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POV Hackathon: Day One: Five Approaches to the Web Documentary from Hackathon Participants

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Read Rahul Chadha’s recap from Day Two of the POV Hackathon »

POV Hackathon: Living Los Sures team (Photo by Isabel Castro)

The Living Los Sures team at POV Hackathon

Feed Me A Story

The members of the Feed Me A Story project team have an ambitious ultimate goal in mind — the creation of an iPad app that will draw from the stories, sense memories and recipes they’ve drawn out of interview subjects by asking food related questions — what might become a documentary book.

Soon after starting hacking, the scope of their ambition dawned on filmmaker/artist Theresa Loong. “There’s so much to do and such a short period of time,” she said.

Over the first day, the team hoped to develop an idea of the interactive architecture of the app, how content will be highlighted for the viewer and how relationship the supplementary recipe information will have to their video content.

One of their initial challenges was making sure that everyone’s vision for the app was aligned.

“Wireframes put in a visual way what we’d been thinking about,” filmmaker/artist Laura Nova explains. “Once it’s on paper there’s no risk of miscommunication.”

For iOS developer Lauren Hasson, a main consideration was figuring out the team’s minimum viable product (MVP), and then getting down to the nitty gritty of executing necessary tasks.

“You have to prioritize the objectives,” Hasson said, or else run the risk of getting derailed — a daunting prospect given the hack’s short timeframe.

But Nova admits that expanding beyond the MVP remains a tantalizing prospect. “You’re worried that you might not be able to have the opportunity to work on the project again,” she said.

The team’s ideation phase was a time consuming one, and Hackathon mentor Philippe Pierre lended his experience to help the team isolate and prioritize tasks. In order to make the most of their limited time, the team adopted a parallel-development approach, where the visual design and the coding work are broken into two different tracks, with team members working on both at the same time.

StoryCorps Audio Slideshows

For the StoryCorps team, the main challenge was to provide listeners with a new path to their impressive corpus of work, much of which is hidden away in the show’s website archives.

StoryCorps producers Michael Garofalo and Isaac Kestenbaum realized that to undermine the show’s well-crafted linear narratives would be a mistake. So how then to engage users without detracting from the heart of the show — it’s stories?

Instead of fundamentally reconceptualizing the content, the team was working on ways to create new paths to it. “We don’t have a big incentive to change the stories, we want to make what we do additive,” said developer Antonio Kaplan.

Much of their energy was focused on what Kaplan calls experiential design, figuring out what cues or motivations could be drawn upon to lead an audience to the work.

“We’re trying to figure out how to take a story done in 2006 and make it relevant to somebody today,” said Garofalo.

One idea the team came up with was to imbue the archived work with context and relevance by relating it to topical news stories. In practice, that would mean using interest in the Mars rover landing to draw attention to related StoryCorps pieces, even if in a somewhat abstracted sense, such as an interview with an amateur astronomer who’s built his own observatory.

Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys

Of all the teams at the Hackathon, the members of the Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys project appear to have done the most prep work. In fact, the team held two face-to-face meetings in the days leading up to the hack, with the first focused on the ideation phase of project design that most other teams were occupying themselves with on Saturday morning.

Filmmaker Jessica Oreck said that the flow of ideas at one of these pre-hack huddles led her to reconsider some of the content she had wanted to use.

“I had shown up with a written element, but I left that day and rewrote everything,” she said.

Things were made easier when developers Mike Knowlton and Hal Siegel found the minimalist concept and aesthetic of Oreck’s film, an 83-minute long direct cinema piece about Finnish reindeer herders that has about nine minutes of dialogue in it, reflective of their own creative approach.

“[The Hackathon project] couldn’t be too complicated. I wanted it to be stripped down to match the feeling of the movie,” explains Oreck.

By their second meeting, the team was already putting thought into wireframes, the elements used as the blueprint for the project’s user experience. And Siegel even managed to get an early jump on screen designs.

So when it came time to file into POV’s offices, the team members had a clear idea of their jobs and were able to get to work quickly. With Knowlton focused on coding using Javascript and jQuery, Siegel gave the front-end design his attention and Oreck prepped video and photo assets for integration. The only time their work was interrupted was for a quick aside so a team member could gain clarity on a minor issue.

