A part in the rhythm of somebody’s life

Sonnen-&-HugueyCaspar Sonnen & Hugues Sweeney

CS: One of the reasons that I really like to work in interactive documentary and digital storytelling is that it’s a space that didn’t exist before. So people you meet that have been working in this emerging space for a while, all came from some place else.

HS: It’s funny because I was reading about someone being so sick of having the digital revolution being compared to the Industrial Revolution.

CS: Or, the printing press.

HS: Well, it was really about the Renaissance that it was bringing it back to. A part of history where you had painters that were really fond of anatomy, and philosophers were really fond of medicine. So this notion of multi-disciplinary careers, and the importance of it in our general culture.

CS: Homo Universalis?

HS: Yeah, that idea that you move from going to a rock concert, to reading the Economist, and then playing Mindcraft and then maybe listen to Bach. So, my background is in philosophy. At the same time, I discovered Cinema Verité of the mid-60s, and the cinema of the mid-60s was celebrating speech by filming people who were talking about the way they see life, but from the particularity of the accents, from their regionalism, from where the live and how they express things through words and the very simple way, but in a very local way. How you were expressing a form of, let’s say, it is a big word but, truth. So for me that was a huge revelation, because it made me move away from books to film. And I wanted to do a Master degree on Cinema Verité, but from the point of view of Heidegger. When I met the person responsible for the program and asked him how to be accepted, he immediately took me out of his office and brought me to the communication department, handed me the forms to subscribe to the interactive media Masters and left. So I was there, I had these documents in my hands and I didn’t know what had happened. In like ten minutes, out comes this guy, who is supposed to be the Cinema Verité guy, and I bring this interesting idea and he is like throwing me out of his office. He felt like ‘if you want to talk about what documentary means today, you need to do something that people will be able to touch and feel and use’. For him, the next step was interactive media.’ So that’s how it started.

CS: Interesting.

HS: But, I got kicked out of Cinema Verité.

CS: It’s funny, because the other question, that I am always interested in, is what was your first internet, or your first computer experience. I think we are in this strange generation of people who have grown up while the internet and computers were sort of invading reality and our lives.

HS: Probably my first was Defender, Pacman and Asteroids. But my first home experience was Vic 20, where we spent a lot of time recording games and trying to invent games and playing stuff. So, we are from the generation that was born with the computers in some way. But what were you studying?

CS: What did I study? My way into the new media thing was similar in a sense. I am from an artist family, theatre makers and performers, and when I was growing up, I really wanted to do something else. I was really fed up with the arts world and the self-reflecting part of it, it was very inwards, and sometimes it felt like a very inward culture. The whole distinction between high and low arts was really apparent when we were growing up. I always found that a difficult thing. Documentaries are one of the art forms that really blend the two. I think when I was growing up I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I was really searching, and while I was searching I needed to make money, so I worked for this subsidiary of the Shell Oil Company as a temp job, to pay the rent. And I was feeling really horrible about working for Shell, but in a hallway on the 7th floor, there was a public computer. That computer had the internet.

HS: What year was that?

CS: I think early 90s. When I was done with work, I would go to that computer, because nobody was using it. So I explored the computer and played with it and was sort of discovering what the internet was and all the communities and the whole idea of having this virtual identity. There was a lot of stuff like that happening on a very high philosophical level. And I found it really intriguing. Before that, I did a lot of gaming as a young boy on our Commodore Amiga at home. And at University I discovered cinema. It’s similar to you, for me it didn’t start with Cinema Verité on the documentary side, for me the point of entry was John Cassavetes, which is sort of fictionalized Cinema Verité, and through that the direct cinema. My other focus at university was new media and that had just started as a department and in some ways, the irony is, that I really, really hated new media at university. The interactive narratives and the clunky ‘choose your own adventure style’ were often presented in a context of ‘the dictatorship of the author finally coming to an end’. That really didn’t make sense to me. I felt sort of a disconnect with the new media of that time. I always stayed very much interested in experimentation and technology, but the point where I really fell in love with the combination of storytelling and technology was when I saw Thanatorama.com by Alexandre Brachets Upian. For me, that the first ‘interactive narrative’ that really worked. It was not telling me: ‘here is a story and now you can go left or right’, which just leaves you sitting there thinking ‘why should I make the choices that an editor or a director should make?’ The joy of an interactive story is not that I can create it myself, but that it becomes personal. Thanatorama really proved to me that it was possible to combine natural opposites like interactive and narrative, creating a hybrid between the freedom of a game, and the direction of the narrative.

