Upian strikes back: Alma is out

October 25, 2012

Activism, Blog, Transmediality

After 2 years of hard work, Upian (Gaza/Sderot, Prison Valley) has just released Alma.

This is not a story like others, nor an i-docs like others. Although it is a cross-media production (it is an iPad application, a website, a documentary, a book and an exhibition) it is one unique story made available on different platforms. No game, no story-world, no transmedia frenzy. Just an incredibly strong story that keeps you glued to whichever media you are using.

This is a confession – a long, incredible, unbearable and sometimes beautiful confession. It is the story of Alma that, since the age of 15, has been part of one of the most terrible gangs of Guatemala. The slow voice goes from one story of violence to another, describing with incredible clarity and sharpness the escalating logic of violence. The fear of death does not seem to bring any shadow on Alma’s beautiful face, a face that tells us how violence can be logic, accaptable – a system, a hierarchy of life for those who do not really have other options, or that at least are brought to believe so. A confession of family violence, of poverty, of intelligence, of cruelty, and of the need to feel strong not to be beaten up again – especially if you are a women. Survive or die.

For those sitting in front of their screen, who can hardly imagine how life can be so hard and unfair, Alma is a painful journey on how love and recognition can be found in the most improbable places. For those like me, who spend days hunting for sophisticated interactive experiences, the simplicity of Alma’s interface is a lesson of humility: it is all I could cope with while I was watching. A lesson of how less is more, even in interactive documentaries.

When the confession of Alma becomes just too much, a simple movement of the iPad (or an upward movement of the mouse) brings us to a parallel film, a film of images, photo-montages and illustrations. The voice stays there, as the only sound track, but one can escape from her face, like you would look elsewhere if a friend was pushing you too far.

But Alma does not go too far, she keeps you with her, she keeps digging in her life to the point that you wonder “why”… why taking this risk? why telling us, telling me, about all those people that could kill her any moment? How old is she? How old is this woman that had done it all by the age of 22? By the time you are asking those questions you know that you are already hooked. You care about her.

The beauty of Alma is that it is a tale of horror, and yet of hope and courage. The enhancement that interactivity can give to such story is just to be on its side, to allow you to go through this journey and, most of all, not to interfere. And yet, is there any value in the “top” film as a stand alone? No. Is there any need for it? Yes, 40 minutes of a single shot are hard to cope with. Are they working together? I do not know… I only know that I needed to go up and down between the two images… I needed to move, do something, react… and yet not totally oing away from her.

By the time Alma has spoken to you for 40 minutes you know more than what you want to know. By now you wonder how all this has been possible. By now you are ready to learn about Guatemala and the reasons of what seems unacceptable and inexplicable.  And this is when Upian proposes you 4 Information Modules. Just when you need them. Just when they fit into your emotional journey. No enhanced content every two seconds that distracted you from the story while you were listening to her, no flashing highlights to tell you that  there are hyperlinks, no live data coming from Wikipedia and BBC World informing you about what is happening right now in a country you know nothing about.

You have just spend 40 minutes with Alma. You needed those minutes to build an emotional context that makes the extra information suitable and useful. This information is then presented to you in the same style of what you have just seen in Alma’s top visual story. This is somehow reassuring, those guys from Upian are not letting you down after having punched you in the face. They seem to have a purpose. They seem to care about her, but about you too… because everybody feels a bit fragile by now…

I have felt as if someone had slapped me, and I wondered if it was necessary. I had doubts about such a hard impact style and about its possible migrations towards voyeurism. But now that I have finished watching I have the feeling it was tough, but at the same time subtle, respectful and loving. Upian has not used me for a sensational story. It has brought the story to me and allowed me to face reality by designing an environment that felt right for such eye opening.

This is what I call a mature project: where strength, message, design, interface and media merge together to become immersive, informational and meaningful. I have been slapped, but I would do it again and it was worth it.


Sandra Gaudenzi


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About Sandra Gaudenzi

Sandra writes, teaches and mentors interactive documentaries. She is Creative Director at i-Docs.org and looks after its Facebook page. She also has her own blog www.interactivefactual.net

View all posts by Sandra Gaudenzi

5 Responses to “Upian strikes back: Alma is out”

  1. judithaston Says:

    What a great article Sandra – I haven’t even downloaded it yet and I’m already hooked! Sounds like the proof of the i-pad’s potential for immersive documentary storytelling that I’ve been waiting for. The lack of distracting hyperlinks sounds just perfect – everything carefully crafted for maximum effect. Very exciting indeed.

  2. María Yáñez Says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Sandra!

  3. Jesse de Vos Says:

    An intense and heartbreaking story, very impressive!
    In terms of i(nteractive)-docs: The first 40 minutes are only interactive in the “Transmissional” sense (Jensen 1999): “a media’s potential ability to let the user choose from a continuous stream of information in a one way media system without a return channel and therefore without a possibility for making requests.” And even then it is only visually interactive, the voice-over cannot be manipulated.
    I find it interesting to see that the more ‘mature’ i-docs seem to revert more and more to only this type of interactivity . There seems to be such a deep-rooted desire to tell stories and to hear stories that the full interactive potential of a networked media configuration is rarely utilized.
    The cybernetic circuit that Sandra Gaudenzi describes in her work seems to be largely absent. Do you feel that in this case there is still a use for your cybernetic theorization of i-docs, Sandra?

    • Sandra Gaudenzi Says:

      Hi Jesse,

      Thanks for your post… Of course, I agree with you, Alma has a very low level of interactivity, and no circularity (no possibility for the user to intervene with the story)…. So, does this make it a ‘bad’ i-doc?
      Obviously not…. Just a minimalist one.
      I personally think that even “transmissional” I-docs have a transformational effect, even if it is not about changing the plot. While the user is choosing if to look at Alma, or to distort the glance to ‘other things’ the user is deciding which position to take and what is bearable for him/er. In that moment of choice there is a decisional act. This is obviously small compared to what can be achieved with other levels of interactivity, but it is nevertheless there.
      When I said that Alma is a mature project I wanted to be a little provocative. What I wanted to point at was at the ability to choose the right level of interactivity depending on the type of project. For such a strong confessional story I think linearity is probably the best choice. It would have been superfluous to pump it with unnecessary interruptions. So: should it just be a linear story – and not an i-doc at all?
      Well… It is also a movie (just broadcasted las week on Arte) but I think it does have its place on the tablet. Even if one just plays between two levels of video there is there -in between the two videos- a space of freedom for the viewer that is subtle, and yet useful. That is a space to hide when the story is too much, that is the space of privacy when there is too much exposure. What I felt mature was the minimal intervention that still makes sense…
      It worked for me, obviously not for you…. A lot is about expectations though… I can see how I could have felt frustrated if I had expected a more hands on I-doc….


  4. Jesse de Vos Says:

    Thanks for your reply! And I never said it didnt work for me! ;) I love good narrative myself, and it certainly was told in a very engaging way. My comments were of a more theoretical and general nature.