Op-Video

The Op-Video team has the most journalistic flavor of the bunch, which makes sense given that members Susan McGregor and Lam Thuy Vo were once colleagues at the Wall Street Journal.

Their project attempts to repurpose the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ admittedly dry data on unemployment by adding layers of interactivity, and presenting everything through the captivating aesthetic of Posner’s quirky hand-drawn animations.

All of the team members have enough familiarity with coding concepts to speak to each other in a developer’s shorthand that’s inscrutable to me, given my limited experience with programming concepts. But the benefit for the team is clearly that it allows them to communicate with efficiency, and that all members can collaborate easily on content creation and coding duties.

Their ad-hoc approach has also made the team the loosest-feeling, and is reflected in Posner’s definition of a minimum viable product.

“For me, it’s figuring out what I would want to click on,” he explained simply.

The team’s trial-and-error approach has also resulted in some stumbling blocks, such as when a chunk of code taken from a library was tweaked for use, only to later be discovered to be the source of rendering problems. Despite the fact that the reworking of the code took two hours, the team remained undeterred. McGregor, exhibiting a glass-half-full mentality, sees those sorts of obstacles as learning opportunities.

“When something doesn’t work is when you find out the most about how things actually work,” she said.

Living Los Sures

The Living Los Sures team’s objective stands a bit apart from the others. UnionDocs artistic director Christopher Allen hoped to come out of the Hackathon with a production tool that could be used by artists participating in the organization’s collaborative program who may not have any experience with programming.

The project aims to use the 1984 Diego Echeverria film Los Sures as a launching point for an examination of the history of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, by annotating the movie with additional content.

The morning of their first hack day was spent figuring out the scaffolding for content — video and audio. Communication between the content creation side of the team (Allen and Collaborative Studio Director Andre Almeida) and the coding side (developers Danny Bowman and Kyle Warren) seemed to be humming. That’s likely aided by the fact that Allen and Almeida have been immersed in the ideas surrounding interactive documentary for quite some time.

“For some filmmakers who are not as familiar with this world, it may be difficult,” said Almeida, who is currently working on a doctorate degree on interactive documentary. Allen has the advantage of having worked with coders several times before, most recently at the Hot Hacks event hosted by Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival back in April.

For coder Bowman, the largest hurdle was figuring out the initial plan for the interactive design, and how users might approach it. “It’s not a traditional, linear path. You have to consider what the user’s motivations are,” he said. Bowman, also with experience at a hackathon, warned that projects go wrong when when are too ambitious, a conclusion with which Warren concurred.

“Having a vision is important. Having a vision of something that will take longer than two days to create is a problem,” he said.

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Rahul Chadha
Rahul Chadha
Rahul Chadha is a Brooklyn-based journalist and filmmaker interested in the convergence of coding and documentary arts. He is a past participant of several documentary programs, including the UnionDocs Collaborative and the Maysles Institute's Filmmakers Collaborative.
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  • docs!

    “Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)” is not a documentary. Neither is “The Story of the Weeping Camel.”

    • Allie Light

      Re: Weeping Camel. Filmmakers tried to use part of their film to make a documentary, but it was rejected as not being a doc.

  • applicant1

    Having the same problem noted below. How do I register my votes if nothing happens when I click the thumbs up icon?

  • Ryan

    I did not see this on the list http://www.absentmovie.com/ This MUST be added

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.turner.146 Jeff Turner

    hoop dreams – gotta be!

  • chook

    how about the canary effect? great award winning depressing documentary. worth a shot i think

  • docs!

    Not seeing many foreign documentaries here – this is a very heavily american list. perhaps it should be described as “The Greatest Mostly American Documentaries of All Time.” Or “the greatest documentary films that have been widely released in the USA and that are probably available on netflix.” I am sure that people in England, Japan, China, Sweden, etc would have a much different list of films.

  • jp comeau

    Erm, since virtually every title is in English, might I suggest renaming the list “The Greatest English-Language Documentaries of All Time”, omitting the one or two foreign-language titles and dropping the bogus pretense of a list covering “The Greatest Documentaries of All Time”…

  • Paula Vaccaro

    burroughs the movie (1984) by howard brookner is missing. when I try to add it it doesnt let me…

  • http://www.facebook.com/kierstyn.zolfo Kierstyn Piotrowski Zolfo

    Missing item: “Into the Arms of Strangers: Tales of the Kindertransport” (2000) – I’d vote for that!

