.

Here’s a breakdown of some projects I loved, not necessarily the most advanced or sophisticated, but a selection which I think best demonstrate the exciting potential the online form has.

Breves De Trottoires: http://paris-ile-de-france.france3.fr/brevesdetrottoirs/#/intro

This is a richly atmospheric, stylish project telling the stories of ‘everyday celebrities’, more specifically a selection of street artists and performers in Paris.

It uses a geographical map (a feature used as a navigational basis in lots of these projects) and allows you to choose a character to meet from their location in Paris. The videos are beautifully shot, and are accompanied by a selection of equally lovely photographs and sound bites.

A strong example of non-linear film making and well worth committing a bit of time to explore it.

breves-de-trottoirs

Journey To The End of Coal: http://www.honkytonk.fr/index.php/webdoc/

Journey To The End of Coal was made in 2008 by French company Honkytonk Films. It’s a video game style premise, where you play the part of an investigative journalist travelling across China, researching the poor working conditions of coal miners and the daily death which occurs in the mines.

It’s less polished than the other projects I mention, and the story is largely told through photos, text and some atmospheric sound effects, but it’s probably the best I came across for making logical use of the interactive form.

The viewer is asked to make decisions about how to progress the investigations – some lead to progress, some raise the suspicion of the authorities and delay you, but gradually you find out more about the situation in the mines.

The interactions you have with the film are asking you to use your own personal inclinations, instincts and powers of deduction. You are drawn in, you want to find out more and succeed. It’s a great demonstration of the way interactivity can be used to successfully make a factual story more engaging.

end-of-coal

Pine Point: http://pinepoint.nfb.ca/#/pinepoint

I completely fell in love with this one. Made by Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, and originally intended as a book, it explores the after effects of a town completely destroyed by the loss of its mining industry.

The graphics mixed in with old home videos, photographs and sensitively written stories and memories are a beautiful combination. It’s easily the most emotionally engaging interactive doc I have encountered.

It’s interactivity is limited. It’s essentially a linear piece of work which you are allowed to explore at your own pace. What it does, however, is indicate the creative possibilities which come with the interactive form and remind us that the web can certainly be used as a platform for truly beautiful things.

pinepoint

Love Story Project: http://lsp.korsakow.tv/

Simple but compelling, The Love Story Project is a growing collection of thoughts about love which began in Cairo in 2003, fast became an international project and is still being added to today.

There’s lots to uncover within it, and it’s formatted in a way which keeps you clicking and listening to the short stories, so eventually build up a strong impression of the diversity of attitudes about the definition of love.

love-story-project

Good Angry: The ‘Why Poverty?’ Series

The ‘Why Poverty?’ Series is a new initiative led by Mette Hoffmann Meyer, Don Edkins, and Nick Fraser using hard hitting documentary to explore poverty and its roots. They’ve commissioned award-winning film makers to make eight documentaries about poverty, and emerging talents to make around thirty short films. DocHouse is screening four of these films in London cinemas, this week showing both Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream and Welcome to the World, both documentaries that will surely remain firmly and somewhat uncomfortably lodged in their audience’s heads.

Park Avenue is academy award winning director Alex Gibney’s look at America’s shocking wealth gap through the contrasting realities of America’s two Park Avenues. 740 Park Avenue in Manhattan is home to the highest concentration of billionaires in the country enjoying lives of excessive luxury, while less than five miles away, another Park Avenue runs through the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the United States.

The film lays its cards on the table from the start. The opening narration sets out Gibney’s argument that while the wealth gap has increased, social mobility has decreased. After gaining some power, politicians invest in policies which favour them, and the money they make is then poured back into the politics they favour. This makes it essentially impossible for anyone living in the South Bronx area to make it out of poverty, let alone gain a level footing with the ultra rich living not so far away. If you want a documentary that leads you gently through an issue and leaves you to come to your own conclusions, it is not Park Avenue. Gibney’s film is a fiercely argued essay on America as he sees it, and it’s chillingly convincing

Nick Fraser joined DocHouse for a Q&A after the screening. From a film makers’ perspective, one of his most interesting comments was of this documentary being made ‘in an absolute state of rage’. There’s something very appealing about this. If Park Avenue shows anything, it’s that the situation regarding equality in modern society has reached such extremes that it’s something we can and should feel very, very angry about. It seems that there’s a fair amount of anger present in modern thinking, but not enough of it being pointed towards the excessive greed, power mongering and the corrupt systems which together have the effect of keeping the poor poor, and allowing the rich to keep getting richer. So the film got me thinking that perhaps one role that documentaries should fill, is to generally help direct anger in the right direction? Perhaps our films have an obligation to show people who’s really hurting them and who’s really responsible for making their lives difficult, in the hope of this anger having a constructive outcome. This doesn’t seem to me like preaching or manipulation, rather it is utilising film’s ability to give a bigger picture than the individual has access to, offering them a bird’s eye view, giving them a view of politics which the powerful in our society are desperate for them not to see.

Welcome to the World was the second ‘Why Poverty?’ film I saw this week. This piece explored the lottery of birth, asking to what extent a person’s chances and opportunities are affected by the country and circumstances they are born into. Welcome to the World features mothers and babies in Sierra Leone, Cambodia and the USA, and shows a complexity of different issues which can affect a mother’s experience of pregnancy and birth, and the prospects given to the child when they are born. It’s a mix of shocking statistics and intimate personal portraits and watching the film is unsurprisingly an emotive experience. To an extent it is a touching celebratory exploration of a universal human experience. It does not, however, shy away from laying bare the shocking reality of the conditions for childbirth for some women. The film’s strength seems to lie in highlighting the universal elements of this experience in quite a poetic way – we see women all over the world going through the same pain, taking care of each other in the same way – and thereby allowing an audience to appreciate quite how outrageous the inequality levels are.

