My day @ Doc/Fest

Every year, Sheffield welcomes la crème de la crème of the documentary world to its Doc/Fest – digital factual included. So for the past ten years, it has been a handy way for me to sense the evolution of the interactive factual market and reflect on where it might go next.

This year I could only go for one day and a half, so even if I have been efficient in seeing as much as I could, I am aware that my takeaways are going to be based more on intuition than deep analysis… so please, take the following with a pinch of salt.

My first impression: oh my God, VR is really taking over!

In this Doc/Fest edition, 17 VR projects were exposed, versus 9 interactive.  There were so many VR project that they had to migrate outside of their usual Milennium Gallery location. VR was in three locations: the Milennium Gallery, a yurt (the VR Campfire) and a Igloo (the VR Portal). This does not only mean that there was more VR than in the past, but also that it got more exposure: the yurt and the igloo were positioned in places of crucial passage, where linear documentary makers that would normally not bother visiting the interactive gallery could avoid it: this was “VR bonanza”. And guess what? It works! People were queuing for it, and it was nearly impossible to see it all.

My second impression is that VR for good is maturing.

Although most 360 movies still make me wonder why on earth we would want to see bad films that even make us motion sick, I have to say that some directors are really getting it right.

If being reduced to a turning head is normally more frustrating than fun for me, I found myself deeply moved by both Step to the Line (Ricardo Laganaro) and First Impressions (Francesca Panetta & Nicole Jackson).

In both these cases the editing has the right tempo, the voice over is informative and not patronizing, and, more important, there is a GOOD REASON to be a turning head (or as Mandy Rose would say “a ghost” in the scene).

First Impressions uses a voice over, and a radio playing in the background, to inform us about the latest research in neural development in infants: vision, colour and feelings develop by experiential stages and we need some months to be able to see properly and make sense of the stimuli our brain receives.

Placed at floor level we re-discover through the headset what our first images might have looked like – which is quite fascinating – and the fact that we are stuck in that position is for once totally justified. This makes sense story-wise (we only start being mobile by crawling past the six months of age), and from an emotional point of view: from the carpet where I as stuck the dog looks huge and threatening, the big brother looks scarily mobile and emancipated so that the parents become the only source of security. The genius moment in the piece is that you can (as a user) press a remote control and create a baby sound. It is only when placed on the floor, at the mercy of so many things that are bigger and more in control of their bodies that you are, that discovering that if you cry your mother is going to rescue you, brings you back to a very old memory. If I make a noise, my mother comes. I am not alone, I can effect my environment, I have agency, I exist within my world. I interact therefore I am.

Step to the Line VR

In Step to the Line, we are in a maximum security prison and participate to a workshop with prisoners and civil volunteers. Two lines on the floor allow participants to step to the line if a statement such as “I suffered abuse as kid”, “I heard gun shots in my neighborhood”, “I have a university degree”, “I committed a crime and was not caught” (etc.) are true. Unfortunately on one side of the line stand the vast majority of the black detainees, and on the other side the vast majority of the predominantly not-black volunteers. This time the camera (hence you) is placed in between the two lines, putting you in the embarrassing position where you feel like you have to move and take your place in this physical social-mapping. Although this 360 VR has no interactive options, its cuts, audio and camera position do build a narrative of personal questioning and positioning. I found it elegant in its use of embodied cognition through VR.

As Casper Sonnen (IDFA) said on Sunday during a public talk with Ingrid Kopp (Tribeca Film Festival) “VR works as a medium when it does not try to just duplicate reality, but mediates it giving us a space to reflect on it”.

What works in First Impressions is not that I feel as if I were a new born. Those days are long passed and it would be ridiculous to believe that wearing a headset transforms me in what I am not anymore. But using the headset to fire a forgotten emotion that I can now interpret through my adult’s eyes is really worth it.

In a different way, when I feels socially compelled to do as others are told during a workshop, and find my position within others, I cannot but step out from the narrative of the detainees and question how my background differs from theirs. It is because my body acts first and wants me to act within the group dynamics, while my mind knows I am not in a prison and notices my body impulses that a space of learning is created.

When VR does not try to recreate reality, but adds through narrative, sound and crafted editing a space of discovery, then I believe it becomes a very powerful medium.

There were also nine interactive projects selected this year – and by this I mean non-VR, ranging from web-doc, serious games, graphic novels to augmented reality. The public interest was not as high as in the VR room, maybe because most of the pieces are available online, or maybe because they feel “less new”, which I believe is a shame. Among those a little gem is My Grandmother’s Lingo, an Australian production.

Beautifully designed with stylized aboriginal animations, this piece uses little interaction, but an effective one: your voice. By making you repeat forgotten words from the Marra language, Anjelina Joshua keeps her grandmother’s lingo alive, through you. It is clearly the beauty of the animations and the poetry of the script that males this piece so fresh and sweet, but I also think that here again what the authors got right is the use of interactivity to position the user. By pronouncing strange words you make them yours, you taste them, you collaborate in Joshua’s mission in a ludic and light way.

The time where interactivity was mainly understood as branching narratives and choosing options seems behind us. Good stories are left to the craft of their narrators – sparing the effort to a user that might quit too quickly. What is now given to the user is the agency to contribute to the final aim of the project, keeping a language alive in the case of My Grandmother’s Lingo, or speaking back to three former “comfort women” in The Space we Hold, NFB’s latest courageous project on militarized sexual violence in the world.

Here the creators tell the tragic stories of three women and ask the user to keep pressing the hold the space bar on the keyboard to play the videos. A bit like when holding the hand of a friend to encourage her to speak while feeling supported by you, you become part of the action by asserting your presence.

Could the shift from “point and click” to “connect and support” interaction be the next big thing?

Sandra Gaudenzi