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Redefined Documentary at IDFA

DocLabDocumentary film was pushing traditional boundaries at the 2012 International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). From the DocLab's exhibitions to the intensity of audio, IDFA is leading the way in creative spaces for meaningful documentary that thinks outside the silver screen.

IDFA Interactive ConferenceInteractive documentary makers at the first ever IDFA Interactive Conference demonstrated that they are looking to do something meaningful. IDFA's DocLab is just five years old but with this year's conference they've established a crucial landing point for interactive work. Thanks to the curation of the DocLab's Caspar Sonnen, a string of interactive leaders from around the world presented their ideas and philosophy for getting creative on the web, increasingly with documentary material.

Daniel Burwen just unveiled Operation Ajax, and interactive graphic novel incorporating historical documents and based on the CIA hand in overthrowing the 1970s Iranian government. What makes a commercial game maker turn to interactive documentary? Burwen wanted to help educate the American public about the middle east, in this case Iran.

Operation AjaxIn the light of new disruptive technologies, Burwen asked himself, "how do we go to the great new beyond and actually do something meaningful," and not just distracting. "How do we make this better than before and have a more intimate connection with documentary?" For Burwen it was getting beyond the cold hard fact and into an immersive experience.

This fuel of meaningful media output is driving a good portion of interactive experiments. Andrew DeVigal left his position at The New York Times to join Second Story, where working with brands as part of the portfolio is what enables the work on socially engaged projects. For Second Story is about designing an experience instead of just a screen.

BMW Tate LiveTate Modern knows a little something about designing experience. Jane Burton pointed to live performance, streamed online through BMW Tate Live on Youtube, where the audience is encouraged to interact in real time. In Tate Modern's experience, artists enjoy adjusting their work to function in these new spaces. It's this reinterpretation of documentary that makes up what we're calling web-native or Living Docs. Hughes Sweeney from the National Film Board of Canada says that "technologies are sensors of reality." Live performance is just one way to demonstrate how changing technologies are providing new ways to share and interpret real stories.

MIT's Open Documentary Lab is helping figure out for documentary makers what this all means. According to Founder Bill Uricchio, a change in technology means a change in the way a documentary filmmaker interacts with subjects, "challenging established notions of the text as stable… the author as controlling… and the audience as passive." look to Moments of Innovation to find out more about how the Lab is finding ways for filmmakers to exploit this technology.

United Red ArmyInnovation was also happening in Amsterdam's theaters. Bangladeshi filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen unveiled "United Red Army" about an act of left-wing terrorism that got entangled with the highly volatile right-wing politics of 1970s Bangladesh. Little covered by Western media, operatives from the Japanese Red Army hijacked a plane and landed it in Dhaka, where military leaders struggled to negotiate, setting in motion a chain of events that leaves audiences stunned and confused, much as the terrorists themselves. But don't go in expecting dramatic footage from local television, the high-intensity drama comes from aged, noisy, abrupt audio recordings juxtaposed with captioning on a stark black screen, a true credit to Mohaiemen's storytelling technique and his sound editor.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the North Korean film "Propaganda" made almost entirely of provocative archival footage, revealed its true identity as a spoof by New Zealand filmmakers, self-proclaimed as "in the business of subversive transmedia storytelling." "Propaganda" was first released in chapters on Youtube under the guise of a film handed to a translator, Sabine Program, while she was traveling in Seoul. The film intersperses clips illustrating the cult of celebrity and other Western excesses and manipulation, all explained by a mysterious "expert" who bemoans the hypocrisy of Western media. The real price? the reputation of this first-time unassuming actor whose friends and community continue to question whether he is in fact a North Korean spy.

IDFA's experimental spaces set a strong precedent for the recently launched festival season. Upcoming is Sundance's New Frontiers exhibit and an open call from the Tribeca Film Institute for Storyscapes: "a transmedia program to showcase work that explores new forms of storytelling, highlighting innovation across a variety of platforms."