Door Into The Dark, an immersive documentary experience presented at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival Storyscapes exhibition, pushes the intersection of technology and storytelling in a surprising new direction, creating a deeply moving hybrid between immersive theater, audio documentary and geolocation technology. In the project, a user dons a blindfolded helmet affixed with headphones and an app built by Calvium. As they move, literally blindly, throughout a carefully crafted space, iBeacons trigger various chapters in three true stories, told by their protagonists: a blind man, a mountain climber and a mental patient. The user feels their way around the space, potentially experiencing the emotions and sensations of the storytellers in real time.
The project’s creators, May Abdalla and Amy Rose, make up a digital company called Anagram based in the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, England. Both having backgrounds in documentary film, they had to shift themselves into an experimentation mode more common in the tech world to create Door Into The Dark.
POV: What steps did you take in the creation of this project? How did you choose the stories, and did they lead the experience creation or vice versa?
May Abdalla: Our baseline for exploration was the idea of people who had been lost. We were inspired by this quote from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, about how getting lost is “a psychic state achievable through geography.”
Amy Rose: We saw an opportunity to tell a story about being lost geographically but approaching being totally lost as a psychic state. One of our characters, David, had a moment of ecstasy in that, which we wanted to pass on to audiences. There’s lots of immersive theater in London, but our background is documentary. We were going to see immersive theater shows and felt like something was missing.
May Abdalla: At those shows we wondered, “what’s the visceral pull of the narrative?” That’s what we loved doing and making, the crafting of a story. So these ideas started to come together, and we knew we wanted to create something where the body was an agent in the story.
Amy Rose: Then we did a residency at Blast Theory [creators of fellow Storyscapes project, Karen ] in Brighton for a month. We had a white board covered in scribbles about being lost.
May Abdalla: We strung up a rope across the room. The idea of the rope came from a camp game that Amy used to play. We were also playing with magic and illusion. We got to the point where we knew that we would beginDoor Into The Dark with the audience feeling along a rope, and end it in the room where it ends now, but something had to happen in the middle. Figuring that out took the longest. In the same way you make a film, you want the stakes to be high — you have to keep upping the emotional game. We were shaping this in the same way you would shape a doc story, based on emotional points.
Amy Rose: As far as the actual stories we worked with, we knew we needed lost stories. You can lose your mind, lose a limb, get lost in a tunnel. The mountain climber in our project is a friend of my dad’s. The final guy, Brian, I had made a small piece of documentary theatre about the relationship between music and madness and we interviewed him for that. We went back to talk to him for this project and he could discuss getting close to the edge of madness in a way that took you with him. I wanted to get people close to that feeling in a way that wasn’t terrifying.
May Abdalla: Finding the stories wasn’t the challenge for us. That’s what we were already doing as documentary makers. We knew how to find the stories, but we didn’t know how at first how to present them differently.
POV: What do you think are the benefits of this type of storytelling for the audience? What about for the creators?
Amy Rose: For the storytellers, it’s really fun. Working with the body is challenging. Your edit is a constant iterative process of testing and doing. It’s a fascinating process. You don’t get stuck in a dark edit room for months like in a traditional documentary. There’s a team that’s necessarily cross-discipline. There’s an architect and set designer and engineers.
May Abdalla: For the audience, the classic saying is that you get as much out of something as you put in. It’s a personal and internal experience for people. You meet yourself in the dark. Where does that happen in the modern world? It’s valuable to think about because the moments where the rug is pulled out are the most transformative for people. It’s a safe way of thinking about those scary moments. You can have that kind of self reflection in a cinema but that is not the stated intention of that experience.
Amy Rose: There’s also something valuable for the audience in the fact that it talks to directly to you, as a participant. It’s acknowledging you as a human being in a way that cinema doesn’t.
POV: What was the biggest change in thinking that you had to make to create this non-traditional narrative?
May Abdalla: We had to shift control. We were no longer the “Master of Ceremonies” like when you’re editing your film. When we first started watching people do it, we were like “they’re doing it wrong!” But we realized that each person has their own experience.
Amy Rose: We needed to provide circumstances for things to emerge and then see what happens, In a way, both the format and the stories are about submission and control. We talk a lot about rituals. In this project, we consciously created a ritual of being in a room and preparing to enter the project. Every part of that experience is designed, but it is meant not to feel that way. If we think about interactive work in ritualistic terms, there’s a lot to work with.
POV: What is it like to guide your viewers through this experience? How is it different from watching people view your films in a theatre?
May Abdalla: It’s unbelievably beautiful. It’s very different.
Amy Rose: People are deprived of certain senses in our project and are therefore truly being themselves, and we’re looking after them. They feel alone, but we are actually in the room with them, guiding them along the way. We’re having an intimate experience with this person and they have no idea who we are.
POV: How will this experience change the way you approach future projects?
May Abdalla: We leapfrogged from documentary to the tech sector, because of the attitude of fail fast and the collaborative approach. It’s very different from traditional documentary editing.
Amy Rose: We’ve started to work a lot more with objects and integrating technology into stories, as well as working with new organizations like the Tower of London, who are asking how we get people to embody and enact stories and what are the right places to do that in?
May Abdalla: It’s changed the questions we’re asking in general. If you take film out of the cinema, part of the story is how you get to the story. What state are the viewers in? Can you catch people at the right time? Could you dovetail with a thing someone would naturally do already?