A Filmmaker-in-Residence

Good news this week from Cannes, where  Katerina Cizek / Gerry Flahive‘s ‘Out my Window’ was the deserving winner of a Digital Emmy for non-fiction at MIP-TV. I’ve enthused about this National Film Board of Canada interactive documentary project here a number of times. (Nov ’10, Jan ’11). It’s the first output from Highrise, “a multi-year, multimedia project” exploring “vertical living in the global suburbs”, which brings the stories of people in highrise communities vividly to life in a web based interactive format.

We had hoped the project director Kat Cizek might be able to present her work at the recent DCRC iDocs Symposium. In the end she couldn’t be there, but Sandra Gaudenzi talked to her a few weeks ago on Skype for the iDocs blog. (Also see the substantial consideration of “Out my Window” that Sandra wrote on her Interactive Documentary blog.)

Watching Kat Cizek  you get a feel for some of the factors that contribute to the success of ‘Out my Window’.  The iterative process – where research leads the thinking about approach – is key to the great fit between form and content. It’s clear that Cizek is an impressive digital producer with a fluency across platforms and technologies, but interactive production is very much about team work and she’s evidently also part of a great creative team.

The commissioning context is really important here too, though. It’s pretty unusual for a commissioner to make a substantial investment in an experimental project with undefined outputs (though that was, it’s worth mentioning, just what happened on BBC 2’s Video Nation project, and was, without doubt, key to why it worked. But that’s another story…) In the case of Highrise, it demonstrates the National Film Board of Canada’s faith in Cizek, and their grasp of non-linear production. For Highrise is one project in an extraordinary body of interactive documentary work that the National Film Board has commissioned. (The NFB were marketing 14 interactive projects at this year’s MIP-TV.) Have a look on their portal. Explore Pine Point or Holy Mountain. These are intelligent works that take advantage of what the web can do to explore the complexities of life now.

More than that, the NFB have invested in the development of digital documentary as a social practice, and Katerina Cizek is crucial to this story. Back in 2002, Cizek, who has described herself as a “social-justice documentarian”, had explored the democratising potential of the camcorder in “Seeing is Believing”, a film made with Peter Wintonick . So, when the the NFB had the idea to revisit their Challenge for Change project in the digital age by appointing a Filmmaker-in-Residence, it was Cizek they approached.

Challenge for Change was a pioneering NFB participatory media project that started in 1967, in which filmmakers worked in partnership with marginalised communities, not just to reflect their situations, but to change them. 145 films were made within the project which was the inspiration for Public Access TV projects including the BBC’s Community Programmes Unit.

In 2004 the NFB recruited Katerina Cizek, who embedded herself with the health care community at St Michaels, an inner-city hospital in Toronto, and set about reinventing the Challenge for Change model as a digital project – as what she called “Interventionist Media.” You can see what happened in “The Seven Interventions of Filmmaker-in-Residence“, a film charting the five year process. Watch it. It’s inspiring. There’s also a DVD box set that came out of the project, that I haven’t seen yet. In the words of Jacqueline Wallace, who interviewed Cizek in 2010 for CINER (the Concordia Interactive Narrative & Research Group),  “The resulting work is nothing short of a multimedia juggernaut and includes several films, a photo exhibit, a filmmaker’s blog, and a web documentary that exemplifies non-linear narrative and the possibilities it represents to tell the stories of real people and create real change.”

Out my Window is, then, very much a continuation of Cizek’s energetic engagement with the possibilities of non-linear, with documentary for social change and with participatory and collaborative processes. It’s also a triumph in terms of its realisation – with evocative soundscapes, rich 360 photography, and flashes of animation brought together through apt, engaging visual navigation. [Do we yet have a good term for that ‘bringing together’, that process of montage in interactive production?]

So, congratulations to Cizek and the team. Do check out the latest, Participate section of Out my Window, which artfully presents photo contributions gathered through a Flickr group. It includes a stunning sequence of images that witness the Egyptian Revolution as seen from a window in Alexandria in February.

I’m going to be really interested to see how the Highrise project will evolve from here. Right now, I’ll leave you with the Manifesto for Interventionist Media that Cizek wrote while working with the community at St Michael’s. (It comes from the Filmmaker in Residence blog – Cizek talks about it in the video above.) It’s a great document – a blueprint for a socially engaged documentary practice.

Filmmaker-in-Residence Manifesto

  • The original project idea and goals come from the community partner.
  • The filmmaker’s role is to experiment and adapt documentary forms to the original idea. Break stereotypes. Push the boundaries of what documentary means.
  • Use documentary and media to “participate” rather than just to observe and to record. Filmmaker-in-Residence is not an A/V or a PR department.
  • Work closely with the community partner, but respect each other’s expertise and independence.
  • Use whatever medium suits – video, photography, world wide web, cell phones, ipods or just pen and paper. It can all be documentary.
  • Work through the ethics, privacy and consent process with your partners before you begin, and adapt your project accordingly. Sometimes it means changing your whole approach – or even dropping it. That’s the cost of being ethical.
  • The social and political goals – and the process itself — are paramount. Ask yourself every day: why are you doing this project?
  • Always tell a good story.
  • Track the process, the results and spend time disseminating what you’ve learned with multiple communities: professionals, academics, filmmakers, media, general public, advocates, critics and students.
  • Support the community partner in distribution and outreach. Spend 10% of the time making it and 90% of the time getting it out into the world.