You, Me, and Documentary - You & Me Week


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Vladimir Fedotov.

Earlier this week, BTR writer Zach Schepis discussed the diminutive effects staring at a computer screen can have on our cerebellum, that part of our brain responsible for balance and focused vision. Despite sound research suggesting we should avoid long stretches of screen time, it seems our world is moving inevitably in the opposite direction.

Going even one day without scanning Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, etc, makes us feel out of touch with the world at large. A report released by the Pew Research Center on Millennials said more than 8 in 10 sleep with their cell phone by their bed, many prefer texting to phone calls more than any previous generation, and 64 percent admit to texting while driving.

But it’s not all bad. One fascinating new model to emerge from this swath of screens is the interactive documentary (idoc for short)–films that are web-based and invite user participation into the storyline. Like traditional documentaries, the content is rooted in fact, but plays with conventions and the user experience to draw in its audience.

For example, Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge–collectively known as the Canadian film group The Goggles–released an idoc in 2011 called Welcome to Pine Point. The piece tells the story of an abandoned mining community through the towns memories rendered in photographs, music, sound, and video all triggered by the user as they progress through the scenes.

Interactive documentaries are on the bleeding edge of the film industry, as we’ve only recently had access to technology that allows for such a platform to exist. Thus, the characteristics of the genre are still being defined. But, according to Sandra Gaudenzi, an Interactive Media Professor at the London College of Media, there are three levels of interactivity to date; semi-closed, semi-open, and fully-open.

Semi-closed means the user navigates through the content but can’t alter it. Welcome to Pine Point is semi-closed, as is Hollow–an interactive documentary and TriBeCa Film Fest New Media Grantee that tells the story of the dying McDowell County in West Virginia through the eyes of 30 residents.

Semi-open refers to an experience in which the user participates in the content but can’t change the structure of the narrative. Director Evan Boehm’s The Carp and The Seagull allows the user to click on figures and make them move, but not change the story itself.

A fully-open work has yet to be fully realized, but theoretically this kind of idoc would mean the content and the user constantly interact and change each other.

Gaudenzi wrote of her research, “We create reality while we collaborate in a social forum, we create knowledge while posting on Wikipedia, we document our world while posting on YouTube… It is not the filmmaker anymore that re-orders a reality by editing parts of his/her shooting experience, but it is the users that create a collaborative reality by documenting their own point of view in what then becomes a multiple reality.”

One approximation of a fully-open idoc is the current remake of the 1929 film Man With A Movie Camera, by Russian director Dziga Vertov. The film is historical in its own right, famous for its experimental cinematic techniques like the freeze frame, slow motion, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angels, and more. It also has no sound or linear story, presenting life in Odessa, Kharkiv, and Kiev through filmed workers in a single day. Hailed as rhythmic and stunning, the cities themselves become the only characters.

Man With A Movie Camera: The Global Re-Make was conceived of by video artist Perry Bard and began in 2008. It’s a shot-for-shot emulation, except each scene is filmed by a different person from around the world. Users navigate the website, pick out a scene they want to shoot, make it, upload it, and the database automatically re-appropriates their submission into the film. In this way, the re-make is ever-changing based on participation.

“I never thought I was going to make an interactive documentary,” Bard tells BTR, “but I generated the idea out of my interest in public space.”

In 1999, Bard was invited to Bulgaria to work on an archeology video and went with the intention of shooting four minutes of Man With A Movie Camera on the mini-Sony DV she had brought along. Upon returning to New York, Bard realized the original film had a performance aspect that was lost with the footage from her camera. So, she fashioned another out of cardboard and filmed sequences against a blue screen that she integrated into each shot. During this process, Bard realized there was the possibility of making something truly global.

When asked about the modern-day intersection of film and interactivity, Bard says, “I think if Vertov were alive today he’d be doing just that. Because basically what he was doing was creating a picture of society at the moment. And that was my central idea when I launched the re-make. This is an age of participation, so how would I get that kind of participation into a work.”

Bard aims to push that boundary even further by developing a project that will span film, web, and cell phone, the next step in the idoc evolution.

You could argue this evolution somewhat lessens the creator’s vision, detracting from their agency as a storyteller. If that is the case, does this cheapen the project as a whole, or enhance it?

American multi-media artist Doug Aitken has explored this question in his six-channel video installation, “The Source, Evolving.” Featuring 23 rapid-fire interviews in which Aitken discussed the event horizon of creativity with prolific artists, the installation itself was interactive. The viewer was placed in a 2,000 square-foot circular pavilion with six screens simultaneously playing different segments. As they moved physically closer, they were able to hone in on a singular clip.

The installation was part of the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontiers Program, a social and creative space featuring content that seeks to transcend old paradigms and technological limitations. One panel discussion at the program was titled “The Story World: Creating Interactive Experiences That Work,” and was led by artist Jonathan Harris, who specializes in the interaction between humans and technology. He cautioned his audience to examine the core values beneath their interactive work rather than just following a trend.

Harris said, “Whenever you’re dealing with bleeding edge technologies, there is the trap that you’re just doing things that are very timely, but in five years they just look kind of silly.”

To avoid that silliness, filmmakers must privilege quality over cheap tricks and attention grabbers. And there’s another pitfall:

“In Man With A Movie Camera the only upload I got from Africa was from a CBC cameraman who just happened to be there. I did get uploads from China, but they came from my travels there where I had done workshops. It’s important to remember, there are parts of the world that are not as privileged as we are, where everybody doesn’t have the equipment we have. The web is such a privileged place. I know it’s changed a lot since 2008, but if you go into outlying areas there isn’t as much connectivity.”

In other words, participation doesn’t automatically mean equal participation. Lest we forget, no matter the medium, a storyteller’s most significant charge is still to give voice to those that would otherwise live in silence.

For more from Perry Bard tune into this week’s episode of the Third Eye Weekly podcast on BTR.