13 Tweets from 2013 – Revisited

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1. Snow Fall – wonderful interactive journalism.

The year started with the New York Times launch of the stunning Snow Fall. With photos, video and graphic visualisations seamlessly embedded within this in-depth story of an avalanche in Colorado, it felt like we were at last seeing what an interactive journalism might look where still and moving image, data and words are all given due weight. A few months later, in Firestorm, a story about a devastating bushfire in Tasmania, the UK’s Guardian offered another nicely-realised take on immersive news.

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Both Snowfall and Firestorm are exciting attempts to marry the values of photo-journalism and reportage in interactive form. But the resource investment required to make one of these pieces means that they are likely to remain exceptional within the output of even prestige digital news operations.

2. The lives of women who make lesbian porn. Just 10 viewers per day. Tickets @ $10.

Spring saw the latest offering from the master of online storytelling, Jonathan Harris – I Love your Work – an interactive documentary about “the realities of those who make fantasies…” For a while Harris had turned his back on the algorithmic creations which had made his name (We Feel Fine, I Want You to Want Me), and devoted himself to Cowbird – a project all about authorship, curation and individual voice. I Love Your Work in a sense brings the computer scientist and the artist back together – with Harris filming and also imposing a machine-like structure on his material. The result consists of over 2,000 10-second clips, taken at five-minute intervals over 10 consecutive days. It’s a teasing exploration of voyeurism and exhibitionism with the viewer required to pay for a time slot to access an observational documentary experience which is then constantly and arbitrarily interrupted. In November it won the IDFA DocLab Award. I Love Your Work is clever, but it left me puzzled about where Harris’s heart was in this subject.

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3. This Vine of protests in Rio is incredible

It’s hard to believe that Vine launched on Twitter less than a year ago. While just one filming app in a growing market Vine’s elegant touch screen controls, constrained 6 second offering and effortless publication mechanism have proved irresistible for fashionistas, magicians, animators and documentarists alike. While people explored these possibilities (see the examples in this CBS News round-up and the Tribeca Festival selection from April), Vine’s power for instant witness is encapsulated by this capture by Lucio Amorim, which was hugely retweeted, of the mass protests that hit Brazil in the early Summer over the rising cost of living and expense of the 2014 World Cup. Vine featured again, along with Twitter and Instagram, in documentation of Turkey’s Summer protests. (See Global Post roundup.)

4. Documentary / Public Space / American Futures

June saw the launch of Hollow, Elaine McMillion’s ambitious, beautifully realised participatory i-doc about post-industrial life in McDowell County, West Virginia. Telling a common story of rural America through one community, Hollow has received awards and much deserved attention. I interviewed McMillion and wrote about Hollow in July, considering it alongside Question Bridge – the two projects representing what I see as the most promising trend in digital documentary – collaborative, iterative, media-making as public space.

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5. “The Poetic Potential of Connected Things”

Summer brought talking cranes, post boxes and lamp posts to the Harbourside in Bristol, my home town. Produced in a collaboration between PAN Studio, Tom Armitage and Gyorgyi Galik,  Hello Lamp Post pulled off a light touch tech approach – enabling passers-by to converse with Bristol’s street furniture via text. All sorts of people tried it, and discovered the stories that other people had left behind.

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Hello Lamp Post was a nice foray into a kind of work we’re going to be seeing much more of – storytelling through responsive and connected objects. The NY Times R & D Lab has been experimenting within this space for some time, and Alexis Lloyd the Lab’s Director, recorded for The Future of Storytelling conference in NYC this Autumn, is fascinating on these “object narratives” and “the poetic potential of connected things”.

6. Documentary or News? Time.com brings us Red Border Films

In August, Time.com came at the challenge of online news from an interesting new direction. Taking advantage of a newly emerging creative force – photographers evolving into filmmakers in the context of digital – Red Border Films offers of a short film a month, made by a photographer / film maker. Judging by the early output which included Healing Bobby, directed by Peter van Agtmael, an arresting story about a severely wounded Iraq veteran turned stand-up comedian, this looks like a smart strategy. These rich media photo essays have a power and visual flair that brings a new quality to the world of short form video. Red Border Films provides what could be one sustainable answer to the question of what digitally native high end journalism looks like.

7. Engrossed in Deirdre Boyle’s “Subject to Change”

In the Summer I caught up with this thoroughly researched, astute account of 60s and 70’s US guerrilla television – written by Boyle, a participant of the movement, looking back in 1997.  Subject to Change‘s story of the failure of this current in alternative media is required reading for those interested in today’s experiments in documentary participation with purpose.

