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Doc Fest 2010: cross-platform is hot, but games are the winners

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Sheffield is not the most exciting town in the UK, but the Doc Fest is clearly the most exciting documentary festival in the country.  It lasts five days and covers everything INCLUDING interactive documentaries. A whole day of workshops and presentations is dedicated to anything that has to do with digital media and documentaries, which is for me pretty interesting. If last year a variety of projects were presented, this year the accent seemed to be on 1. multiplatform documentaries, 2. games, 3. using social media for social causes, 4. digital archives.

While last month Power to the Pixel was all about transmedia and documentaries (with big star Tommy Pallotta presenting Collapsus) Doc Fest kept the transmedia card quite low key. Somehow people seem to get used to the idea that a documentary now needs to have some sort of digital offspring… but their interest now is shifting towards financial concerns: how do you get financed and distributed in this brave new digital world?

In a land of “do it yourself and screw the regular TV channels” several options seem to emerge, from crowd-funding extravaganza to new web distributing channels. If last year the fashion was in following The Age of Stupid’s incredible self-funding route, this year more official channels were put on the foreground.

Babelgum has created an online platform to distribute film and documentary content. They sometimes help in the production process and look after the online rights of their clients. SnagFilms is another platform dedicated to documentaries that allow costumers to customize their viewing. With the advent of the new generation of set up boxes (such as 3view) that will allow streaming YouTube and iPlayer content straight into our televisions a new problem is hitting the industry: if TV scheduling is going to loose all its strength, to leave the place to a true video on demand logic on our television sets, who will promote and put our documentaries into the front line? Content aggregators such as Babelgum and SnagFilms are trying to position themselves as the option of the future: a trusted web channel for good content.

It seems to me that when most discussion turn to financial topics it means that people are less thinking about “shall we go interactive” but more about “how shall we do it”. As a result I did notice that there were fewer presentations of interactive documentaries than last year… most panels this year seemed to turn around practical matters.

I did assist though to an interesting presentation of “Seven Days”, Channel 4 latest reality TV series. Seven Days is the little brother of Big Brother. We do not follow people in a house anymore, but in a borough, Notting Hill – London. A selection of real life characters are allowing to be followed 24/7 and every week a new episode is being broadcasted. The novelty is that it is shot and edited in one week, but also that the audience can intervene and chat with the characters themselves via  the web (the dedicated channel is called ChatNav). Now… this two way communication means that audience comments are now influencing real life people in their daily acts! This is obviously the exciting and juicy bit for Channel 4, but I have to admit that it makes me raises some concerns about the ethic side of things: should we all be allowed to influence complete strangers of which we know very little – a part a one hour simplification of their life on television?

Finally Doc Fest does not have a digital award, but I had a few interactive documentaries running in the “cross-platform docs”. Those were:

  1. Florian Thalhofer’s Planeta Galata
  2. Doxwise
  3. Arena Mash

I found this selection quite confusing as during the conference what clearly came out was that the interactive productions of the year were:

1. Out my window (NFB)

2. Prison Valley (Arte)

3. Collapsus (Submarine/VPRO)

4. Galata Bridge (Florian Thalhofer)

5. The waiting room (BAVC)

So… if those were the interesting interactive projects of the year… why were they not discussed and presented all together in a specific session? I must have missed something…

I leave it to you to go and browse those projects…

But a session was dedicated to docu-games and, surprise surprise, it was over-crowded. Are producers thinking that the easiest way to get some interactive stuff produced is to go towards the game logic? Or maybe it is the flip side of all this cross-media fashion which make documentary producers think that if they can sell the film to the television and the game to its website then they get their programme commissioned… All I know is that there were some very interesting projects.

SuperMe on Channel 4 caught my attention. In an article the Guardian explains “SuperMe was produced by Somethin’ Else for Channel 4 in partnership with the creative studio Preloaded, and is based on principles of positive psychology. As well as videos, there are facts, quotes and probing questions to help players build life skills and deal more positively with bad experiences. Players earn points for connection, influence, wisdom and ability through a number of different games including Proximity, where players have to use teamwork to fly through a series of gates, and the navigation game Swerveball, which challenges the user to accurately recall how well they performed”. The great idea behind SuperMe is to use a mixture of videos to deliver information to teenagers and of games to keep them into the website – and learn through playing. For such a difficult subject as “happiness and teenagers” I think this is a very clever approach.

Nick Cohen from the BBC presented Wallage and Gromit’s World of Invention, a game website aimed at interesting a young audience to science and engineering. By building, doing, experimenting online kids can develop the skills, and the passion, that they will need later in their studies. Sounds like a fun project… not really a documentary… but still fun for kids.

Last was another Channel 4 production: Trafalgar Origins, an online battle game rigorously designed respecting historical evidence of the battle itself. Here it was the historical accuracy that was interesting – also because the kids that play will probably never know that they are being historically correct!

I like what Margaret Robertson, from Hide and Seek, said during the session “Games give a dynamic system to relate to reality, and they are good at making us change behaviour”… this sentence summarizes for me the potential for edu-games when mixed with documentary logic: they can inform, entertain, build skills, but also make us relate differently to reality…

Over all Doc Fest was very enjoyable, as always, but from my niche point of view it did not have enough to offer for people that look at the interactive and cross media development of documentaries.

I am now really hoping that i-Docs, which I will co-host with John Dovey and Judith Aston in Bristol on the 25th of March ,will be the right platform to discuss in depth what is happening in the interactive documentary world!!!

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

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