Jigar Mehta on 18 Days in Egypt

CollabDocs:             I’ll start by asking you to sketch your background as a documentary  maker.

Jigar Mehta:            I got involved in documentary filmmaking when I was quite young, probably in college, where I started actually interning at a local TV station, working on smaller format documentaries. At the time I was going to school as an engineer and I was working on this bicycle that was the world’s fastest bicycle – and my job was to actually create a documentary about that project.

And that was one of the ways I got hooked into this idea of telling the story of people going on a journey. It was kind of our own journey.  One thing led to another, that piece got pitched to a TV station, which got me interning, which got me connected with more people that were interesting to me than in engineering.

[To cut a] long story short, the people that were working on the TV show left that TV show to work on a long-format documentary, and that was my first real taste of working on something that was more than four minutes long.

That film was about a woman who adopted 11 children and each of the children had their own special needs, and the story was really about kind of a crazy year in their life. I worked on it as a cameraman, on sound, doing a lot of production, just really learning how to work in a small team on a film that was kind of evolving in real time, not something that we knew what we were setting out to do like back in the TV studio. And that film did great. It went on to premiere at Sundance and won a bunch of awards, an Emmy, premiered on HBO and what-not.

That really helped re-focus me, realising that I probably wasn’t going to work as an engineer; that I was going to take this documentary thing seriously. And it actually happened at Sundance where a friend on the project was, like, “If you’re serious about documentary you need to go study under Jon Else at Berkeley.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, that seems like a good idea.”

So I went to journalism school, which was a little bit different than the normal path; I went to a school of journalism which had a documentary programme. So that has had a huge impact on the kind of filmmaker and documentarian I’ve become, where I have a real grain of salt of journalism.

So I spent two years there and I was starting to dabble in the world of interactive storytelling, did some pieces for Frontline World at PBS, and the Oakland Tribune, just really looking at how to tell stories that were not just TV in a box but breaking it into components so people could go on a journey using the web as the medium.

I worked on another film after I came out of school that was a documentary directed by Jon Else which was called ‘Wonders are Many’. It was the story of the making of an opera, and the opera was about the making of the atomic bomb. So it was a nice blending of my engineering background and documentary film making.

But there was again this – taking me on this long, long journey of making these films – and I was realising that, I don’t know, maybe it was my short attention span, but I didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to make a long film because it was such an effort. Luckily that was the same time that the New York Times was running a video unit in-house and they were looking for young journalists, documentary filmmakers, people from television, to work as video journalists. Through a referral of a friend they’d seen my work and were kind of impressed with my ability to do a lot of things, to be able to shoot, edit, film, even do a little HTML coding at the time, so I got the job.

It was a great five years I spent there, working as a video journalist, really trying to push the boundaries, and trying to figure out, what is video journalism in a newspaper, on a website?

It’s kind of interesting, it’s a topic for another time, but we don’t really consider the New York Times a newspaper website anymore. It’s really a news site. And I like to think that video journalism, video storytelling, played a role in that too – not just in the way that we consume it, but in the mentality of the journalists who work there and how they approach their stories now.

So after five years I kind of definitely hit a point of – I don’t want to say frustration, but I was noticing the limits of what you could do in a big organisation where you have to ‘feed the beast’, you have to create content all the time, so it’s hard to innovate in that environment. And a lot of the innovation was not happening in the mainstream media. It was happening on the fringes. It was happening in independent media.

So I applied to go to Stanford University under the John S Knight Fellowship. It’s been around for 45 years, I think, and it used to be a place where journalists would go to have a year off, to just recharge their batteries. People joke that it was like a year of vacation, just hanging out at Stanford, learning some poetry, blah, blah, blah. But the Fellowship actually saw themselves as – in the heart of Silicon Valley, at the heart of this great university – having the ability to bring in journalists to work on real problems that are facing the industry, real projects and innovations that could further Journalism.