8. RIP Michel Brault – filmmaker & pioneering cinematographer 

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September saw the death of Michel Brault who was a central figure in the development of documentary half a century ago. Brault was experimenting with hand held sync sound in Canada in the late ’50s. Jean Rouch invited him to come to Paris and shoot Chronique d’un Ete / Chronicle of a Summer using this new technique. The film brought a new kind of documentary material into being, reflecting Paris life in a way that hadn’t been done before, and raised questions about the forms of truth offered by documentary that are still debated today. That moment of innovation was as disruptive for documentary as our own time of rapid technological change is proving to be. My own project Searching for Happiness which launched in May this year takes that moment and that film as a starting point. ( For context – see my post from December.) Brault’s experimentation has a legacy today when, through the forward-thinking commissioning of the NFB and Arte France, Canada and Paris are again key sites of innovation in our own moment of documentary evolution.

9. The Future Starts Here – AOL originals. Shareable media from @tiffanyshlain

Shlain has been thinking about how filmmaking changes in the context of the network for some time – see her Cloud Filmmaking Manifesto ( discussed in my 2012 post, delivered at Tribeca Interactive in April.) While revenue models for online documentary video remain elusive Shlain was commissioned this year by for their AOL Originals video portal. Another sign of short form online documentary coming of age.

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10. IDFA Interactive Conference kicks off. Sarah Wolozin launches the MIT _docubase
IDFA’s Interactive Reality Conference in Amsterdam on the last weekend of November was the occasion for Wolozin, Director of MIT Open Doc Lab to launch their new project –_docubase. A collection of around 140 projects, “that both exemplify and press the limits of the documentary in its many new forms”, the _docubase is designed to offer an ongoing record of emerging work with users participating in defining and curating the field. It’s a precious resource, and I’m honoured to join Arnau Gifreu, Jessica Clark, Caspar Sonnen, Patricia Aufderheide, and Katerina Cizek as one of the first-round curators who have provided playlists and commentary on the collection.

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11. @BBCNews team in Bangkok, Thailand uses a drone to show size of protests. 

Cameras gave us new points-of-view this year. With them came ethical issues.

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Footage filmed from a flying eagle looked awesome. (Thanks Ingrid Kopp who showed this in her Power to the Pixel talk this Autumn.) Robot film makers – Blabdroid – charmed secrets from interviewees. Film makers raised funding for Project 2 x 1, the first Google Glass documentary, on Kickstarter. (Aiming “to facilitate more inter-community dialogue” between the Hasidic and West Indian Communities of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, the film makers see this technology as “less intrusive” – but is that just covert filming by another name?) The first BBC report filmed from a drone felt troubling. (In this case the protesters welcomed the coverage; what if they were endangered by it?)

12. Congratulations to @TheActofKilling – @guardianfilm of the year!

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Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary film bagged the number one slot for a documentary and deserves the accolades. Taking the Rouchian model of participant performance in an unexpected and shocking direction, the leaders of the death squads, who murdered en masse in an anti-Communist purge in Indonesia almost fifty years ago, re-enact those killings, for which they have never been required to answer. The Act of Killing is an uncomfortable watch. The violent deaths being enacted are horrific. You also feel moral disquiet about going along with these characters as they relish the spotlight, and feel manipulated by their faux repentance. Oppenheimer had tried and failed to make a film telling the victims’ stories because their families are still unable to speak out. The perpetrators were the only ones able to bear witness to events. So Oppenheimer took that opportunity. He wanted to make a film that would change that situation, shifting the discourse both within Indonesia and internationally, to enable a reckoning with this bloody history. Though the film wouldn’t pass a formal censorship process within Indonesia it has been widely seen in public and private screenings there, and at numerous screenings around the world. The C4 / BritDoc  evaluation of the film’s impact is unequivocally positive. It looks like Oppenheimer’s audacious strategy has paid off.

13. A limited number of Special Early Bird tickets for i-Docs 2014 are available!

After a break in 2013 the i-Docs Symposium is back in Bristol UK on March 20th and 21st.. There’ll be a stellar line up including William Uricchio (MIT OpenDoc Lab), Hank Willis Thomas (Question Bridge), Kate Nash (University of Tasmania), Francesca Panetta (Firestorm) and Elaine McMillion (Hollow) plus a live screening of Choose Your own Documentary. If you are interested in developments in interactive documentary it’s an event not to miss. The full programme will be announced on i-Docs in the new year.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year!