Released at the end of 2016, ‘The World in Ten Blocks‘ is still attracting attention in the interactive documentary field, featuring in the Alternate Realities Exhibition at this years Sheffield Doc/Fest.
The project explores the stories of immigrant entrepreneurs in Toronto’s Bloorcourt neighbourhood through an i-doc that weaves together photos, video and text with a first-person perspective that places you on the streets on Bloorcourt. Presented in partnership with The Globe and Mail, Ten Blocks celebrates diversity by diving into the history of immigration in the neighbourhood
I caught up with the creators, Robinder Uppal and Marc Serpa Francoeur co-founders of Lost Time Media, to find out more.
How did ‘The World in Ten Blocks’ come about? Can you tell me about the history of the project?
As the children of immigrants, many of the themes explored in the project have long been very close to our hearts. ‘The World in Ten Blocks’ actually began as our joint thesis work in the Documentary Media MFA program at Ryerson University in Toronto, for which we originally moved to the city. The documentary is set in the community where we both lived when we started the project, and having gotten to know a few of the immigrant small business owners in the neighbourhood and heard their incredible stories, the idea for the project started to percolate. After producing a 34 min linear film, we began working in earnest on the interactive experience after graduation in mid-2013.
“Making the documentary is just one part of the process; finding an audience is a huge challenge in its own right, and often even the best-funded work falls very flat in this area.”
Making the documentary is just one part of the process; finding an audience is a huge challenge in its own right, and often even the best-funded work falls very flat in this area. As independent producers working in the still relatively unknown realm of interactive doc, we felt that a “media partner” with an established audience who could promote and distribute the project would be a huge hand up for us. Looking at the Canadian media landscape, The Globe and Mail seemed the best fit, especially because we wanted to reach audiences not just in Toronto but across the country.
As emerging creators without much of a track record, we were fortunate that the folks at The Globe were willing to give us a chance, especially given the lack of precedent for a partnership like ours (i.e. it’s the first major i-doc they’ve hosted). While they didn’t fund the project, we see a lot of potential for independent creators and media organizations, big and small, to partner in the delivery of in-depth documentary content that goes far beyond the scope of traditional news coverage.
I really like the first person perspective that provides the transition between stories – can you tell me a bit about the design process? Did you take inspiration from any other i-docs you’ve seen?
The World in Ten Blocks uses a variety of media to explore the stories of ten immigrant small business owners as well as numerous historic and community “hotspots” in Toronto’s Bloorcourt neighborhood. We wanted the site’s interactivity to be as accessible and simple as possible, and so decided early on that scrolling would be the basic means of navigation. Another goal was to keep the aesthetic clean and uncluttered, allowing the content to be the user’s main focus.
One way in which The World in Ten Blocks stands out from other interactive documentaries is its compatibility across an unusually wide range of both desktop and mobile devices (including Android and iOS). Despite the dramatic increase in complexity on the coding front, we made the decision early on to deliver on mobile, given that’s where roughly half of all web traffic is now. Owing to the vast number of screen sizes and types of devices that the project would be experienced on, we had to accept limits on how precisely we could control the positioning and layout of some elements. Coming from a filmmaking background, surrendering this control was a difficult but necessary step.
Many i-docs made an impact on us as we developed the project, including Hollow, Welcome to Pine Point, Out My Window, and Love Your Neighbour, just to name a few.
“Our genuine sense is that the project has helped many people gain a deeper understanding of how immigration has made a positive, lasting impact not only in Bloorcourt, but more broadly in Canada and beyond.”
How has the project been received in Toronto? Have the residents of Bloorcourt seen it?
Since its launch, tens of thousands have explored The World in Ten Blocks, and many people have taken the time to share their thoughts and reactions, the depth and appreciation of which has been quite overwhelming for us. Our genuine sense is that the project has helped many people gain a deeper understanding of how immigration has made a positive, lasting impact not only in Bloorcourt, but more broadly in Canada and beyond. When we started the project we had no idea how much more divisive and pivotal the issue of immigration would become by the time we finished it (and we launched a couple weeks after the US election!). In Canada, we unfortunately live under the shadow of the behemoth to the south, but in the age of Trump, we do take some small solace that our project works to create empathy where it is so sorely needed.
We’d like to think that most everyone in Bloorcourt knows the project at this point. In addition to the partnership with The Globe and Mail, the project had its World Premiere just down the street as part of Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival and we also staged a special live event and community celebration in one of the participant businesses as part of Nuit Blanche Toronto [check out photos from the event here]. The project will continue to be exhibited at a number of local events, galleries, and festivals, including a six-week installation as part of Making Peace (a multi-year international traveling exhibition) that will be up until the end of June.
Was there an aim for the project beyond capturing the local histories?
One thing that has always been very important to us is to have the project seen and used in schools. To that end, we’re really excited to have embarked on an ambitious outreach and knowledge mobilization program that focuses on junior and senior high school students, and utilizes the project to explore diversity, foster inclusivity, and engender appreciation for the historical contribution of immigrant communities to Toronto. We have some stellar collaborators on board who will take the helm to produce an educational guide for use in the classroom, and develop educator- and community-oriented workshops and presentations. We’ve even had a number of educators get in touch who have already started using the project in their classrooms going back to soon after the launch at the end of 2016, which is very exciting!
You’re at Sheffield Doc/Fest this year with the project in the Alternate Realities line up amongst a sea of VR work – are you tempted to experiment with VR for documentary storytelling in the future, or will you stick with online interactives?
While VR isn’t out of the question for us, it’s not something we’re working on right now. On a basic practical level, one of us (Marc) wears glasses that pretty much get in the way of enjoying the things, doesn’t care for the physical experience of wearing a goggle rig, and then tends to get nauseous when he does (lame, we know). That said, we (especially Robinder) are keen to see how the form develops vis-à-vis the creation of compelling documentary narratives, and if we find ourselves working on a project for which a VR film would be the best fit for the content, that’s something we would certainly explore.
Do you have any plans to make more interactive documentaries in the future, or are you working on anything at the moment? Tell me about upcoming projects!
We’re definitely going to continue working in the interactive realm, but we’re also passionate about pursuing our love for linear films.
A new project that we’re about a year and a half into focuses on a police abuse incident and its legal aftermath. It’s set in Calgary, which is where we’re from originally (Canada’s fourth largest city, way out west where the prairie meets the mountains). The vision is for a serialized multimedia web piece that will be more reportage and a less immersive experience than Ten Blocks, although there’s something of a through-line content-wise as the victim is a young immigrant. Our concept is to offer various levels of engagement: short videos that cover the main beat of a given instalment, with more expansive materials (documents, audio-visuals, etc.) for those that want to dive deeper. In some ways, the project feels like an obvious direction for us as we’ve long been interested in exploring the shortcomings of our civic institutions, and feel that narrowing in on this particular story will shed light on some of the profound dysfunction of a law enforcement and legal system that lacks fundamental safeguards to prevent the abuse of power.
We’re also just about to launch the last instalment of League of Exotique Dancers Interactive, the interactive companion piece to the feature doc of the same name that opened Hot Docs 2016. It was a very different experience for us in contrast to Ten Blocks, for example, which was our own creative output from the get-go and focused on content that we felt very close to on a personal level. This project presented a different challenge in that we were hired hands who were handed a corpus of material to work with (video, personal archives, score, etc.) and asked to come up with something compelling… which we think we did! Check it out at exotiqueinteractive.com.
Check out The World in Ten Blocks at Sheffield Doc/Fest next week where it’s part of the Interactive section in the Alternate Realities Exhibition and is in the running for the Interactive Award! You can find out more about Marc and Robinder’s work here.