» Onscreen confession

Interactive iPad documentary:


Director Miguel Dewever-Plana and Isabelle Fougère,

France, 2012, 60 mins.

Alma is a very poignant web documentary on the confession by a Guatemalan woman who escaped a “mara” (a criminal gang in Guatemala City) and paid a very high price for it. She tells her moving and violent story, facing us, sitting in what – we will understand at the very end – turns out to be a wheelchair, against a neutral, black backdrop. As she talks and does her best to hold back her tears, the bottom part of another screen appears at intervals above her head. It is up to the viewer to drag this new screen down to watch contextual images and video footage that illustrate what Alma is talking about. You can go back and forth between the “bottom screen” of her speaking and the  “top screen” of illustrative material.

And that in itself is the main problem with this otherwise deeply involving project. Alma tells us her story in a very honest, straightforward way. Tears flow. She tries to redeem herself for the terrible things she did while she was in her “pandilla”. In every way, what we are called upon to witness as a spectator is the emotional confession of someone who has suffered and inflicted a lot of suffering, and is paying a high price for her mistakes. It is a painful process for Alma and she bears it with great dignity. But the movement of the finger back and forth, dragging between both screens up and down the iPad, creates a constant disruption in the focus and respect we should have for what Alma is saying to us from the depths of her pain.

This very simple movement, creating interaction between the two layers of the story, actually defeats the very purpose of it: as Alma pours her soul out to us, the very least we should do is listen and watch in a respectful way. Instead, I found the device forcing me to go back and forth between her and the enriched content. It trivialized the whole experience for me and made me feel uncomfortable for wanting to watch the suggested videos above her, while at the same time wanting to go back to her and watch her, be with her. This yoyo effect is a contradiction in the film’s own terms.

For this reason, Alma, with its disturbing and incredibly powerful subject and character, is to me an example of what not to do in interactive storytelling: it is a perfect case of the interaction getting in the way of a story that is so intense and compelling that you hate the distracting playing around that it encourages you to do.

I also did not understand the reason for the illustrative videos above Alma; there were lots of different added videos at the side that taught me the full context of Alma’s situation – with no sound, in a very dry, teachery way it has to be said, while the music soundtrack accompanying the upper screen images tended to contradict the dry nature of this additional content, adding an unpleasant feeling of casualness to the terrible nature of what is being shown to us.

Alma delivers a powerful viewing experience because of the content of the story this complex woman tells us and the way she delivers it. I do not see how anyone could remain unmoved by Alma’s sad life and her courage in reconstructing herself now. The film raises the issues of forgiveness, the possibility to redeem oneself for terrible mistakes, the difficulty of escaping one’s doomed environment. For this, Alma is a must see and the directors should be commended for their choice.

The film raises the issues of forgiveness, the possibility to redeem oneself

But to me, creating an immersive storytelling experience for the viewer calls for much more organic reasons to suggest interaction. What does the flip screen device add to Alma? Not only does it add nothing, but it delivers an unwelcome distraction. There is nothing organic about the attempted participatory dimension of the film. I much prefer the idea of a classical linear version of the film in which I am compelled to sit, watch and listen to this incredible woman, with the appropriate levels of focus and respect owed to such an honest endeavor.

Interactive storytelling only makes sense as added value to the user’s experience when it seems to come from within the very nature of the story told, enhancing it in an organic way. And only then._

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