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Interactive Documentary Conference at IDFA

IDFAIn its second year, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam's (IDFA) Interactive Reality Conference was packed with filmmakers, programmers and funders looking to grasp the emergent interactive documentary phenomenon. The speaker list was star-studded, culminating in keynoter Jonathan Harris. Not even the failure of wi-fi for the majority of participants could dampen the enthusiasm.

The speakers showed the instability of the emergent field, which is still evolving a basic grammar, genres, and styles. It is even under debate whether this is a feature or an artform. But the debate is over at the National Film Board of Canada, as NFB head Tom Perlmutter explained: "We treat interactive as a stand-alone genre." It accounts for about 20% of NFB's energies, he said -- an investment amply showcased at the event. "It's an art form unto itself. It's not often that you are there at the birth of a new art form. That's why we're spending so much on it." 

DocubaseMIT Open Doc Lab's Sarah Wolozin formally launched the open documentary database _docubase, of which I'm proud to be a curator. The database, supported by the NFB, the National Endowment for the Arts, and IDFA's DocLab, among others, has participatory aspects and is available for mobile. Right now it's restricted to English-language projects. "One of our goals is to work with different communities -- such as journalists and community activists -- across silos," said Wolozin. 

A Short History of the HighriseKaterina Cizek showcased her highrise project at the NFB, the most recent achievement of which is a New York Times Op-Doc, "A Short History of the Highrise." She reminded media-makers that her larger project is not designed to reach audiences at all, but to engage partners -- especially partners from highrises, of which Toronto has many, mostly in the suburbs -- in seeing highrises differently, to make them better places to live. The project has put residents in touch with architects, stimulated subway conversations, and even triggered a process that resulted in the city of Toronto investing in tower renewal. 

Jason Brush, who designed the interface for the PlayStation 4, talked about the ways that technology mediates storytelling, coming back to a basic point: that design, unlike art, only pushes the limit of human experience in order to enhance the quality of human experience. 

Several artists connected screens to real-estate, in ways far from documentary film. Vincent Morisset, a programmer and developer, showcased some of his ambitious interactive video work with indie rock band Arcade Fire. He's working in physical space, connecting people to screens that respond to their moves (including dance moves!). Brent Hoff is using electronics to map emotion and blow up balloons with it. Paolo Cirio is finding people on Google Street View, making life-sized mockups of their images, and posting the mockups on the actual streets

Tribeca's Ingrid Kopp and POV's Adnaan Wasey teamed up to provide their top lessons from hackathons: 

•   Be open to collaboration; don't come to a hackathon with a fixed idea. 

•   Failure is essential, but learn from failure, don't repeat it. 

•   Dream big (Adnaan) or let a small idea grow (Ingrid). 

•   Process and product are both important; without a process that defines a meaningful result, a product is just a waste of time. 

European documentary funders aren't having an easy time incorporating interactive work into their budgets. Not only are budgets being whittled down, co-productions in this arena haven't been buraeucratically debugged and projects that move into Internet space have less claim on the national-culture agenda than broadcast projects do. 

Fort McMoneyThe conference was only one of the dizzying number of interactive activities which increasingly make up a parallel festival at IDFA. It included a mini-hackathon, installations, and live presentations with group participation. The NFB debuted a new, game-oriented interactive documentary, "Fort McMoney." There was even a drone -- seemingly de rigeur for interactive events, at least this year.

Check out the trailers for "A Short History of the Highrise" and "Fort McMoney" below.