Interview | Crowdfunding Fearless: An interactive documentary on sexual harassment

FEARLESSWith nearly 800 film & video projects currently looking for funding on Kickstarter, getting yours noticed can be tough. However this interactive documentary by Avni Nijhawan really caught my eye. Focusing on daily sexual harassment in India, Fearless looks to go beyond the headlines to really show what it’s like to be a young women in urban India.

The idea for the project is to create a “choose-your-own-adventure” style documentary that will live online. As the user, you’ll navigate the streets of urban India and go from one place to another, simulating the experience a young Indian woman might have during the course of her daily routine.

You’ll have to make some choices about your mode of transportation, whether than means the train, the bus, or something else (like a rickshaw). You’ll encounter harassers — and confront them. Along this journey, you’ll also get to meet real people (from young women to police to activists) from all backgrounds who will share their personal experiences with sexual violence.

I spoke to Avni about her project and her experiences of crowdfunding so far. But first of all I wanted to know how she’d been introduced to the field of interactive documentary…

“I don’t think I’ve really heard much about interactive documentaries as an entire field because it is still quite small. But I was introduced to Journey to the End of Coal at UC Berkeley, and that was probably one of the first things that got me thinking about different ways to use video.”

Why make an interactive documentary?

“It’s time to go beyond the headlines and beyond just-the-facts stories about routine sexual violence in India. This is a creative, interactive project that tries to show what it’s really like for a young woman in urban India to accomplish the simple task of getting from one place to another– whether that’s on a train, bus, or just walking down the street. What environmental and social forces contribute to the violence that seems to be increasing, particularly in public places? And what does it mean to be “fearless,” as the victim of the Delhi gang rape was called?

These larger issues aren’t new. In fact, sometimes we hear so much about violence against women that we forget what the impact is on real human beings. That’s why I’m creating a first-person, interactive documentary: An experience where YOU get to walk around a city, take local transportation, encounter harassers and make some real-life decisions. I’m hoping this new, creative format will engage people and rekindle interest in a subject that is often so inscrutable or overwhelming that we withdraw completely.


I could have decided to make a traditional documentary on this subject and it would have worked since this is such a salient issue right now. At the same time, we’re being flooded with video and print stories about harassment about this and I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing. It’s like tapping a fish tank too much– at some point, we just start to ignore it. An interactive documentary has the potential to shake people up by giving them a new kind of experience, hopefully one that brings them closer to the people — women and men — actually affected by this issue.

Coming from a gaming background hasn’t hurt, either. I grew up on PC games (plenty of educational adventure games) and consoles like the N64. I’ve moved on to the PS3 and mobile games now, but the motivation to play is the same: It’s fun, challenging, and rewarding. The thing is, educational games are a lot easier to accept and digest as a kid. If we can figure out a way to effectively teach adults a thing or two while they’re immersed in a delightful interactive experience that isn’t didactic, we’ll have really innovated storytelling.”

How has planning for an interactive documentary differed from a linear one?

“In our traditional video classes, we’re advised to “shoot like an editor.” This is even more true with a choose-your-own-adventure film because you have to think about how you’re going to change someone’s point of view. Where is the user going to want to look? How will this transition into a cut scene? It’s tricky and requires extra prior planning.”

I also spoke to Avni about her reasons for using Kickstarter and her experiences of the platform so far…

“I chose Kickstarter because it has more name-recognition than other crowdfunding sites, and it seemed to me to make sense to use a non-traditional platform to fund a non-traditional documentary. As a student at UC Berkeley, I’m also applying for travel grants but they’re competitive and not guaranteed. Using Kickstarter hasn’t really affected the process of making the documentary [but] there have been some challenges with Kickstarter, though. They rejected the project twice, stating that projects can’t be used “to raise money for a cause” or “to raise awareness.” I found this quite surprising since there’s no mention of this in their terms and documentaries inherently “raise awareness.” There have also been several projects on Kickstarter that do appear to raise money for a cause, so I think Kickstarter needs to be a lot more consistent and clear about what they mean. For the record, this is a journalism project and the money is going towards production costs.

However despite these initial issues, funding for the project is well underway, with just over a third pledged already and 17 days to go. I asked Avni about how this process worked so far:

“On the funding side, it’s all about mobilizing people to action. The hardest part is getting the right people to know that the project exists. In my experience so far, most people who hear about  the project are really interested and willing to donate or at least share the project on their social networks. One time, all it took was sitting down with someone for 10 minutes, showing them the project page, and she pledged $25 on the spot. Witnessing the generosity of friends and strangers alike has been an incredibly humbling experience. On that note, crowdfunding a project puts more pressure on the content creator to do a great job because there are so many people expecting a project worth their money.”

Avni has 17 days to go on her Kickstarter, if you would like to share or back the project click here.

People’s experiences of Kickstarter (and other crowd funding sites) really interests me, specifically projects that are utilising the still relatively new field of interactive documentary, as explaining the concept to potential backers could put people off as linear documentaries are easier to comprehend. With this in mind, have you had an i-Doc project successfully crowdfunded? What was your formula for success? On the flip side, was your project unsuccessful? What do you think went wrong?