My current film, Battle for Jerusalem, started out as just that: a film.
It has since evolved, to my surprise, into a multimedia experience, with a website and a location-based mobile app. Oh, and a film!
But veering from conventional wisdom, the film will be the last piece to launch. So how did I decide on this topsy-turvy approach?
1. The Story
Originally, I thought Battle for Jerusalem would follow a group of artists and activists working to keep the city democratic in the face of growing religious fundamentalism. But, as with most documentaries, real life happened, and the story changed. As I began to delve into the happenings on the ground, I became intrigued with one character in particular, Rachel Azaria, a city councilwoman. Her story resonated with me the most and also showed the most potential for a traditional narrative: She’s fighting gender segregation policies, while her ultra-Orthodox opponents are trying to destroy her credibility and her career as she runs for re-election.
Even after discovering Azaria, I was reluctant to let go of the young Jerusalemites I’d already interviewed. They told fascinating stories that deepened my understanding of their city. But they simply had no place in a 90-minute story arc. What to do?
By embracing a transmedia approach and producing a series of short films for the web, I realized that I was giving viewers a new way to explore the story. (And it would also mean that I wouldn’t have to leave my beloved characters on the cutting room floor.)
2. The Storytelling Method
I was only able to begin to untangle Jerusalem’s complexities and land on a focus for the film by immersing myself in the city and speaking to many different people. It’s impossible to tell the story of a city as multifaceted as Jerusalem with just a film, but while a film can dive into one area or character and uniquely tug on emotional heartstrings, other media expressions allow an audience member to explore online as they might explore a city offline. I realized I could convey that experience with a virtual tour.
I’m now creating an online experience, where users can remix an interactive collage of Jerusalem’s diverse neighborhoods, people and interests to discover short films profiling dynamic political, social and cultural leaders who align with the user’s selections. The same short films can be viewed via the mobile app as “micro-stories” mapped to locations in the city.
Each of the elements informs the overall story, but each has its own function for the audience: The film tells the story by connecting to one pivotal character, the website allows visitors to discover the context and underlying issues, and the app is a tool for exploring the city of Jerusalem actually or virtually.
The shift to a new protagonist, the city councilwoman, meant a shift in production. Azaria’s re-election campaign isn’t until fall 2013, so I have a year and a half before principal photography begins. But, I already have profiles of many colorful Jerusalem characters based on my original concept that I can use right now for the site and app.
I am still figuring out the most sensible release schedule for each piece and platform, but my overall attitude is, Why wait? It’s liberating to free the video and other storytelling elements from the confines of the feature film.
4. Audience Engagement
I’d already begun to build an audience for the project, through an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign, conversations over Twitter and Facebook, articles in traditional media such as The Jerusalem Post, and in-person speaking engagements. By creating multimedia elements, I am attempting to grow this core group and keep them engaged for the two or three years it will take to complete the film.
Each element can have a life of its own, but also help feed into the others, giving potential audience members many different pathways into the story.
If I had 10 bucks for every person or foundation that said to me, “We don’t fund films,” I’d have easily funded this film already. However, many of these same groups do have an interest in funding outreach or “new media” initiatives. I now have a new way of pitching my project to potential funders.
These factors are of concern to most filmmakers in one form or another, and I wonder whether more and more people might start taking a multimedia approach
to address them.
Since I decided go the web-first route, everything else has begun falling into place. I’ve created some pilot videos and have been invited to screen them and speak about the project at several events.
With this comes another realization: The “transmedia” experience isn’t just about technology. It includes live viewing experiences too. In my case, screenings of short films from the website can be organized topically around the interests of specific audiences.
The next step is to find design and technology partners to help flesh out my ideas, build the site and app, and make this vision a reality.
Liz Nord is a documentary filmmaker and multi-platform producer who has produced and shown work in Europe, the Middle East and throughout North America. Her first film, Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock In The Holy Land, a critically acclaimed documentary about young Israeli musicians, screened at over 100 festivals and venues worldwide. In 2009, she shot a short documentary on-location in Haiti for musician Wyclef Jean’s NGO, Yele Haiti. In 2008, she ran MTV’s Emmy Award-winning election coverage.