After 2 years of hard work, Upian (Gaza/Sderot, Prison Valley) has just released Alma.
This is not a story like others, nor an i-docs like others. Although it is a cross-media production (it is an iPad application, a website, a documentary, a book and an exhibition) it is one unique story made available on different platforms. No game, no story-world, no transmedia frenzy. Just an incredibly strong story that keeps you glued to whichever media you are using.
This is a confession – a long, incredible, unbearable and sometimes beautiful confession. It is the story of Alma that, since the age of 15, has been part of one of the most terrible gangs of Guatemala. The slow voice goes from one story of violence to another, describing with incredible clarity and sharpness the escalating logic of violence. The fear of death does not seem to bring any shadow on Alma’s beautiful face, a face that tells us how violence can be logic, accaptable – a system, a hierarchy of life for those who do not really have other options, or that at least are brought to believe so. A confession of family violence, of poverty, of intelligence, of cruelty, and of the need to feel strong not to be beaten up again – especially if you are a women. Survive or die.
For those sitting in front of their screen, who can hardly imagine how life can be so hard and unfair, Alma is a painful journey on how love and recognition can be found in the most improbable places. For those like me, who spend days hunting for sophisticated interactive experiences, the simplicity of Alma’s interface is a lesson of humility: it is all I could cope with while I was watching. A lesson of how less is more, even in interactive documentaries.
When the confession of Alma becomes just too much, a simple movement of the iPad (or an upward movement of the mouse) brings us to a parallel film, a film of images, photo-montages and illustrations. The voice stays there, as the only sound track, but one can escape from her face, like you would look elsewhere if a friend was pushing you too far.
But Alma does not go too far, she keeps you with her, she keeps digging in her life to the point that you wonder “why”… why taking this risk? why telling us, telling me, about all those people that could kill her any moment? How old is she? How old is this woman that had done it all by the age of 22? By the time you are asking those questions you know that you are already hooked. You care about her.
The beauty of Alma is that it is a tale of horror, and yet of hope and courage. The enhancement that interactivity can give to such story is just to be on its side, to allow you to go through this journey and, most of all, not to interfere. And yet, is there any value in the “top” film as a stand alone? No. Is there any need for it? Yes, 40 minutes of a single shot are hard to cope with. Are they working together? I do not know… I only know that I needed to go up and down between the two images… I needed to move, do something, react… and yet not totally oing away from her.
By the time Alma has spoken to you for 40 minutes you know more than what you want to know. By now you wonder how all this has been possible. By now you are ready to learn about Guatemala and the reasons of what seems unacceptable and inexplicable. And this is when Upian proposes you 4 Information Modules. Just when you need them. Just when they fit into your emotional journey. No enhanced content every two seconds that distracted you from the story while you were listening to her, no flashing highlights to tell you that there are hyperlinks, no live data coming from Wikipedia and BBC World informing you about what is happening right now in a country you know nothing about.
You have just spend 40 minutes with Alma. You needed those minutes to build an emotional context that makes the extra information suitable and useful. This information is then presented to you in the same style of what you have just seen in Alma’s top visual story. This is somehow reassuring, those guys from Upian are not letting you down after having punched you in the face. They seem to have a purpose. They seem to care about her, but about you too… because everybody feels a bit fragile by now…
I have felt as if someone had slapped me, and I wondered if it was necessary. I had doubts about such a hard impact style and about its possible migrations towards voyeurism. But now that I have finished watching I have the feeling it was tough, but at the same time subtle, respectful and loving. Upian has not used me for a sensational story. It has brought the story to me and allowed me to face reality by designing an environment that felt right for such eye opening.
This is what I call a mature project: where strength, message, design, interface and media merge together to become immersive, informational and meaningful. I have been slapped, but I would do it again and it was worth it.