Sheffield Doc/Fest has made it clear that it’s no purist when it comes to the future of documentary. In fact, the UK’s largest documentary festival has become a world leader in not only welcoming, but extolling great enthusiasm for these emerging forms of documentary which, by any other name, seem to smell just as sweet; transmedia docs, cross-platform docs, interactive docs.
It may have been a shock for festival-goers, however, to find that walking around this year’s Interactive Exhibition felt less like a showcase of the vanguard in interactive, digital media and more like a Sunday afternoon at the Apple store. Housed in the ultra-modern, silver and white ‘Millennium Gallery,’ festivalites were ushered into a pristine room complete with a row of 24″ Mac displays, a smattering of iPads atop every surface, and a crowd of people meandering and marvelling at the bounty of touchable tech.
Of the 16 projects featured in the exhibition, only a handful were available for participant engagement beyond clicking about a computer or swiping a screen. The Mac-based projects fought a losing battle against obvious novelty of the physical installations, though the selection included some of the most sophisticated and interesting work to come about in the last year. This included the most recent iteration from Kat Cizek’s Highrise project, The Universe Within, online privacy and web economy series Do Not Track, and Al Jazeera’s investigative documentary game Pirate Fishing.
The focal point of the exhibition was a peculiar inflatable igloo-like chamber enclosing a large flat screen TV and leaking a driving, intense beat that formed the soundscape for the entire exhibition. Award-winning digital artist Karen Palmer’s Syncself 2, with its description as a “transmedia parkour neurogame”, was impossible to ignore. Syncself 2 is an immersive storytelling experience in which the outcomes of obstacles the parkour athletes face in the film, whether it be a big jump across a threshold or a risky leap off a staircase, are determined by the participants mental focus.
Participants are seated individually in front of the screen and are fitted with futuristic headgear; an EEG Solution that digitizes analog electrical brainwaves through a forehead sensor and an earlobe clip. As the film begins, slow motion, high-definition shots of athletes bounding and rolling impressively across urban landscapes are accompanied by a flashing indicator marking the participant’s level of focus. At specific checkpoints during the film, when the athlete encounters a challenging obstacle, the participant becomes a sort of remote control; if their level of focus is high enough, the athlete makes the jump and progresses to the next level. If not, the athlete lets her fears get the best of her, backs away from the challenge, and the film ends. The central principle of parkour is the ability to express oneself through the fluidity of movement in one’s environment, and the ability to overcome personal fears. Syncself 2 aims to extend this fluidity to its viewers, merging the viewer’s physiological state into the experience depicted onscreen.
The power of this idea may have been compromised, however, by the fact that many participants found the outcome of each level’s obstacle relatively arbitrary, as they were unsure what specifically the headset was monitoring, or what exactly they were supposed to focus on. But despite the veil of the technology’s hype, and whatever dubious links an “immersive storytelling experience” has to documentary, Syncself 2‘s appearance in the exhibition introduces what is sure to become an emerging field of interest; “neurogaming” and the integration of participant nervous systems into gaming experiences via sensor technologies and game design techniques.
The acclaimed “augmented reality” graphic novel Priya’s Shakti colourfully asserted itself in another corner, but perhaps not for the right reason. The visually striking comic book tells the story of Priya, a village woman from India who is gang raped by men in her village. When she confesses the event to her family, they shun her and evict her from her home. Priya attempts to end her life in shame, but the goddess Parvati intervenes in Priya’s plight by entering her body and confronting the men who raped her. The story champions women’s rights and leads to a transformation of the villager’s values. This is the narrative of the graphic novel, accessible in paper form at the exhibit or online for free.
The exhibition walls were postered with hyper-enlarged pages from the novel and the table was filled with several iPads and paper-versions of the graphic novel. The “augmented reality” component required the participation of the app ‘Blippar’. Activated on the iPads at hand, and downloadable for free on any smartphone, the app requires the participant to point the camera at a page from the graphic novel, especially the enlarged versions on the wall. The app uses a special scanning technology to determine which page it is seeing, and adds “augmented reality” pop-ups to the image onscreen; speech bubbles, hyperlinks to short films, animated segments, and other interactive elements to further engage participants.
