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NYFF 2013: Are interactive docs like 'Empire' film's future?

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NEW YORK -- A lot of people like to make a lot of pronouncements about the future of cinema. Some of them—like those made about “Gravity”—may well turn out to be prophetic. Others are less convincing.

But some very real juice may be behind a relatively new form that’s dubbed “immersive documentary” or “interactive documentary.” You may have heard about it before. It’s a notion that’s been floating around on the mainstream margins for several years—nonfiction stories that go well beyond the passive, standalone 90-minute format you’re used to from cable TV or your local art-house theater.

Instead, these films (and the term is—fortunately--meant loosely) take a more inventive path to tell their tales. As practiced by a new class of digital frontier types, they often blend the image-as-object ethos of museum installations, the interactivity of video games and the narrative and character features of traditional cinema. Immersive documentary  shares some similarities with its cousin, journalism's multimedia presentation, though is far more rooted in a cinematic tradition.

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At the New York Film Festival this year, we may have one of its more ambitious examples yet.

“The Empire Project,” as the sprawling NYFF piece is called, is the creation of a young Dutch American husband-and-wife team named Kel O'Neill and Eline Jongsma. About four years ago, O’Neill and Jongsma decided to sell most of their possessions, give up their Brooklyn apartment and, armed with just their own money and a meager amount of European film funding, hit the road—to places like Holland, Southern California, Australia and even Indonesia, where Jongsma traces some of her ancestry.

The filmmakers were interested in the legacy of colonialism and migration in these places. Initially their thought was to make traditional films about the subjects that illuminated these topics, either a series of shorts or a longer omnibus piece.

But they soon realized that there was a more compelling way to tell their story. Instead of simply compiling the interviews and footage, they decided to fragment and then recombine them in unusual ways. After all, many of these voices were interesting precisely because they aren't traditionally heard.  So why use traditional means to give them a voice?  Technique, essentially, became part of the process of telling their story.

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“'Transmedia’ is a word that makes people, you know,” O’Neill said, holding his hands up and cringing a little at the digital buzzword under which this form is often grouped, as we stood with Jonsgma in a New York Film Festival theater looking at their work. “We prefer to call it ‘exploding cinema.’”

If that sounds a bit abstract, here’s an example that may help bring it home.

In a section of “Empire” titled “Empire: Cradle,” two parallel stores are told from Amsterdam's Schipol airport. One is a look at the on-site mortuary that prepares the bodies of the recently deceased, either to be sent back to their native place or from Dutch living abroad who want to be buried at home. The other follows a South Korean immigrant boy as he stands on a nearby field using binoculars to spot unusual aircraft taking off and landing.

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Each story has a nice arc of its own, as well as a thematic connection the other, since the excitement of a young adoptee imagining his faraway roots mirrors an end-of-life tale of the departed taking one final flight to their country of origin.

But the most appealing part of “Cradle” is what might be called formalistic. Though the filmmakers made two complete movies, as a viewer you can only shift back and forth between the stories; you can never watch both of them at once. It's a sly comment on the limits of perspective but also a nifty tool that lets you decide how much (or little) you want to experience of two relating narratives at once, offloading to the viewer some of the director’s role of editing. (You can fiddle around with “Empire: Cradle” here. You can learn more about the overall project here.)

The idea is that storytelling as a whole—and certainly on complex subjects—can’t be reduced to sound bites or even linear filmmaking in the way that many documentaries do.

“We wanted to show the legacy of colonialism. But that legacy is very complicated and not  straightforward, so we didn’t think our project should be either,” Jongsma said.

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Another section of “Empire,” subtitled “Periphery,” also has two dueling stories. But they're being shown--how to put this lightly—where most people take care of other business.

“Should we see the one in the women’s bathroom first?” O'Neill asked Jongsma, who nodded enthusiastically, as we walked around the Lincoln Center campus where the pieces of their project were scattered.

And indeed, playing as a sort of temporary installation along a wall above a bathroom sink was the story of a man of Dutch extraction in the Australian outback whose ancestors came as part of a colonial wave, and then settled among Aboriginal people, in turn becoming both a symbol of assimilation and its limits. His story was told with full image and full sound on the upper half of the screen.

Shown on the lower-half was a different story: a man of Asian origin who lives in Southern California and has played a Mexican in dozens of movies (because, after all, Hollywood needs plenty of Mexican extras, and most audiences wouldn’t blink at a darkly complected man playing a “Mexican” if he was dressed to look a certain way and described as such). The man's story was playing in a movie below the Aboriginal tale on the lower part of the same screen, only upside down and with no sound.

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In the men’s room, the entire scene was reversed—the Mexican story was right-side up and with full sound, while the Aboriginal was flipped and wordless. The effect is to make one feel that one can never hear the full story at one time;  even as we were hearing an extraordinary fish-out-of-water tale, there was another, different fish out of different water, silently but persistently making its presence known just beneath.

Like many aspects of "Empire" and immersive documentary in general, how you experience it will have as much to do with how you consume as it will what you consume.

“We look at these films in a way as a liquid—they take on the shape of whatever vessel they're in,” O’Neill said.

(For the record, though the pair have gone more Banksy-like in setting up these movies in er, unexpected places, immersive documentary doesn’t require something this fanciful; much of it can and does live online.)

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Set up in another area, in a anteroom outside a theater, were three screens showing different aspects of the slave-like conditions in the gold trade of Suriname, with each panel showing the issue form a different point of view and the action slowly coming together as the narratives played out.

A fourth section, meanwhile, alternated between the story of Nazi re-enactors in Indonesia and an Indonesian  man who in adulthood has discovered his Jewish roots. Again, the filmmakers split screens and allowed clever toggling between the two.  (Pieces of all of this have been exhibited at the IDFA Film Festival in Amsterdam but not on this scale. It bears emphasizing that there are dozens of projects along these lines being created all the time; this is just one intriguing example.)

Studios often talk about the second screen in a marketing context—Twitter campaigns for “Insidious Chapter 2” and the like. That may serve a certain purpose. But this shows a different, perhaps more interesting use of a second (or third or fourth) screen--as a new storytelling device, particularly in cases where it allows film viewers to switch perspectives within the same work.

If that upends or even offends purist notions, just look at, or ask someone who regularly plays, video games, where switching perspectives is as natural as turning on the console.

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Unlike video games, though—or even museum work or conventional docs--most of this work is being done a by a group of artists working independently. There's little corporate interest or oversight.  “We like that it’s a bit of a Wild West now because it allows people to experiment and figure things out without pressure or other constraints,” O’Neill said.

That doesn’t mean it won’t change. Certainly there are storytelling possibilities here that could enter the mainstream.

Could documentaries become less a static viewing experience with a beginning middle and end and more something we engage with, even perhaps on an ongoing basis (a trait particularly suited to documentary since real life, unlike written stories, doesn't have a beginning, middle and end)?

Could aspects of interactivity be incorporated into other forms such as, say, reality television? (Competition shows like “American Idol” already use one aspect of this with fan voting; viewer-controlled perspectives could be another.)  Could scripted filmmakers use it to deepen their story and make editing less about their hard choices and more about our playful ones?

There’s no way to know where any of this is really headed. And that, say artists like O’Neill and Jongsma, is exactly the point.

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