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The Awra Amba Experience: collaboration, crowd-funding and community

The Awra Amba Experience is an incredible project which I first encountered at i-Docs 2012, where Paulina Tervo (project producer/director/lead) presented the initial stages of the interactive documentary and introduced us to this inspiring community. Two years on and the project is nearing the end of a crowd-funding campaign that aims to get the interactive documentary finished and online.

I caught up with Paulina and Serdar Ferit (director/cinematographer/editor) to see how the project has developed and how  crowd-funding has affected their overall process.

So for those who aren’t aware of the campaign, interactive documentary and your work with Awra Amba, could you give us a quick rundown of the project?

We have known the Awra Amba Community since 2004 and have watched them grow and develop since then.  In 2010, we started working in partnership with the community on an innovative, interactive documentary for multiple platforms, which aims to tell their story in a comprehensive and engaging way to a global audience.

The Awra Amba Experience invites you to explore the village through a 360° immersive landscape and discover Awra Amba’s way of life and philosophies in 10 interactive real life environments, each linked to a different global theme. The experience, which will be available on computers and tablets, is based on the tour that visitors are given when they visit Awra Amba in person (hence the name of the project). Inside each interactive environment (such as the school, the weaving workshop, the assembly hall etc), users meet the people of Awra Amba and are able to explore over 90 minutes of fascinating stories, through short films and multimedia.

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A preview of the interactive experience

The experience will ask the user questions throughout their visit, creating a tailor-made journey for each visitor, based on their interest. Having explored the content, users can join in an on-going discussion about the theme in each interactive environment. A member from the Awra Amba community will be available for a live chat with the audience once a week, answering questions but also having the possibility to ask the audience questions.

We are working hard to design a version of the project that can be used in classrooms, to introduce children to concepts such as gender equality, sustainability and democracy.

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We are at a stage where the prototype is ready and a lot of the content has been edited. We are raising funds on Indiegogo to be able to finalise all the multimedia content, programme the user experience and turn it into a tablet app.

Why did you decide to make the Awra Amba Experience an interactive documentary?

In 2008 we made a 30-minute documentary in Awra Amba. It was screened all over the world at festivals, museums and broadcast on Link TV and other online platforms. It prompted a huge number of questions about the way the community lives and is set up. At the same time we took the film back to Awra Amba, who were very excited by the fact that people all over the world were engaged by their story. We had long discussions with Zumra and other community members about how they would like to use the film. The Awra Amba community also expressed a wish to connect with people outside. At that time there was no internet connection in Awra Amba, but they were aware of the power of the internet. We came to the collective conclusion that we should extend the documentary and use the internet as the main platform to tell it.

“We came to the collective conclusion that we should extend the documentary and use the internet as the main platform to tell it.”

Serdar and I have both worked on participatory media projects in the past where we have been working together with the subjects of the film to tell their story, sometimes training them in filmmaking in the process. We discussed this possibility with Awra Amba, and they wanted to be involved with the production of the films rather than receive film training (one of the things Awra Amba does well, which may be the secret to their success, is that they prioritise carefully, investing time and resources into things that will help the social wellbeing as well as the economic growth in the village.) All of the themes in the project were decided on together with the community. They also helped us identify the people, who had the most interesting personal stories to tell, relating to those themes.

The Awra Amba Experience has been created around interactivity and discussion, with the idea that discussion opens up new possibilities and collaborations and breaks down barriers. We hope to inspire people to re-think how their own societies could be improved, and what they can do to start making change. As well as being online, the discussion can also be had in a controlled environment, such as in a classroom, between a small group of people.

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Zumra Nuru, Awra Amba’s founder

You recently arranged some previews of the Awra Amba experience in London and invited feedback through discussions and via Twitter – what was the thinking behind this? How did it influence the over all output?

It is not easy to pitch an interactive documentary to a ‘mainstream’ audience because it is a new way of storytelling that most people haven’t heard of. The same question is always asked “why did you not make a feature length film”? So we invited friends, colleagues, supporters, NGO representatives, bloggers and journalists to watch and understand what we are working on, so that they feel empowered to share the project within their networks, helping us grow our audience.

The feedback from the screenings also helped us identify the areas which we need to work on more to make the user experience better, easier to understand and more engaging. 

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You decided to crowd fund the last part of the interactive documentary – what pushed you to do this and how had the project been funded up to this point?

Crowd-funding is one of the trickiest ways of financing your project. You are really opening yourself up in public and have to be very aware of how you come across to lots of different people. You also have to be able to take and respond to criticism in a timely manner. It’s a process that has taught us many things about audience engagement, building a community around your project / issue, and it has even helped us shape the project and define our core audience.

“[Crowd-funding] has even helped us shape the project and define our core audience”

We decided to run a campaign after we had tried all possible avenues for financing the iDoc. We have come a long way already, and need only a small amount to finish it so that we can launch it online. The development and production of the project has been financed primarily by the Fledgling Fund in the US, along with a grant from the Finnish AVEK and CBA Worldview. Last year we also did a short crowd-funding campaign in Finland.

What do you think the differences are, in terms of funding and support, between making an interactive documentary and making a linear one?

The problem is there are no clear financial models for interactive documentaries. When pitching the project, we were always asked if it was a website designed to complement a TV or feature doc. As iDoc makers, I believe that we need to look beyond the traditional film financiers and explore new industries, such as social entrepreneurship funds, publishing, arts, technology etc. iDocs are a new emerging genre, and the beauty is that you can get really creative, by mixing technology with art, traditional documentary film and build in social change goals, that is why I think we can not limit ourselves to only documentary funding.

“The problem is there are no clear financial models for interactive documentaries.”

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From your experiences, is crowd funding something you would try for other projects in the future?

I think it’s something you can do only once if you’re asking for money from your closest friends, family and colleagues. If you have a community who are supporting any project you do, such as Timo Vuorensola’s Iron Sky, I think it’s possible to crowd fund repeatedly. But that means you are really pre-selling your next project to your existing fans and that fan base needs to be huge. 

The funding campaign for this project finishes this Friday and every little really helps as it’s running on a flexible funding model – so everything raised will go towards making this interactive documentary a reality:

We would like people to take a few minutes to watch our trailer, which explains the project in a nutshell, and share the link far and wide with their friends, family and colleagues to help us bring out this globally significant story and start conversations that can inspire us all to change our own societies for the better.

Follow this link to find out more and fund the Awra Amba Experience: http://igg.me/at/awraamba 

About the Author

Jess Linington

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Jess manages the i-Docs website as well as contributing articles and interviews. She also runs the associated social media channels, such as the i-Docs Twitter, Facebook page and Scoop.it. If you would like to speak to her about contributing something to i-docs.org or be interviewed about a project, get in touch at idocsinterative[at]gmail.com

Jess LiningtonThe Awra Amba Experience: collaboration, crowd-funding and community