The “Living Docs” Series: Interactive Documentaries from ITVS and Mozilla
By Amanda Hirsch
What happens when you put documentary filmmakers and web developers in a room together for two days, and challenge them to experiment with new forms of storytelling?
They eat a lot of pizza. And bagels. And a Tupperware full of hard-boiled eggs.
Also, you get something like the "Living Docs" series, a new partnership between the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and Mozilla -- part of ITVS's ongoing commitment to helping filmmakers extend their stories to the web and beyond. Matthew Meschery, Director of Digital Initiatives at ITVS, says Mozilla was a natural partner because the nonprofit technology org shares many values with public media, such as a dedication to making sure media remains publicly accessible. And Mozilla's Brett Gaylor (a filmmaker himself, whose "RIP: A Remix Manifesto" debuted at SXSW in 2009), writes, "Mozilla and ITVS believe the web opens unique opportunities for storytelling. Stories told using the connected technologies, reach, and audience that can only be found online."
At a recent 16-hour hackathon, spread over two days, the Living Docs partners paired filmmakers (including Steve James, Hoop Dreams) with Popcorn developers to turn award-winning films into dynamic online experiences. Allow me to take this opportunity to explain what a "Popcorn" is for those of you who don't know (I didn't); or, better yet, let me have Wired explain:
"Popcorn.js, which few outside the web-development world have ever heard of, could be the next big thing in internet video. It’s a simple — for coders, at least — framework that allows filmmakers to supplement their movies with news feeds, Twitter posts, informational windows or even other videos, which show up picture-in-picture style. For example, if a subject in a film mentions a place, a link can pop up within the video or alongside it, directing the viewer to a Google Map of the location."
Mozilla's Gaylor made this video about the hackathon, which offers a window into the filmmakers' interactive storytelling concepts, and how developers helped bring them to life:
"Working with the developers at Mozilla was very inspiring," says filmmaker Adrian Baker. "It was great to see just what could be done with a tool like Popcorn." Baker clarifies that he would not describe himself as "tech-savvy"; ITVS's Claire Aguilar says that five years ago, many of the participating filmmakers may even have described themselves as Luddites, but they left the hackathon feeling like experts.
View the fruits of the Living Docs hackathon by clicking on the film titles below (I've also included short descriptions of the films themselves). Note, these are works-in-progress.
Filmmaker: Steve James (Hoop Dreams)
Developer: Rick Waldron
"The Interruptors" follows a lively group of men and women – most of them former gang leaders and ex-cons - trying to “interrupt” shootings, and protect their communities from the violence they themselves once employed. The film will feature individual Interrupters, and observe the inner workings of the program, including their weekly roundtable meetings and street interventions. Along the way, "The Interrupters" will tell stories of personal redemption while taking viewers on a compelling observational journey into the stubborn, persistent violence that plagues American cities.
18 Days in Egypt
Filmmaker: Jigar Mehta
Developer: Brian Chirls
#18DaysInEgypt is a crowd-sourced interactive documentary of the events in Egypt from #Jan25 to #Feb11. It will tell the story of the Egyptian revolution with the same tools that helped share it with the world in realtime.
Filmmaker: Musa Syeed
Bloggers: Aman Ali & Bassam Tariq
Developer: Bobby Richter
A film following two Muslim Americans on their road trip across America, visiting 30 mosques, in 30 states, in 30 days. The journey explores what it means to be Muslim in America today and serves as a powerful counter-narrative to the media’s image of a monolithic Islam.
Filmmaker: Adrian Baker
Developer: Cole Gillespie
"Injunuity" is a mix of animation, music and real thoughts from real people exploring our world from the Native American perspective. Covering such topics as language preservation, the environment, and Columbus Day, "Injunuity" is a visually stunning, thought-provoking mosaic of reflections on America, our shared past, our turbulent present, and our undiscovered future.
Filmmakers: Bonni Cohen & Jon Shenk
Developer: Scott Downe
This is a documentary portrait of The Maldives and its complex and charismatic young president, Mahamed Nasheed. Global warming has brought this island nation to the very brink of catastrophe: if the galloping trajectory of climate change continues unchecked, rising sea waters will soon submerge many of its islands and atolls.
Learn more about the hackathon in this extensive article from Wired.
Have you experimented with Popcorn at all? (I know the PBS NewsHour has, for example, with their annotated State of the Union video.) Does this article give you any ideas for projects you'd like to try? Join the discussion.
Amanda Hirsch is a writer and online media consultant with deep ties to public media. The former editorial director of PBS.org, she's written for MediaShift and P.O.V. and managed the EconomyStory project. Amanda also co-hosted the weekly #pubmedia chat on Twitter. You can follow Amanda on Twitter at @amanda_hirsch.