epopee.me: an interview with Rodrigue Jean

epopee.me screenshotThe first time you take a look at Epopée.me,  it feels like this project is a very minimalist interactive documentary. In fact, the interaction goes beyond the digital world and expands into the streets of Montréal where marginalized people struggle to live their life. Rodrigue Jean, who started the project, tells us a bit more about Epopée.

I-docs.org: Can you tell us when, how, why and with whom the project started?

Rodrigue Jean: The project started 5 years ago during the shoot of «Men for Sale» — a documentary about sex workers in Montreal. Half way through the project, the men who were taking part in the documentary requested that we moved on to create another project which would be based on fiction. The team was more than willing to do so, as we were starting to feel awkward in the position of recording the«intensity» of the men’s lives. We could give something back by facilitating a process where stories and technical abilities could be shared. ‘Men for Sale’ had lasted for a year and a half followed by another year of editing. So immediately after I started raising money for the production of Épopée.

I-docs.org: The introduction says it’s an evolving project, can you tell us more about that?

RJ: Épopée is based on writing workshops held twice a week in a drop-in centre for sex workers. The participants come up with stories which are usually closely related to their lives. We work for about two months on each participant’s stories, teaching basic scriptwriting techniques as part of the process. The script is then put into production and goes online as soon as it is edited. Participants can view their work online as they start a new writing project.

I-docs.org: Have you planned new stories for 2012?

RJ: Épopée has been going on for twice as long as planned. Those participants who couldn’t write or did not want to, asked us instead to film them as they went about their daily activities. This was quite different from the approach of «Men for Sale», a documentary which interweaved narratives relying solely on speech. In «Men for Sale» participants were never seen selling sex or taking drugs. We felt that such exposure would be detrimental to them.

I-docs.org: There’s a very interesting story about how you created the logo, can you explain the creative process behind it and its meaning for the project?

RJ: In Montreal, as in many big cities in the world, zones of exclusion have being created. The pretexts are many: security, policing, health concerns, cultural rationales, etc. «Men for Sale» and «Épopée» take place in an area where, as well as shops and apartments, activities related to sex work, the commerce of drugs, gay bars and saunas are concentrated. People living on the street call this zone, «the box». Resource centers dealing with homelessness, drug use and HIV prevention are also situated in «the box». In this area of town, the police habitually impose an inordinate number of fines to people either living or spending a lot of time on the street. When a person has too many of those these fines a judge will issue an injunction to stop the person accessing the area. The expression to describe this situation is: «I’m boxed». Hence the rectangle at the start of each clip you view online.

I-docs.org: In epopee, fiction and reality are tightly connected, how did you manage to “play” with these very different registers?

RJ: The mix between fiction and documentary happens by itself — screenwriters are often acting in their own stories albeit not necessarily as their own «character». This same person might also appear in the documentaries in situations not unrelated to the fictions, etc.

I-docs.org: How did participants of the project react? Did-it provoke unexpected responses from them?

RJ: I think when you really get involved in any work — creative work — it has an effect on your life. Usually you also want to be better next time round. Having said that, psychoanalysis tells us that drug addiction bars access to symbolization. Since writing stories and making films is mainly about symbolization, one can imagine that «something happens» when a person gets involved in that process.

I-docs.org: How did you manage to engage participants in the creative process? Was it hard to convince them to play characters?

RJ: The acting part of the process is quite similar to the work we do with professional actors. Only here the actors don’t have to learn new tricks since the situations we film are always close to what the participants already know. It is more of a process of simplifying.

I-docs.org: The technology you’ve been using for the platform is HTML5, why didn’t you choose flash, did you have different versions of the site, what were the challenges in using that kind of technology.

RJ: Since Epopée is about accessibility and most popular browsers support HTML5, it seemed an obvious choice.

I-docs.org: The interface doesn’t relate to any kind of narrative form, as it’s usually the case with interactive documentaries, was this a choice?

RJ: I think more complex interactive narratives can arise for viewers when they are presented with open ended «events». Interaction in that sense seems to belong to the early days of the web. Isn’t the web now becoming a relay between life events? For a lot of people war has now moved from the video game to the street. Only it’s not a game anymore.

I-docs.org: The use of full screen video and minimalist design obviously reflects a “parti pris”; can you tell us more about that?

RJ: The intention was to create what we imagined could be a «cinema for the web». Epopee.me is a second version of Épopée. The first site was working with pop-ups as it is sometime used in porn adverts on the web. It was much more tricky to operate and we felt it belong to an earlier era of the web.

I-docs.org: What are the reactions so far to the project in terms of audience/participants/professionals/traffic?

RJ: The web was meant to be the first window for the project, followed by art gallery installations and screenings in cinemas. All this has happened in Quebec. We are now looking to bring the project to different cities.

I-docs.org: Did the project change the participants’ view on themselves? Can you elaborate on that notion?

RJ: Insofar as 30 persons whose lives are fairly unsettled have been dedicated to writing, acting and producing Épopée for the last two years. I would say that their lives have indeed been affected.

I-docs.org: If you wish to add anything else about the project or the people involved, please feel free to do so.

RJ: Épopée is also the result of 25 film technicians who have been coming together to create a situation which is out of the ordinary. They have not been in it for financial reward but for the sake of creating something as a group.

Take a look at Épopée.me