So I went there to work on a project about collaborative storytelling, collaborative journalism; how do we connect all these video journalists that are around the world, so that when there’s a story to do in China or in India, or even in Oklahoma, why are we flying people all around when we can be using these tools to collaborate on projects? They say they pick people not projects. So I had done some work [on this], and I thought it was a good idea and started working on that project while I was at Stanford. And right in the middle of [my time at] Stanford was the Egyptian Revolution.Right near the end there was this very clear imagery of me seeing so many people with cell phones during the Revolution documenting themselves in that moment.

So I thought, “Wow! Millions of people have been documenting their lives in some format, whether it’s email, Tweets, texts, videos, photos, what-not, during an incredible three weeks.” The original idea was, how could we create a documentary that would be more innovative using that media? And that’s where ‘18 Days in Egypt’ started.

It really started off as, “Can we crowd source all the material that would be the spine of the film?” in much the same way that Life in a Day did – like a traditional documentary crafted from social media or from contributions. Very soon in that process, we saw that there was a lot more potential for storytelling, that a person’s electronic footprint is the first draft of their own history, and it can create a really rich starting point for storytelling.

That’s authenticated too, because it’s like if I asked you, “Oh, well how did you feel during the London riots?” You’re like, “Oh, okay. Well, I stayed home and I wasn’t too scared” and X, Y and Z. But if we went back into your Twitter and you were actually at that time saying, “I don’t know where my family is”, that would bring back an emotion saying, “Wow!” I mean, now everything’s okay so we look back on it with rose coloured glasses, but if we can take you back to that moment of what you were actually feeling, because you did create that digital trail, it becomes a more authentic story. Furthermore, if we can tell that story together, if we were both there, then we’re actually fact-checking each other.

So with the Egypt project we’ve kind of made two turns, right? One turn is this idea that the media – any piece of media – is actually the tip of the iceberg of a much larger story. And two, if we get people to tell stories together that it’s the beginning of authenticating and validating.

Obviously people can work the system and submit fake stories but we really want to get to this point where people actually are, when they go through this process, actually creating a more authentic story.

CD:                  So you’re looking at that content both as a journalist and documentary maker. You’re looking at it through both those prisms.

JM:                  Yes, absolutely. I mean as a documentary filmmaker I want to be able to get the best stories out of people, and as a journalist I want to figure out ways to verify that information.

CD:                  You announced 18 Days in February / March, early in the year. What kind of team have come together to work on it?

JM:                  So it’s quite different from a normal documentary. My co-partner, Yasmin [Elayat], who you met, is a technologist, Her background is in interaction design and human interaction displays; [she’s done] a lot of work in museums. I’ve worked with coders, I’ve worked with multimedia artists, but not who’ve come from a world as deeply integrated as hers. So that’s really exciting. That’s really refreshing and pushing the bounds of what we can do with story.

CD:                  How did you find Yasmin?

JM:                  We were friends. She’s actually Egyptian, so she has a lot stronger personal connection to the story. So I was keeping in track with her, like what was going on with her family. I was actually looking for someone to build a website and I somehow roped her into the process. (Laughter)  She was totally into it. She quit her job in New York and moved back to Cairo to lead our team there. So we have developers in Cairo. We have a story producer based in New York, and we’re going to be bringing everyone together in Cairo next month. Now that we’ve got the Tribeca [New Media Fund] grant, too, we’re going to be hiring people, which is nice, to work on the project.

CD:                  In other words there been a lot of voluntary work on it to date?

JM:                  Yes, I mean everyone’s been bootstrapping on it.

CD:                So you’ve got that distributed team. And do you have a storyboarded, wire-framed project plan at this point?

JM:                Yes. For part of it, for the collection part of it.  It’s really a two-part project.

[Part] one is [about] the first user, who is the one who was there [at the time of the Revolution]. We’re – to use that Mozilla term – ‘turning makers into users’, or ‘users into makers’, whichever way it goes [laughter]. The first core set of users are the people who are going to be contributing to the project. So we’re in the process of building that out, that experience.

