The POV Hackathon team members working on the Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys project include experienced media makers drawn from the worlds of linear documentary and new forms of interactive storytelling. I spoke with two of those members, filmmaker Jessica Oreck and developer Mike Knowlton. Oreck’s first feature documentary, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, was released theatrically and aired on PBS’s Independent Lens. She is currently in production on two new feature documentaries. Mysteries of Vernacular, her series of animated shorts, is now playing at the IFC Center in New York City.
Knowlton is digital veteran of 20 years, and a recognized leader in the transmedia community in New York City. He co-founded the nonprofit, immersive storytelling community StoryCode. He has also founded and led a number of technology companies, including digital agency BASIK and interactive film company Murmur.
The team also includes Hal Siegel, whose work represents a unique blend of storytelling, visual design, interaction design and usability. As a creative director at BASIK, he leads the development of Internet initiatives for arts and cultural organizations. He co-founded Murmur along with Knowlton.
POV: Could you describe your project?
Jessica Oreck: The project has two parts. There is the film itself, which is a feature-length documentary, a pure direct cinema study of a family of Lappish reindeer herders over the course of one year. The project we’re developing at the Hackathon is the opposite of the way people normally use interactive documentary, because the film itself doesn’t follow a formal narrative arc. We’re building the narrative arc in our online component, which is sort of a choose your own adventure narrative/educational discussional tool. It’s really about complementing the film, though the idea is that you could see the film and participate in this online component or you could participate in this online component having never seen the film. Either way, you’re going to get a really great sense of the life of these herders, and it will challenge the way you think about nature, environmentalism, and where your food comes from.
POV: What inspired you to apply for the Hackathon?
Oreck: We had been looking for opportunities to partner with developers because we wanted to expand the reach of the project without changing the nature of the film. We really didn’t want the film to be an “environmental” film. I often talk with my grandparents about my work because my grandparents are very conservative, religious people from the South. They don’t believe in climate change or global warming. They’re not my target audience, but I still want them to be able to watch my movie, understand it and connect with it, and not feel like I’m telling them that they’re wrong. The movie isn’t about a particular environmental or political message, but about how difficult and satisfying life is for the herders. There are a number of underlying factors — the way legislation has been set up and the way the EU regulates everything that they do, climate change, the effects of Chernobyl — all of these things that are forced onto them. These are really important topics but I didn’t want them to be part of the film. Online content is the perfect way to bring people in, whether or not they have seen the film, and help them understand what it’s like to live like these reindeer herders, and also what that implies about the rest of us and the way that we live.
POV: Do you have any experience in coding or development?
Oreck: I built my own websites, but only in very inelegant HTML. It’s just chock-a-block building, and that’s my only background in it. I’m really excited to be paired up with such a great team. We met up briefly to discuss the assets we’ll be bringing. It was so much fun to be bouncing ideas around, and it’s really satisfying to work with people who are motivated and know what they’re doing.
POV: What drew you to participate in the Hackathon?
Mike Knowlton: Two things. First, my business partner and I are really focused on the intersection of storytelling and technology, and we’re always looking to work with like-minded folks. To be able to participate in a hackathon that’s focused on documentary was really appealing to us. Second, I had produced the StoryCode StoryHack about four or five months ago. It was a similar sort of hackathon, but it was focused on fictional, dramatic pieces. It was so much fun, but I was producing the event so I couldn’t do any hacking. The only hacking I could do was for a newsletter for StoryCode. I would have loved to have been on a team and participated in a more meaningful way. So the opportunity to participate in this one was really appealing.
POV: Do you have experience working with documentary filmmakers?
Knowlton: Yes, we’re working right now with Liz Nord on her project Battle for Jerusalem. That’s our main documentary experience. And we’ve created interactive films ourselves that are fictional. We actually found out about Liz through the POV blog. I responded to one of her posts.
POV: What are you hoping to get out of the Hackathon experience?
Knowlton: I’d just like to be able to create something cool, to think about another way to explore the story that the documentary filmmaker is trying to tell. And how you can incorporate different story layers and what that means and what the potential for that is. I think the potential for that is pretty significant, you can see that in the proof of concept approach.