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Two Filmmakers Reinvent Their Approach for “Reinvention Stories,” a Web Documentary

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Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert are exploring the personal, entrepreneurial and cultural reinvention in Dayton, Ohio, a city hit hard by the economic recession, in the web documentary Reinvention Stories, which launches today. Photo credit: Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar

Filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar (Personal Belongings, POV 1996) documented the effects of the recession in Ohio in their Oscar-nominated 2009 film, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, but Reinvention Stories is new to their body of work. It’s an online documentary, a collaboration with the team from Zeega, the interactive storytelling platform– with elements of film, radio, social media, photography and almost every other form of multimedia out there — that encourages visitors to follow the lives of seven Dayton residents who found themselves at a cross roads when the city was hit hard by the recession, and chose to take a new path in their lives.

In May 2012, Reichert and Bognar gathered with radio and film producers at their local public radio station, a partnership fostered by AIR Media’s Localore initiative, and prepared to hit the streets. Throughout the summer, they trekked through Dayton neighborhoods on foot, approaching folks sitting on their porches, pushing their kids on swings in parks, unloading groceries from cars or walking their dogs and asked them, “Who were you before the bottom fell out? What happened that changed your life? Who are you becoming, or trying to become?”

Beginning online today*, these stories will start to unfold in the first of three acts. An accompanying radio program of the same name, broadcasting stories of other residents who shared their experiences with the Reinvention Stories team, are broadcasted weekly on Miami Valley public radio station WYSO and online. Short documentary companions to these radio stories are also available online on WYSO.org.

Reichert and Bognar discussed documenting their own hometown, venturing out of the world of feature-length independent documentary filmmaking they know and love and what they see for the future of web documentaries.

Was it difficult to translate your skills and knowledge as documentary filmmakers into web storytellers?

Julia Reichert: It’s crazy for us to go from dedicated long-form documentarians, where your gold ring of what you hope is that the audience sits in a quiet theatre or maybe in front of TV set and doesn’t use the remote, and watches things exactly the way you so carefully constructed them. That’s where we come from. That’s been our whole lives. And here we are, supposed to make something in an environment where you can click off any time you want.

Steven Bognar: We knew how to gather stories and strong images and interview people, but going into the internet realm was a whole other world. I would credit a lot of our confidence and our willingness to dive in to our discovery of a few projects that already existed. The biggest one for us was Welcome to Pine Point (funded by the National Film Board of Canada). That was a revelatory moment – to see that story can really work in an interactive form on the web, that we can create a mood, a tone, and really pull you in and leave you feeling that same happy, good feeling that you get after seeing a good movie or reading a good book.

Julia Reichert: I think of the National Film Board of Canada, which is — of course, publicly funded — in my experience, the global incubator for this kind of form. They put really money into it, and they do excellent, interesting work. But here… this is what Localore is, and they’ve thrown up the gates and said, “People look. Do what you think makes sense in your community and we’ll support you in doing it and give you a whole year to do it.”

Was there a negotiation between interactivity and narrative in working with this somewhat non-linear form of storytelling?

Steven Bognar: We kept hearing, “Ok, if you’re gonna dive into this world, what’s going to be different?” This form demands interactivity, but you can’t just do interactivity for the sake of being interactive, it has to be organic to the story, organic to the themes, it has to be about how you interact, and what you interact with has to be woven in to everything else.

Julia Reichert: [While working on the project at Sundance New Frontier Story Lab], some folks really urged us to stick with narrative. And others were like, “Forget narrative! This is all totally in the hands of the user, they’re gonna do what they want.”

Steven Bognar: This is more is like a collection of short stories, or a really good mixtape, in that there is conscious thought behind the sequencing, but each piece is its own story in a way. And yet, they build towards something, like a good mixtape would. We feel like its better for the overall experience if you go in order, but you can totally jump around.

Julia Reichert interviews Carol Coffey, one of the seven Dayton residents featured in the new web documentary Reinvention Stories. Photo credit: Julia Reichert & Steven Bognar

As residents of the larger Dayton area, what do you hope Reinvention Stories would accomplish for the place you call home?

Julia Reichert: We want the site to be a piece of art, but also useful to our town in some way. We kind of struggled to think, “How can we use this interactivity to help with the process of reinvention?” which is very alive in Dayton. So we included questions at the end of each Act, and the ability to load your own story. We also have a page where we try to connect people to organizations.

Steven Bognar: In a town, it helps to know what other people believe in, where people stand, even if it’s a simple as saying, “Hey, check this out,” or “This organization helped me” or “These people are great” or “This coffee shop is awesome and you should go check it out.” These little things make a little difference and that’s the idea.

We’re trying to bring together disparate communities. You notice [In Act I’s “Drive the Road” module], you’ve got Harley Davidson bikers, you’ve got international soccer teams, you’ve got the gay men’s chorus – they’re communities that may or may not intersect that often, but they’re all here, and they should all know each other. And that’s part of the mission.

Julia Reichert: Our plan is to take the site, once its up and running, to various community groups, church groups, civic groups, and get on the agenda, get on their docket – even journalism classes at the local universities – to encourage people to really use the site and share their stories and upload their thoughts.

We’re all one city, and we rise and fall together. If we all see ourselves as one city, we’re more likely to be able to do some transformative things.

Julia Reichert at work on Reinvention Stories. Photo Credit: Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar

After interviewing so many people, how did you choose which residents’ stories to include in the Reinvention Stories site? How did you decide on which themes to include?

Julia Reichert: Steve and I went on these retreats in little cabins at lakes near our house with all the material and just listened to the stories together… And themes started to arise – themes that we identified as important for people in Dayton to hear and try to draw lessons from.

One theme: Just ‘cause you have a failure, which we had as a city, and many people have as individuals – doesn’t mean you give up. It means you use that as a way to learn, to find a new path. Another: the importance of every day hard work. Step by step by step. That’s how a lot of people reinvented their lives, their businesses, their careers.

Steve Bognar: One thing that really surprised us was how this economic crisis actually, in a way, gave people permission to do the things they truly wanted to do. People said, “Well, I have no job security, no one does anymore in America, and in a way, if that’s the new hard, cold reality, well, what the hell? Why am I trying to hold on to something that I don’t really love? Why don’t I take the opportunity to do what I actually want to do?”

What do you see for the future of this kind of storytelling? How do you think it will evolve over time?

Steve Bognar: Two things have been around since humanity, since our brains developed… One is stories, and the other is games. We’ve played games forever, and we’ve told stories forever. The experience of a story is you let go, you surrender, you float down the river. The experience of a game is you engage, you connect, you respond. They’re very antithetical experiences. So where do they meet? That’s the great adventure of all this.

A hundred years ago, the early years of cinema? That’s where we are right now with this kind of storytelling. There are so many untried, untested ideas. At some point a hundred years ago, someone invented the close up – and we so take it for granted now that movies have close ups – but that did not exist until someone said, “Hey, we can actually put the camera closer.” I feel like we haven’t had that moment yet with this new form.

* Act I of Reinvention Stories, based on the interactive storytelling platform Zeega goes live on February 26, 2013, followed by Act II on March 19 and Act III on April 9. Please view the site using Google Chrome. The team notes that any bug reports are appreciated. We’ll be hearing from the Zeega team on the blog shortly.

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Emma Dessau
Emma Dessau
Emma Dessau is a Web Producer at POV Digital. She is also a producer of the digital documentary Folk to Folk. Prior to POV, Emma worked at Emerson College's Engagement Game Lab. She holds a Bachelors degree in journalism from Boston University.