And then for the larger population, how we’re going to actually experience these stories, we’ve been playing around with Popcorn, [the authoring tool for “semantic video” – see CollabDocs Jan 11] prototyping things here and there, seeing what that would look like. We’re looking at other technologies as well. And this is more about the consumption of the stories. Like what do you do when someone has submitted a story? How does someone who’s not from that area actually fall into a narrative, build an emotional connection to a character?

CD:                So you’ve built an architecture for submissions. Let’s speak a bit more about that – that architecture and those relationships.

JM:                Yes. We’re really using public APIs and having people able to log into their various accounts to pull media fragments together.

We take people on a journey. We say, “Look, we want you to tell a story. This is the Egyptian history of this moment and we want you to help write it. So pick a moment to tell a story about.” And through that process we’re having people focus in on what moment they want to share.

Then they go into their Twitter and their Facebook and pull together information that they created at that time, or they upload videos and photos that support their story, and they submit [those] to the project. So it becomes part of that narrative.

They can also add text, audio or video on top of that, in a reflective sense. So what we’re doing right now, they could do that as well; record some audio that goes along with that story.

CD:                So you are creating a kind of mosaic out of particular moments told in quite a deeply descriptive way by particular individuals.

JM:                Yes, exactly. We’re doing that in two ways as well. One way is that we have the online platform which will let people do it on their own. But we realise that we also need to have a big visible presence on the ground.  And actually we know that a lot of people don’t have internet connections so we need to figure out a way to connect them to this project.

So we’re going to a) have upload parties all around Cairo and throughout the country, where we’ll bring people together in like a spot with good Wi-Fi, get people together, get them in the mood, pump them up, like “This is what we’re doing” and “Let’s do it!” It’s like a hackathon but a “storyathon”, right?

Then the second way we’re doing it is we’re actually working on developing a Fellowship programme where we’ll have people –  young Egyptian journalists, students, what-not – working with us to go out to the different parts of Egypt and collect stories. It all will feed back into this larger mosaic.

CD:                Can you describe some of the core issues like [participant’s] privacy, safety, and talk about how you are tangling with some of those issues.

JM:                Yes. I mean we’re very upfront about that, that this is not a scraping project, that this is about people contributing their stories. So we guide people through that process. That’s why having an on-the-ground effort is critical, to have a conversation.

We had thought about doing things like time capsules where people could say, “You know what? I want to tell you this story but don’t release it for five years.” We thought about other things. But we’re pretty open that this is a project for now, that if you want to contribute that story five years from now we’ll have you contribute it five years from now. It gets dicey because we’re using open technology too – we’re using Flickr, we’re using YouTube – open in the sense that they’re publically available tools, we’re not creating a new system. Look, in 20 years if we’re not around, your file’s up on YouTube; if YouTube’s not around like we might have bigger problem…(laughter).

I don’t know if that makes sense.

CD:                Yes, when I first heard of 18DaysinEgypt I wondered about whether it was going to be a scraping project, but you’re describing a process that’s much more mediated by human beings, where there are conversations, and people make a conscious decision to contribute this story to the project now.

JM:               Yes, and if we get 5,000 stories that’s great. We’re not setting up any metrics for success for us. I mean there are millions of stories to be told but we’ll tell as many as people want to tell, and that we have the budget to do.

CD:                What’s your timeline for that gathering process?

JM:                We’re going to primarily focus on the gathering in January and February and then move into a different phase. I mean the beauty of the online tools is that people can continue to do it on their own. We don’t have to spend too much money on maintaining it. It kind of runs on its own.

Actually for us one of the things that we want to do with the project is actually make it so that 18 Days is the metaphor for the entire revolution. It’s not just about those 18 days, because the story is continuing. So what we want to do is use this as a hook to get people engaged in the process of telling stories. So that if Mohammed or Mona or Allah tell stories of themselves during that 18 days, and you see that, you will be more connected to those characters and you will want to know what’s going on with them right now because the revolution is continuing. So that will be the encouragement for them to continue telling stories, or just to be able to see where they are right now in real-time.