HS: So now you have been doing this for the sixth year, do you think like something is progressing or do you think we are just running in circles?

CS: This is probably the reason that I think we are both very lucky working in this specific area of the arts. The IDFA DocLab competition this year feels more experimental than ever. Last year, the ‘classic’ web documentary, a browser and mouse-based interactive story, really grew up as a genre and reached a high point in its development with projects like Bear71.nfb.ca. I have a feeling that – with the shift from the browser to the tablet, with the shift from the mouse to touch, and upcoming touchless interfaces like Google Glass, Leap Motion and the Oculus Rift – the most important pioneers in the interactive community are already looking around and reinventing the genre. That is what the very best filmmakers have been doing all along, like Victor Kossakovsky or Lars Von Trier reinventing cinema with every new project they do. I am not sure I am answering your question.

HS: That is interesting because one of the key points in the renewal of my strategic plan for the next five years for my studio is to not only think outside the browser, but also outside the notion of traditional screens. And I try to think from the perspective of where people are, like in transport, being between two places, or in waiting, and from the perspective of where the media are going. Because the media are moving more and more out of the screen. We try to get a grasp on something that is happening in a web browser on a laptop, but now, like this year, people are buying more tablets than home computers, so we have to think in a more tactile way and incorporate this into our projects. More and more media are intercepted in public spaces on sidewalks and on architectural projections in downtown cities, the meeting of digital artist, urbanists and architects and filmmakers is happening in parks. So for me it is really interesting to, instead of following a technology or a format, trying to follow the audience and understand how media evolves by itself.

CS: That strategy that you describe is a great recipe for innovative art. It also addresses how interactive documentary is much more open and much less a closed art form with its own industry and clearly defined formats – for that it’s way too connected to the live pulse of the web, connected to science, connected to technology and the whole startup-culture.

HS: It is really about the notion of having the public in the centre of creation and that’s another one of my central preoccupations: how do we insert ourselves in the rhythm of people’s lives? Where do I live in someone’s life? That is my first question and my second question is; how the public is part of the experience in a very minimal or a very engaging way? But you always have to ask yourself these two questions. I think that the capacity, the potential of interactive production, is that you can be connected to your audience from the moment you decide to do a project. If we want to talk about the notion of reaching out and the notion of relevance I think it is important to talk about audience. My experience is that it’s often a complex term that has to do with the traditional documentary world, because when we ask the question there about who we are talking to, and let the audience influence the creative process, it is a dirty discussion. It’s like we are bringing marketing…

CS: In film it quickly becomes a marketing question, while with interactive it is a key artistic question. What is the role of the audience?

HS: Like, who are we doing this for? I mean, we could be talking to ourselves if we wanted. But if documentary is a representation of the world, if it is a way to bring perspective into our everyday life you need to do it for somebody. Like Direct Cinema, I remember Fernand Dansereau, one of the grandfathers of Direct Cinema in the 60s, when he was shooting Saint Jérôme. There was a shutdown of a big factory about 40 minutes from Montreal, so he went up there filming people, filming the situation and the tension between the union and the factory owners. He came back to Montreal, developed the film, did a very rough cut, went back and showed the result to the character, filmed again, went back, back and forth. If the web existed back then, he would have used a web platform to do that back and forth with the characters. It was really audience driven in some ways, there were a lot of projects that were audience driven but it was limited by the capacity of the technologies back then.

CS: I think at the same time internet has brought us a new problem: unlimited abundance. We used to have scarcity of content and scarcity of great artworks, but now I can watch almost every film classic ever made. The problem is I don’t have the time to choose or watch them. Netflix is great, but my problem is not access, it is time.

HS: So, the notion of time is also the notion of the time to make something and the time to make it last. For instance Pierre Perrault, he did like La bête lumineuse, probably the whole process was a couple of years and then he did probably, I think like a 12 hour edit, then a six-hour edit, and then he finished with a two- hour edit, where everyone got mad at each other because they didn’t agree on how to turn the six-hour edit into two hours. And if I look at it, like 25 years almost 30 years afterwards, it still has a very profound meaning and brings a lot of perspective to the world and to the culture I grew up in. So how will the interactive things that we produce work as a Polaroid of our time in 50 years, and is that just a mistake or..?

CS: Or will the iPad be the fax machine of our time…?

HS: Yeah, it’s going to be the nostalgic kind of retro, neo-retro. And now that we are talking about that notion of speed and time, do you think that it’s something that we have not yet got to use properly as an asset? Like in traditional film we are shooting the world, so we have been really good about working the notion of camera and sound and edit, but what about, like, we are on the internet, so what about that fact, that we are real time and accessing the content going back and forth.