  • RO

    Who developed this list? Missing some docs that should be on the list.

  • Tina Fernandez

    Looking for “I Met With An Accident”. Do not see it on the list! GREAT documentary!

  • http://twitter.com/brankamkoie Brandi

    Is there any way you can set up a search window. It’s so difficult to scan through this very large list while scrolling. Or perhaps could you maybe put the list in alphabetical order? That might help too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/louis.gonzales1 Louis Gonzales

    Was Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson apart of this?

  • http://profiles.google.com/historyphdguy Robert Karma

    I am a historian with a focus on WWII, The Cold War & The Space
    Race. I figure my choice of “greatest documentary” will be different
    than most other folks. Given my perspective I had many great docs to choose from but the one that really answered the questions you posted (But which film would you say is the most influential on the form? Which one best defines everything a documentary should do? Which one do you love watching over and over and over again) had to be “The Fog of War : Eleven Lessons from the life of Robert S McNamara” Born 85 years ago, McNamara is the quintessential man of his time, what Brokaw called the greatest generation, a sobriquet this documentary underscores. In McNamara’s words he deplored the sorrow and pity of the four great wars of his lifetime; the trenches in France; the nuclear and indiscriminate firebombing of innocent Japanese; the debacle in Korea; the flaming jungles of Vietnam. His command of statistics is breathtaking. But it is the eyes that reveal an inner truth, the precise opposite of his concise, rational words – his 11 “lessons”. We see a man who never found himself in harm’s way. We see eyes so ironically blinded by a circa 1918 vision of duty and honor that, though he loathed the horrifics of Vietnam, he was compelled to allow his true judgment to go unexpressed until nearly 60,000 Americans were dead. He was at once perhaps the most powerful man in the world and its most despicable. It is easy to see why a brilliant young President Kennedy would choose someone as Defense Secretary who seemed so like himself, but tragically without the courage. And why, with Kennedy’s death, McNamara by sheer ambition and brilliance would ascend to the very pinnacle of power. Just very sobering to have McNamara go through what he later recognized as terrible errors of judgment in prosecuting war when you are so removed from it in person. This is a documentary I have watched several times and I learn something new each time. Every American should have to watch this documentary before deciding if they are going to support or oppose our overseas military adventures.

  • MEGAN

    VOTE FOR LIPSTICK&DYNAMITE (2005) ! OR ALMA (1999) GREAT DOC’S

  • slt

    I tried to add another documentary, but I can’t see that it was added.

  • http://twitter.com/ripzip Elizabeth Thompson

    Seriously?? You have Katy Perry and Justin Bieber listed but not The World at War?? Yeesh.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pam.whitworth.5 Pam Whitworth

    TRIAGE..great documentary!

  • Traveled

    Many I’m not seeing here, and can’t add
    Ballet Russes (2005)
    Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinematheque (2004)

    Manufactured Landscapes (2006)
    My Best Fiend (1999)
    Legendary Sin Cities (2005)
    An Unreasonable Man (2006)
    My Architect (2003)
    The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2005)
    these are just a few that I think are great

  • http://www.facebook.com/katherine.simpson.370 Katherine Simpson

    I’d like to nominate the 2007 PBS documentary WATER FLOWING TOGETHER, filmmaker Gwendolen Cates, about the life of JOCK SOTO the Navaho dancer legendary dancer with the New York City Ballet. Like others in this blog, I can not figure out how to nominate the film and will appreciate your help, Kathy Simpson

  • Peter Steven

    The Man With The Movie Camera

  • lacorralez

    I’ve tried to voting for Paris is Burning, but nothing happened when I clicked. What’s up? Am I doing something wrong?

  • Kim Clay

    The Last Truck Closing of a GM Plant (2009) HBO

  • http://www.facebook.com/tiarra.weldon Tiarra Wade

    Paris Is Burning is everything

  • http://www.facebook.com/veronica.klaus Veronica Klaus

    What about Jazz On A Summer’s Day by Bert Stern in ’59 or ’60???? I won’t vote for any list that doesn’t include it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/torvilshot Torvil Schottenhauffen

    where is “Shoah”??

  • A Gay

    Paris is Burning… serving you documentary realness.