One beauty of this is that these are real people with real accounts online. We can do that – we’re not in a black box in that sense.

CM:               We’re pivoting then into the question of how the ‘user’ then experiences those stories. Is that something that you have a wireframe architecture for right now?

JM:               We’re not completely satisfied with it right now, because we haven’t really spent time thinking about it. We have some broad strokes. I think a lot of that’s going to be actually informed by what we collect and that process will take us to the next process; which is a nice place to be in.

It’s like we’re not going to create a seventy two minute film and trying to shoehorn in content to make it work. We’re saying, “Where will this media take us? Where will these stories take us?” So it might some type of museum installation It might be some type of short webisodes. It might be a narrative film. We’re pretty open right now.

CD:               So it’s an iterative process, and you’ll be settling on the exact platforms and form partly depending on what comes in January and February?

JM:               Yes, exactly

CD:              As far as Popcorn is concerned [see CollabDocs posts inc. Sept 11, Oct 11 ] I’ve seen one of your proof of concepts, the bridge [example below]. Can you talk about what you see as the potential for Popcorn, and for HTML5 for the project.

JM:                Sure. So, I think one thing that gets me excited is this idea that we can create a light scaffolding of the story, of the 18 days, but if we get people to contribute stories around moments, with some smart Javascripting we can create an experience that is different every time.

Like if we wanted to experience the day on the bridge [that you just mentioned], you can experience it through Mona; I can experience it through Mohammed. Then, if we were having a conversation we would be able to exchange that information about characters, and it actually draws us into that conversation.

So it’s like we have information that you don’t have. I have information that you don’t have about your character and maybe we can switch and we want to know more. Or we have the same character and we want to see where their next move was. But [we’re interested in] this ability to have some type of structure, but to be able to switch things out, which potentially is really scalable and nice.

There will be plenty of films made about the Egyptian Revolution, and they will focus on 100 characters at most, 100 hero characters throughout all the films that are made, like a very small percentage [of people involved.] So we want to kind of show everyone who’s a contributor that they have a place in this story.

CD:             Who do you think your target audience is?

JM:             It’s the web user. At one level it’s the person who wants to see where this type of storytelling can lead us. But it’s also, we just get all these macro views of the events, and through this there’s really an ability to get down to that micro story, to see real peoples’ experiences in these moments. So it’s not just like footage of protest, you actually have a connection to that character. That way you’re more interested in that same footage that’s not just of a protest but it’s part of someone’s narrative.

So we do see a bigger audience because we’re hoping that through that process people see the value of their own media that they’re creating, their own stories, ot just about Egypt but whatever their own personal stories are. I mean, we’re all storytellers, we’re all using these tools nowadays to kind of create these digital breadcrumbs in our own lives, and that’s really powerful.

CD:             So, what you are creating is both an architecture for the 18 days content, but also an architecture that can turn others kinds of social media content into storytelling.

JM:             Absolutely. We can use the same technology to tell the story of – say – the MozFest [where Jigar and I had met]. In the whole scheme of things it’s not an earth-shattering story, but it is an important story that I’m sure Mozilla would want us to have done. For us, if we could use it as a scene in a bigger film about our own experiences of putting this film together – so we can expand this out into lots of different types of stories.

CD:So you’re building a platform, as well as [producing] 18Days itself.

JM:             Exactly, yes.

CD:             Is there anything else you to say, about what it’s like working across the Egyptian / North American contexts – about different levels of connectivity, and also about the politics of that, is there something to say about negotiating all that?

JM:             Yes, it’s one of those funny things. We just don’t think about it. We just do it. Like I’m just a journalist. I just go away. I do a story. I mean like we deal with this all the time,“Why are you doing this story?”, “You’re not Egyptian” or,” “Look at your team.” People either get the project and they get excited and they want to participate or they put up their own mental roadblocks to why they don’t want to participate. And some of it gets political. I’m just a storyteller, and I just want to help people tell stories. That’s how I’m approaching it.

