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Points of view: putting occupied territories on the (interactive) map

In All posts, Interviews by Jess Linington

Points of View, the interactive documentary produced by Zohar Kfir, gives the viewer an incredible insight into the daily lives of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories.

The basis for project is video footage from B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. In 2007, B’Tselem began giving Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza video cameras as well as basic training in shooting and editing. Their hope was that the resulting video would allow Palestinians themselves to not only document the infringement of their rights, but also to present their the anger, pain, joy, and hope of their daily lives to both Israelis and to the international public.  As an Israeli filmmaker, Zohar became aware of this footage and worked with the organisation to bring it into the public eye.

I caught up with Zohar to find out more about the project, her reasons for making an interactive piece and her hopes for the future.

In another interview with Kill Screen, you stated that: “It was obvious that it was not going to be a linear documentary. I didn’t want people to watch a predetermined narrative with one or two conclusions made by the director.” Could you expand on this? Why was this so important for your project?

My main inspiration for creating this project was to highlight and increase exposure to B’tslem’s Camera Project, so creating a web platform that could be widely distributed was of utmost importance. It was clear to me from the beginning that the footage was too charged to be incorporated into a work that was too artistic or traditional.

The Btselem archive is comprised of highly complex snapshots, some with violent content and others with testimonies that can be difficult to watch; as well, it was the type of material that is often stripped of subtlety and dimension when it is inserted into media accounts.

After considering a number of possible approaches, I decided to embed the footage in a map-based interface, which offered viewers the freedom to either browse the clips randomly or follow pre-determined video trails that are connected via events and tags.

The map interface for Points of View

The map interface for Points of View

The video trails — which are a major part of the project’s design —offer viewers a way to learn more about particular events or areas, but also allow them to make their own connections, creating non-linear narratives that resist the fixed conclusions that can be provoked by linear documentary filmmaking.

Another important aspect of the project design was the construction of a database-driven authoring system that could dynamically expand so more videos are posted in the future, as this is an ongoing documentary. Overall, my wish was to expand the linear, fixed approach of traditional documentary film making and create an ongoing interactive documentary that both situates the footage in its location and time of origin and creates new narrative threads of meaning from the stories that emerge over time.

There is consistent ongoing research and evaluation over the definition ‘interactive documentary’ and what makes a project interactive. In a recent interview with Ingrid Kopp, she addressed this question in relation to some other recent projects stating: “I also realize that some people will not see these projects as truly interactive because you can’t change what happens in them (like you would be able to in a game or choose your own adventure experience for example). I like the word “interactive” however, because it’s nice and elastic and I don’t think we should be too restrictive in our definitions as we are experimenting with new forms.” 

In regards to your project, there was a point raised on Twitter that the interactive element of the site was simply ‘clicking around’, without proper user engagement – how would you respond to this? What makes your work an interactive web documentary? 

It’s interesting as I was just reading the interview with Ingrid Kopp this past week and this was the paragraph I resonated with the most—It is not necessary to define works that explore new forms but rather appreciate the novel ways in which artists, technologists and thinkers explore story-telling nowadays; by using cutting-edge technologies and innovative interactive design approaches that draw viewers into a unique viewing experience.

Interactivity can be defined widely; it is indeed elastic. Overall I see it as the experience offered with any given interaction. So in that sense simply “clicking around” between the videos on the map might be the engagement the work presents at first, but as the majority of our online experience is comprised mainly of clicking, to reach information or make things happen.

The essence of the project lies beyond that– as the content, the usability design and the fact that this is an evolving work offer viewers the means to construct their own story lines and understandings and this engaging experience is where the interactivity exists.

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An example of some of the amateur footage used within the project.

You worked with volunteer-produced footage – was there a selection process? How did you find working with amateur footage, in particular the parts produced by children?