  • Guest

    If you’re not voting for Paris Is Burning…What is wrong with you, are you going through it? You’re going through some kind of psychological change in your life? You went back to being a man? Touch this skin, darling, touch this skin honey, touch all of this skin! Okay? You just can’t take it! You’re just an overgrown orangutan!

  • wondering

    What is the difference between ranking and votes?

  • Dale

    clicking has no response..

  • Joe

    It’s not allowing us to add documentaries to this list. Several people just tried to add We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists. Is it blocking it for some reason?

    • Anonymous

      Once you suggest a title to be added, it has to be verified before it is added. It will not show up immediately, but it will make its way there. We promise!

      • Joe

        This isn’t working. It has been days, this doc has been everywhere this year, top festivals, won awards, what needs to be verified?

  • Doug

    I don’t tweet so apparently I can’t vote. How about “The Selling Of The Pentagon?” It was so powerful that you can’t find it, or any evidence of it, any more.

    • http://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.mcmahon Elizabeth McMahon

      The New York Public Library has it on 16mm, as well as “The Rebuttal to ‘The Making of The Selling of The Pentagon.’”

  • Juliagreer

    I made sure cookies are enabled and I still can’t vote — nothing happens when I click the “thumbs up.” Any more ideas?

  • Jay Stempl

    An inconvenient truth is on this list? Bye.

  • riromi

    Why is The Business of Being Born not in chronological order on the list????

  • VenusSisInLaw

    PARIS IS BURNING! In loving memory of Venus! We love and miss you everyday!

  • PBsSir

    Spellbound! This little docu about the national spelling opened my eyes to what docs could do. It inspired at least a dozen copycat docs that follows kids or people in the same format. But this first one here is and was the best. Moving, funny and gave me great insight into America.

  • Roe

    “In Whose Honor?” got my vote!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Linda-M-Black-Ochsenbein/1621221094 Linda M Black-Ochsenbein

    I added two, but can’t see them to vote on them. “Bukowski: Born Into This” and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”; I hope they show up before voting is over.
    –incidentally, one thing this voting list is good for is finding the names of documentaries I missed!

  • http://www.facebook.com/robb.mitchell Robb Mitchell

    I blink response would be “The Sorrow and the Pity” by Marcel Ophüls but I would also add “F for Fake” by Orson Wells from 1973.

  • Ethan Vesely-Flad

    It’s a brand-new doc, which hasn’t yet had major distribution, but I hope you’ll take a look at including the festival award-winning film “Doin’ It In the Park”: http://www.facebook.com/doinitinthepark

  • Ethan Vesely-Flad

    Other excellent docs missing from this list and worth inclusion: “Breath Control: The History of the Human Beat Box”; “Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains”; “Traces of the Trade”; “Have You Heard From Johannesburg?”; “Thelonius Monk: Straight No Chaser”

  • CourtMonty

    Paris Is Burning

  • emeraldlizard

    “The Thin Blue Line” still haunts me, as does, “There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane.” Also, anything by Wiseman!

  • Michael Vidargas

    Good luck Robbin

  • UnbiasedEye

    I have a question. I recall watching a multi-part documentary on television, probably in the late 90s, on the movie business. There were interviews on all facets of the business. I particularly recall a segment on the trials and tribulations of screen writers. Does anyone know the name of this, and where it appeared, and whether it’s on DVD?

  • http://www.facebook.com/BurleyBT Burent Thomas

    War paint…… i dig that one, is it on there

  • http://www.facebook.com/BurleyBT Burent Thomas

    Cocaine Cowboys

  • Pingback: Hackathons, podcasts & choose your own adventure: an update from i-Docs - i-Docs

  • Tina Fernandez

    I agree. I have tried posting “I Met with An Accident”. I still don’t see it.

  • Anonymous

    Ranking is based on an algorithm that helps prevent ballot stuffing from becoming a way to put a doc at the top. The algorithm also takes into account the “competition” the doc faces (if a film enters the list later than others, obviously it is at a disadvantage).

    Sorting by votes just places the docs based on the number of votes they have received.

    Hope this helps clear it up!

  • Anonymous

    Ranking is based on an algorithm that helps prevent ballot stuffing from becoming a way to put a doc at the top. The algorithm also takes into account the “competition” the doc faces (if a film enters the list later than others, obviously it is at a disadvantage).

    Sorting by votes just places the docs based on the number of votes they have received.

    Hope this helps clear it up!