CS: There are two sides to your question. I really think interactive should strive more to create timeless works of art. But at the same time that is a very hard goal in itself, it’s usually a by-product of artistic genius. You don’t start and say: ‘Let’s make a masterpiece’.

HS: No, you don’t control that part.

CS: No, exactly. For instance, for me John Cassavetes’ Woman under the Influence is one of the best films ever made. But I have always found it so touching that when he made that film, he spent his last money to release it in low income neighbourhoods, because he really thought it was a film about working-class people and he thought it would really speak to them… He was not making a timeless masterpiece; he was making a film for his time and doing something about the time in which he lived. Just like most masterpieces from art history are always timely pieces that are very linked to the place where they are made. So in that sense I think it is hard to strive for it directly. That said, projects like Alma and Bear71 works for me because of the fact that they are timeless masterpieces. They are complete and closed. They provide a tiny little universe of their own, made exquisitely, brilliantly.In terms of the question of the internet and its real time nature, which is completely opposite to linear filmmaking, where you have the production process and by the time the film is showing it’s always in the past already. It is always lagging behind. That is one of the challenges, I think, for the documentary industry. By the time a movie about Syria or Egypt is finished and we show it at IDFA, sometimes reality has already moved on. This shows us how the speed of the internet is changing some of the functions of journalism and documentary filmmaking. Just like photography did for painters who used to come along to the battlegrounds and paint what was happening there for the folks at home. These types of painters didn’t become useless, but it did change the nature of painting and, in the end, brought us things like abstract art. I think Jonathan Harris is one of those artists who really gets the real-time nature of the web. When he created We Feel Fine, a project that is always connected live to the internet, he created a database of human emotions on the internet. You can watch that project today and it’s still live, it makes sense, it tells the story of today even though the whole project was made six years ago or something.

HS: 2006, yeah.

The capacity, the potential
of interactive production, is that
you can be connected to your audience
from the moment you decide to do a project

CS: Projects like that I think show us what happens when filmmaking became software. When you are not telling one story, but you are actually creating a narrative system that is linked directly to reality, to real-time reality, not documented reality from the past.

HS: Do you think that we should pay more attention to what is happing in digital art? It is interesting because you said ‘in the middle of two worlds’, but you are kind of attached to a main driver which is a documentary festival. So your main point of reference, your backbone, is the documentary film tradition. Should we be spending more time in digital art, events, and festivals, watching what those guys are doing?

CS: For sure. If you are making an interactive artwork, unlike documentary, there is nothing to rebel against, there is no box to break out of, which is a very big challenge. It is much more closely linked to the practice of making visual arts or making software. Interactive documentary is this strange art form that it is not fiction, but always a construction – like a film is too. And besides it still being nonfiction, there is nothing that really defines interactive documentary, yet. So when I started IDFA DocLab, I decided to not limit it to film-related projects at all, only to projects that tell a documentary story or represent reality – in any possible medium. So that means I definitely have to look way beyond what happens in filmmaking alone.

HS: It is funny because the first day I came to the NFB my first question was about if we accept that interactive documentary will be made not just of moving images but also from texts, fixed image, code, sound and live data. That was a very important question for me, to make sure that we were not stuck in sub genre of something else, but adjusting a practice.

CS: For sure.

HS: New media also brought the polarization of content and accessibility to content that is almost equal to having access to no content at all, like we have so much.

CS: Reality of abundance.

HS: In some ways, the internet brought the diversity of voices. But it also means brought in the big players, and the big players get together and get more and more in front and the message gets shorter and shorter and repeated. A lot more times they were repeated when only radio and television and newspaper existed. So, there is really that opportunity for documentary production in a very wide sense to be part of people’s life, to bring perspective to daily life. It is really how do we…

CS: This is exactly what happened in food culture; how slow food resulted as a sort of a cry to reflect, take a moment, to think about what we are doing. And I think that is what interactive documentary for me is sort of…

HS: Slow web.

CS: It’s the slow web. It has been the main dish of the slow web for the last few years. It is really showing us long form articles in writing. We can see the interactive documentary as a web native version of the essay sometimes. I really love how newspapers, like The New York Times with a project like Snowfall, seduced people into taking the time to really sit down for a simple documentary story on the web.