The Btselem archive is comprised mostly by footage shot by volunteers with not much training in video production and in many cases the situations/or incidents where the footage was filmed do not allow for a lot of planning (or even having a tripod…) so the videos are indeed not consistent in their quality and therefore few of them did not make the final rounds. The video archeology of the Btselem archive is quite fascinating to follow– shifting from DV tapes circa 2007 to small HDD cameras and cell phones (and gathering many broken cameras along the way). The earlier videos are definitely of lesser quality and needed more image correction and mastering work.

I find the videos filmed by the children the most effective as their immediate use of media and unique points of view is so direct, the way in which they re/present their everyday reality is fascinating, even though the content, as with most of the videos featured on the project is hard to watch.

The selection process involved establishing themes, locations and events that can construct a narrative trail; it is a collaborative decision making between the Btselem video department and myself. For example the Gaza trail comprised of videos filmed following Operation Cast Lead (2009)– a few communications students were asked to document everyday life around them and each student presented his or her personal take, so this was an obvious trail that is tied to an event and was intentionally produced. As another example, a video trail that will soon be uploaded to the project showcases checkpoints and the hardships they pose on everyday life in the occupied territories; it features videos from various locations and years.

You mention the project is heavily indebted to the Open Source software movement – could you tell me about the production process and why this was the case?

I wanted to develop this project as an open source project as it’s rooted deeply with other initiatives in the domain of human rights and video advocacy. It is contextualized within the ‘Video4Change’ movement and my wish is for other media groups or activists to be able to use or further modify the code to their own needs if they wish and offer a free license to the project’s back-end development.

The back and front-ends of Points of View consist of a custom coded application (Python, HTML 5 and WebGL) that took months to develop, and this is an effort I wish to share.

Zohar has kindly provided us with the backend view of the site. Part of her project's aims means ongoing videos are uploaded in an easily accessible way.

Zohar has kindly provided us with the backend view of the site. Part of her project’s aims means ongoing videos are uploaded in an easily accessible way.

What are your hopes for the future of the project? How is it going to be sustained online?

Since this is an ongoing project my hope is that in the future it will evolve into a curated archive of the Btselem video archive and showcase an in-depth look at life under the Israeli occupation over time, bringing these unique testimonies and Palestinian’s daily lives to both Israelis and to the international public.

Moving onwards the platform was designed to sustain hundreds of videos, so in 5 or 10 years I hope to possibly see a map populated with dozens of videos, trails and tags, turning the project into a visual and time-based evolving archive that can both be an interactive web doc as well as a platform for research and teaching.

Are you planning to make another interactive online piece in the future? What would your advice be to anyone looking to produce something like this?

Apart from Points of view I’ve worked mainly with single channel experimental video work and interactive installations, My only experience creating an interactive web work is a small net.art piece that was done pre-transmedia days. In that regard, Points of View was a big undertaking as I’ve never done anything in that scope before and I had to plunge right in.

These are definitely exciting times in the field on transmedia and interactive story telling; after I’ve dipped in the water, I am currently in preliminary stages of work on new and quite different web project, based on the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, which serve as a ground model for interactive story-tellers, this project is an exploration of non-linear narrative design, depicting found footage based materials (8mm home videos from the 40s-70s that I’ve collected from different sources).

My advice to anyone looking to produce something like this:

Concept/interactivity wise- Consult and show wireframes and initial designs to as many people as possible– not only people in the field (even your grandma!). Receiving varied input and having a space to brainstorm project usability really helped me clarify the design decisions before production started.

Sustainability- Make sure to develop your project with web technology that will be sustained in the near future so your work is more durable and lives longer -plugins, players & ancient technologies are out.

Promotion- The fact that we’re creating web-based projects makes it much easier to promote and reach wider audiences. Many film festivals are not ready yet to showcase transmedia projects, of course there are dedicated ones, but there are also many other venues such as media conferences and symposiums, in academic or art gallery settings, so its important to do keep all options open and conduct appropriate research to determine what is the best fit for your project.

Make sure you check out the project here and follow @pointsofview on Twitter to keep up with project updates, new video trails and more!