Both of these films, more than anything, set out to highlight the growing gap between rich and poor and the effect it has on peoples’ lives today. As much as we might think we know about these facts and figures, the films are successful in highlighting quite how extreme the situation has become. The ‘Why Poverty?’ series insists that it is not a campaigning effort. They are not asking for donations or suggesting one single solution. The series encourages their audience to really start asking the questions and take the action they see fit. It’s an exciting idea for the documentary genre, holding up the idea that good films have the power to trigger a new and effective kind of change. The films are transmitting around the world this November, on more than 70 national broadcasters reaching a staggering 500 million people. They’ll be available on the BBC or you can catch Education Education and Solar Mamas at the DocHouse screening this week.

www.whypoverty.net

Carmen

Have a look at this odd little film I just stumbled across about Carmen Martinek, an Austrian cleaner who has passionate love affairs with film theatres. A playful delve into a strange, but not unlikeable mind and well worth a 20 minute watch.

http://dafilms.com/download/key/WXjOXUqY3q

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters

 Here’s a nice biographical doc, following acclaimed photographer Gregory Crewdson’s ten year long project, staging haunting and incredibly elaborate photographic portraits of small-town American life. It would be hard not to admire Crewdson for his staggering ambition, arriving for each shoot with hundreds of lights (some hoisted up 60 foot cranes), carefully selected models, special effects and a hollywood film style crew of technicians. The result is a series of truly beautiful images, and if you’ve nevers seen Crewdon’s photogrpahy before, the film is worth watching purely for the introduction it gives you to the work. It’s a great documentary, directed by Ben Shapiro, which invites you to temporarily enter the Crewdson mindset with its almost obsessive attention to detail and aspiration, and gradually reveals the pyschological complexity and intimate fantasies that give the photographs their inspiration.

 

Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

Big Boys Gone Bananas!* gives the documentary lover a rare treat, a gripping true tale of scandal, lies and legal battles all with the humble documentary maker at the centre of the action. The film follows Swedish director Frekrik Gertten as he becomes subject to a vicious attack from corporate giant, Dole Food Company, against his previous film BANANAS!*. This film recounts the lawsuit that 12 Nicaraguan plantation workers successfully brought against the company. What hapens afterwards makes for a captivating story of corporate bullying and media spin told in a unique way, giving anyone interested in film, corporate tactics or just an old fashioned underdog tale, lots to get their teeth into.

On Tuesday DocHouse hosted a screening of this film followed by a panel discussion featuring the director Fredrik Gertten. While it is always a bonus to hear a director, or any artist, speak about their work, there was something doubly intriguing about hearing the man himself discuss this film, having just been allowed such a revealing insight into this dramatic period of his life. It’s an interesting move for a documentary maker to place himself and his process at the centre of a film. The result, in this case, is a powerful dialogue on what happens when you take a stab at a major corporation and the surprising outcomes this can have, leading to the critical acclaim and fascination the documenary has received.  But the way Gertten structures Big Boys Gone Bananas also hints at some fascinating new possibilities for documentary itself.

We’ve definitely reached a point where the documentary film can’t just rely on old formats. While a director might believe that the story they’ve chosen to tell is worthy of everyone’s attention and sympathy, audiences are understandably distracted by the thousands of other narratives trying for their attention. The mass of content fed to us leads to a general desensitisation from the stories. Documentary films must also now face audiences who are sophisticated enough to know the genre, know its old tricks and techniques and with a tendency to switch off. However worthy its message, a really succesful film needs to grab the attention of a critical modern viewer, and find new ways to engage people with the stories they are telling.  Big Boys finds its strength in laying itself bare as a documentary, about a documentary and a documentary maker. It draws attention to its own vulnerability as a version of truth. It asks its viewer to question media and the versions of truth presented to us, and in doing so asks us question also the one we are watching.

By drawing attention to his place as story teller, in a world where we need to question every version of reality presented to us, Gertten engages his audiene in a new way. He actively encourages their criticism and relies on their intelligence. This is  just one of the ways that film makers are starting to bend the documentary format and give it a new breath of life.

Gertten also doesn’t shy away from drama in his film, which is full of suspenseful scenes and an almost excessively dramatic music score backing the events as they unfold. In doing so, he lines his film up against scripted cinema, demonstrating the suspense and excitement which can be found in real life, not just in fiction. Ofcourse a documentary maker doesn’t have the option to plan a faultless scene, perfect every detail in a shot or invent their story line. What they do have to play with though is real human life, unfolding in front of their lense in real time. Recognising the advantage they have in this and the excitement this can provide for an audience can give non-fiction the edge. Documentary can be like amazing theatre, seizing our attention because we know it’s real and right there, not on a stage but in the real world we live in.

If Big Boys goes to show anything, it’s that the 21st Century has no shortage of gripping drama for the film maker to capture. We live in a world where corporate giants do constant battle with individuals or groups that threaten them, an endless series of David vs. Goliath scenarios with enough suspense to challenge many a hollywood plot. Big Boys Gone Bananas has been readily noted as an inspiring underdog tale, a hopeful message that the individual can beat the powerful corporate bully. But perhaps we can take hope from it in another way, in recognising what it indicates for the non-fiction film. It reveals documentary as a genre ready to be opened up to new and more interesting formats. The documentary maker can do so much more than passively document events, they can get an audiene excited about the shocking dramas unfolding around us every day, and push us to take up our place within them.