And if you don’t want to tell the story, that’s fine, we don’t need to tell the story of the Egyptian revolution. That’s fine. I can move on to another set of stories. Which is kind of like when people kind of put up, “I don’t really want to do this.” It’s like, “Fine. You don’t want to be part of this history? That’s fine.” But what’s going to happen is, once they see this being built, they’re going to be like, “I want to be part of that. I need my spot to be in there.” So, we’ll get them… (Laughter)

But yes, this is difficult. There’s nothing easy, even logistics-wise, in having a San Francisco/Cairo team. You couldn’t do this a few years ago. We use Skype all the time. We use Google Docs. We use all these technologies that make it easier. In reality, we wouldn’t be able to do this a few years ago because of the social media, but on top of that I would have to have moved production to Cairo to actually have done it, to be in a black box, craft the film, and then show it at a festival, right?

This way we’re actually going to be, we don’t want to say premiering, but as soon as the project is live the content is going to be filling up, and the stories are going to be forming. So it’s very open, which I’m okay with but I know a lot of people aren’t. (Laughter) A lot of people like to be stealthy about their project and, kind of, do a big release.

CD:             So what do you imagine 6 months from now and a year from now we’re going to be seeing [of !8days]?

JM:             In six months we’ll definitely be seeing the efforts of our collection process, and we’ll have some early stabs at an online experience that kind of is the culmination of this effort.

That’s a good question – you’re actually getting me thinking – because it’s a living thing, so much of it is going to be driven by what’s going to actually happen in Egypt. But, I think as a stand-alone, the 18Days project we will satisfactorily say, “That is the project, it exists there, and this is the output of it.” And we’ll take it around to festivals and what-not.

But the much larger project of people telling stories about all sorts of things is just going to be starting. I think there’s going to be some really nice ability to get people engaged in the story as it’s happening.

CD:              Do you have any partners in the project, around archiving, or any newspaper?

JM:              Yes, we’re talking. We’re talking. There are a lot of people doing collection efforts, for sure. So, I think there is a way for us to partner. But there are so many things that are just like, “If I have to go to one more conference type of thing I’m done.” (Laughter)

We really have to close down the walls and go heads-down and actually do the work. I think that [is where] we’re going to go. We have our effort, and we’re going to do it, and if people want to approach us and talk real things, let’s do it. But we’re not in a position that the project will happen or not happen based on a partnership. We have enough momentum going our way that we can just go out and do the work now and figure out the partnerships as they happen.

CD:               And what’s happening in Copenhagen?

JM:             Why are we here? Well this is where we’re developing our platform. The platform is called, I should say, Group Stream.

CD:             And how will you assess the success of the 18Days project?

JM:            If we can get people to contribute stories, especially people who didn’t think they had stories to share, that’s one measure of success. There’s going to be a very visual template, this timeline that as people contribute will be filled up, this mosaic. And look, if it’s gets filled up that’s going to be pretty awesome. Then if we can start cracking some of these nuts of how to actually be able to experience a macro story through the micro elements that will be another level of success.

I’m not as concerned about numbers, just because we don’t really know what we’re dealing with here. Like I say, it could be 1,000 stories, it could be 20,000 stories. I’m more interested in if people a) get it, and then they go, “You know what? I have a story to tell about my own life”, or if people see the reason to continue telling the story. So they think, “Oh, here’s my story from January 29th, but you know what? I want to tell the story of what happened to me today because that’s also part of the same narrative.”

CD:            So do you have any more comments or thoughts before we leave it, on this experience of working on a collaborative process, because this is collaborative at two levels, with your distributed team and in bringing in participatory content?

JM:            Yes. I mean I think it’s really about respecting the user. I mean we try to think about that a lot, because they’re, not our customers, they are our creators, and without them we don’t have a project. So, a lot of the best collaborative projects are the ones that are respectful of everyone that’s participating, whether it’s a small team or an online community.