HS: It is, in some way, like The Journal of Insomnia. The experience is the metaphor for the subject, so you have to give a part of your night in order to experience Insomnia. I worked a lot in radio and my mentor didn’t know anything about the technology itself but he really understood where the media was heading. There was only one question he would bring back in every conversation: what part do you play in the rhythm of somebody’s life? And if you can’t answer that question, you can’t answer all the following questions, because it brings back the notion of relevance and how do you insert yourself in somebody’s life? That is where we would talk about the audience and reaching out to the audience. That is a ship, that we need as producers or documentary filmmakers in the internet or not…

I got kicked out of Cinema Verité

CH: You touch upon a very crucial point. I mean the conversation we are having right now in two different time zones. You are sitting in your car in a car park and I am sitting in an empty office somewhere. It is not completely reality. It is mediated, but it is still pretty real. And I think interactive documentary is not only connecting to people, but it is about what the web is doing to our lives, to our daily lives, to our reality, to our hearts. It is making people experience it. They are not just watching a story about how Facebook is a creepy corporation. Like a linear film about Facebook is a very, very different thing than watching an interactive piece where you have to connect using your Facebook profile, and then being confronted by your own personal data and how much of it is actually out there, and how it is actually being used. Like for me, the Robots of Residence project that we did last year was really about showing…

CONVERSATION INTERRUPTED (by reality, dinner and day care).

CS: The Robots of Residence project last year… It was just a cardboard robot driving around with a camera asking people highly inappropriate personal questions and people got really freaked out about it when they saw the results. But they all opened up and answered the questions knowingly and voluntarily. It’s a weird thing. Why do we find it difficult to open up to people in person, but when Facebook asks us ‘tell me what you are doing’ – then we just open up? We humans are not yet able to process all these mediated connections, like the Elijah Effect that they were exploring with the Robots of Residence project. I love interactive documentaries that make us question our digital behaviour like this.

HS: Maybe that is why it feels exploratory at that point, and I think it is a necessary decade or two decades to go through. But we have to follow the territory, and the technologies are opening new territory and we are kind of hiking in a virgin forest in some way.

HS: That is why I find this field so particularly interesting. Because we have head lamps and it is in the middle of the night and we are evolving and we are moving forward in this forest all together. And the other thing that is interesting is that the other people around me in that forest are not necessarily people working with me, they are people working in other countries. A lot of them are competitors and we don’t have the same objectives, but we have a common overall goal and a common vision. Maybe 15 years from now there is going to be a lot of ego and pulling the curtain, but right now every competitor wants to make sure that there are new competitors, and that the ecosystem will develop for this genre to evolve. So, it is a very, very interesting place right now, where things are not stuck in formats. When it is going to be stuck in a format I am going to move on.

CS: Yes. We need more people making and watching it – and criticizing it.

HS: We can be sure that will happen! (Laughing)

CS: (Laughing) Indeed. Just like we can be sure that with the speed at which the digital revolution develops and new technologies are being unleashed upon us all, the interactive documentary genre will still evolve immensely.

HS: My appointment is here, I have to run. Reality is really looking at me to go. _

Directed by Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes.
Canada, 2012. Interactive.

Directed by Miquel Dewever-Plana & Isabelle Fougère.
France, 2012. Interactive.

Directed by John Cassavetes.
USA, 1977. 155 mins.

Directed by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar.

Directed by Jonathan Harris.

Directed by Guillaume Braun,Bruno Choinière.
Canada, 2012.


Directed by Simon Klose.
Sweden, Denmark, Norway, UK, Netherlands, Germany, 2013. 85 mins.

Directed by Alexander Reben and Brent Hoff.
USA, 2013. Interactive.

Directed by Fernand Dansereau.
Canada, 1968. 116 mins.

Directed by Pierre Perrault.
Canada, 1982. 128 mins.


Hugues Sweeney. After several years of twisting letters as well as ideas by studying philosophy, literature and Death Metal, Hugues Sweeney became interested in stories as much as the opportunities that technology offers to tell them. Experimenting both in the grammar of interaction, in sound creation or in generative art, projects from the interactive studio of the NFB have received numerous international awards including SXSW, Japan Media Arts, Boomerang, FIPA d’Or and nominations for the Digital Emmy or IDFA.

Caspar Sonnen is the new media coordinator for the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and curator of the festival’s IDFA DocLab, a competition program for new forms of documentary and interactive storytelling. In 2008, Sonnen founded IDFA DocLab to create a platform for interactive and multimedia documentary storytelling that expands the genre beyond traditional cinema. Besides his work at IDFA, he is co-founder of the Open Air Film Festival Amsterdam.




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