I am always appreciative of documentaries that push the boundaries of the form, but experiencing them leaves me wondering too often: Can interactive documentaries make us feel something in the same way that traditional cinema can?
As this year’s Storyscapes proves, the answer is increasingly yes. The five transmedia projects on display at this second installment of Storyscapes at the Tribeca Film Festival are not only more interactive and participatory than some of their predecessors, but they are also more emotionally evocative.
Choose Your Own Documentary is a hybrid film and live performance whose path (one of a possible 1,500+) is determined by the audience through a series of choices made via remote control. The protagonist, Nathan Penlington, does a kind of live DVD commentary as he leads you through a series of short films about his search for the mysterious original owner of a collection of Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980’s that he secured on eBay.
I appreciate that the interactive device is not just a shtick — it has direct relevance to the story’s content. More importantly, the voting creates real audience engagement with a tale that is successful for some of the same reasons that many narrative films are – it is a personal story told by an authentic, vulnerable, relatable protagonist. And ultimately it has a traditional story arc with emotional peaks and valleys no matter what path the audience chooses.
The performance will run four times throughout the festival.
Use of Force is a virtual reality experience that recreates a scene in which a migrant was killed by border patrol on the U.S.-Mexico line. The recreation is based on eyewitness testimony, real audio captured at the scene and 3-D animation of the cell phone videos that accompanied that audio.
The set-up at Storyscapes is limited given that only one person can use it at a time, but I recommend that you put your trust in the 3-D-goggle-handler on site and give it a go, because the experience is visceral, upsetting in the way a human rights doc should be, and satisfying to the “rubbernecker” in all of us. While inside the scene, I wanted a closer look, but producer Nonny de la Pena only lets us see what the cell phone cameras could see — strengthening the credibility of her recreations by not including imagined details. When I took the goggles off, I wanted to know more, and isn’t that what audience engagement is all about?
In terms of eliciting feelings from a general audience, the creators of Clouds (James George and Jonathan Minard) face a very big challenge: how do they generate visceral reactions to what are essentially data geeks talking about data in settings created by, you guessed it, data? Feelings aside, how do they even get us to understand what the heck this stuff means? With their Storyscapes installation, they are making a bold attempt.
First of all, the interactivity is cool. Who doesn’t want to feel like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, waving their arms all around to control information on a big screen? It also helps that the data-driven graphics are gorgeous, the subjects are passionate, and the sound bytes are condensed enough that they are generally digestible. I look forward to seeing how the creators will make the project even more relatable as they bring it into app form in the coming year.
Circa 1948 (From National Film Board of Canada, titans of the transmedia trade) is a richly detailed portrait of postwar Vancouver that invites audiences to explore the cities’ changing neighborhoods while considering such themes as gentrification and police corruption. I found it to be the least effective project in terms of emotional resonance, particularly because of the choice not to show subjects’ faces, which made it difficult for me to connect with their stories. However, the installation was the most successfully immersive of all the projects for me.
The virtual reality experience created by binaural sound and 360-degree projection-mapped video, and seamlessly controlled by my own body movements with no handheld controller, truly brought me into their elaborate Vancouver scenes in a fuller way than I have ever experienced. (The project also allows for extensive exploration through its mobile app, available in the iTunes store.) I didn’t witness a single person emerge from the experience without an audible wow.
On a Human Scale is simply delightful. Its user interface is a piano keyboard whose keys activate videos of notes being sung by a diversity of strangers on the streets of New York City. Project creator Matthew Matthew believes that each person who experiences the project actually builds their own story into it, but that the larger narrative is about how singing and music bring people together. As such, he feels compelled to “make an instrument out of humanity.” The project is clearly an interactive art installation, rather than storytelling in any kind of traditional sense, but it did make me feel something. Frankly, it made me feel happy, and there aren’t many interactive projects that I can say that about.
Keep an eye out here for more in-depth pieces about some of these projects later this week. Meanwhile, I’d love to know if these examples whet your appetite for transmedia creation. Did you go to Storyscapes, and what did you think? Even if you didn’t make it this year, how would you imagine your documentary if it could be displayed in a space other than a screen? What interactive elements could you build or are you building in that add another emotional level to your audience’s experience?
All five projects will be viewable in two hour time-slots during the Tribeca Film Festival, from April 23-26, 2014 at the Bombay Sapphire® House of Imagination in Manhattan.Free general admission tickets are available.