This flashiness of technological innovations of Blippar, however attractive, disappointingly converted all potential for interest in Priya’s Shakti‘s narrative into a short-lived interest in a gimmicky app. Very few participants engaged with the project’s content at all, choosing instead to take pictures of one another with various image effects, the equivalent novelty of sticking one’s face through the hole of a cartoon character’s wooden cut-out.
Priya’s Shakti is a much more significant and powerful project than was obvious at the Interactive Exhibition. Indian-American filmmaker Ram Devineni began the project after India erupted in protest against the violent gang rape and murder of a 23-year year old woman on a bus in Delhi. The narrative was designed to engage Indian citizens by integrating Hindu deities, and the book was distributed to schools in rural India to create awareness among youth about the danger and evil of rape, and to increase sensitivity toward rape victims. In India, “augmented reality” refers to the app’s use with large murals from the graphic novel painted all over India. All in all, Priya’s Shakti, represents an innovative social campaign toward fighting gender-based crimes, but it is one that likely passed unobservant festival-goers in Sheffield.
The most theatrical of the installations was a teaser version of 1979 Revolution, from the digital artists responsible for big-time games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Mannequins were clothed in dishevelled military apparel, cameras and political patches and positioned hunched over desks, poised for action, or strewn violently across the floor. Broken pieces of wood and revolutionary flags completed the dramatic physical mise-en-scene for the game to be released in summer 2015.
The game centers on the Iranian political upheaval of the late 1970s. The participant takes up the role of a young photojournalist making life-or-death decisions in an environment of social disorder.
Embedded in the torsos of the mannequins were iPads prompting the participant to begin the game. Lively animated narrative sequences were interrupted by opportunities for the participant, as the photojournalist, to make a choice that would affect the plot. For example, when questions were asked, a selection of 4 choices of answers were displayed onscreen but quickly expired, creating a sense of urgency to choose fast and advance the story. The participant’s character was punished (often by receiving blows to the face) if no answer is selected, and also if the wrong answer is selected, as a repercussion of not listening closely enough to the narrative to remember the facts of the story, and by extension, of history.
Other challenges included dealing with an emergency trauma situation where a colleague has been attacked. The participant must literally remove the shards of glass from the body with a gentle swipe of the finger, to a particularly gruesome effect.
The likely reason the long-time video game designers got their project into the documentary festival is that 1979 Revolution places a strong emphasis on historical fidelity, as demonstrated through the associated marketing campaign “#playthereal”. The idea is to immerse the player in what it felt like to actually be there during the revolution.
The segments of the game on display at the exhibition were only samples, of course, and though the aesthetics of the image, urgency of the narrative and the exhilaration of the pacing was enticing, the elements of game play were not particularly challenging. It brings to mind other “docu-games” like the NFB’s 2013 Fort McMoney, which, despite its ambitious aims to integrate players into the political processes that structure the controversial social economy of the Athabasca Oil Sands region, simply cannot act as a standalone game; the level of gameplay just isn’t complex or sophisticated enough.
Will 1979 Revolution manage to balance its aims of authentic historical representation and its status as a compelling and intense game, as its makers have produced in the past?
Exiting the exhibition hall, one was left with a clear sense that the genre of documentary film is expanding to include all manner of handsets and headsets, wearable and portable technologies. Furthermore, last year’s Interactive Exhibition only included two virtual reality projects, whereas this year, this strand of the festival has undergone mitosis with the introduction of the Virtual Reality Arcade and its 9 projects.
Are these projects a glimpse at the future of documentary, or just a passing trend? For one thing, the average length of time anyone interacts with these projects is remarkably miniscule, often under 5 minutes. But perhaps the future not as unclear as it may seem. For all their technological innovations, none of these projects can compete with the attention-holding capabilities of a well-crafted feature length doc.