So it turns out there’s more to this Virtual Reality shindig than meets the eye – and I’m not the only one to see the potential here for archaeology.
The Virtual Reality Arcade, which was co-curated with Sheffield’s Site Gallery, seems to be a new addition to the Doc/Fest (or at least, I can’t find any references to it in prior years) – and I hope they make it a permanent fixture synched with the Crossover Summit because there is so much to be inspired by here. Exhibiting a variety of immersive projects from experimental media to fully formed documentary storytelling, one can’t help but wonder if that big dark cinema will soon be replaced by these daggy goggles and headphones. It’s also refreshing to see not only game-like pixelated worlds featured, but observational filming out in the real world. Here’s a selection of my favourite works:
Oscillate, created by UK engineer Brendan Walker, is an immersive art experience that fuses the classic playground swing with Oculus Rift technology. In short: as you swing so too does the virtual world you find yourself in – it moves with you. And it’s a funky world: M.C Escher meets minecraft in space is the best description I can give it. I kept expecting Labyrinth-style David Bowie to appear through the crumbing wall before me, if only I could swing a little bit further to peer around that distant edge. Be warned though: swinging high when blind and deaf to the real world is kind of alarming – it’s easy to forget that there are people around you and a hard floor below. Especially when that floor is replaced by swirling star-filled space. Oh, and did I mention you have no body? You look down and there’s noting there – no you, no swing – it’s like an out of body experience – in fact that was the case in all the VR projects I saw. Psychedelic much?
Clouds Over Sidra was easily my favourite VR project and I was pleased to see it win the Interactive Award at the festival. Co-created by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora and a whole team of “artists, technicians, thinkers and innovators,” this project combines traditional short-form documentary filmmaking with 360’ filming and Oculus VR technology. Commissioned by the United Nations and Samsung as part of an advocacy exhibit at the World Economic Forum in Davos 2015, Clouds Over Sidra tells the story of a 12 year Syrian refugee Sidra who lives in the Za’atari camp in Jordan, along with 84 000 other refugees. She narrates and shares her day with us in her own words, introducing us to her home, having breakfast with her family, going to school, playing with the other kids, and tells us how she wishes to return to where the clouds come from: her home in Syria. Interestingly she is dubbed into English (although you can hear her own voice beneath) – which makes me wonder how subtitles might fare in this new technology. That’s a technicality though. Ultimately, Clouds Over Sidra’s simplicity makes it a powerful piece – Sidra’s world is brought to life in a thoughtful, gentle and emotionally affecting way – demonstrating the real potential for using VR as an immersive storytelling device to drive social and political change. The VR technology here is serving the story, not the other way around. Check out Milk’s TED Talk for a taste of the film and the philosophy behind it, and the Creators Project for an interview with Arora for the more on the making-of this inspiring work.
But what does this mean for archaeology documentaries? Well, Clouds Over Sidra certainly gave me ideas for filming archaeological stories – but damnit Bikini Atoll beat me to the punch. Directed by Phil Harper, Bikini Atoll is a short 360’ film depicting the archaeological and environmental research conducted at the WW2 shipwrecks of Bikini Atoll (in the Marshall Islands), which later became a US nuclear test site. Thus the film takes us to two place we might never get to visit otherwise: underwater wrecks in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, and a nuclear test site (is that even safe?). There’s no scientific description of the research here – nor a clear documentary story driven by character development or change – rather its more of a poetic portrait of the site: you can all but feel the tug of the current as you twist and turn to watch the divers at work. But ultimately it feels like a promise of more to come, rather than a final finished product.
“We’re on the brink of a simply enormous change in visual communication.” – Sir David Attenborough
To me it VR also seems to be a promise: even though the technology has been with us for several decades now, it seems only recently to have begun pushing into fields other than gaming. Now there are stories here that it feels like only VR can tell, and other mediums – particularly the flat-screen of the television or cinema with its distant stereo speakers – will soon be unable to compete in the documentary quest for capturing actuality. And with pocket 360’ cameras and VR headsets now entering the consumer market, perhaps VR stories soon be cheaper and easier to make as well. Will the coder replace the editor? Will that shared communal experience of the cinema become a distant memory, traded in for personal immersive experiences (if that hasn’t happened already)? What are the ethical implications for our audience if such immersive stories become difficult to discern from reality? Will documentary modes change to suit the new vision? And most importantly, how can we eat a choc-top if we can’t see our hands?
Well, that’s a wrap on Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 for this blogger. I came, I saw, I spilled some vodka. And now it’s time to get back to my dusty dell at uni and a ever-growing pile of readings, paperwork and chapter drafts. But please share your thoughts on what you’ve read here – comment is free – and stay tuned for more musings, informal reviews and news on the constantly changing but always inspiring world of archaeology docs!
Let’s start at the end: Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 wrapped up it’s final night with the European premiere of Monty Python – the Meaning of Live, co-directed by acclaimed filmmakers Roger Graef and James Rogan. Monty Python – the Meaning of Live is an observational portrait of the Python gang reuniting for a final live gig at The O2 in London in 2014, and event which creates a nice space for the men to reflect on the origins and legacy of Monty Python – but not without plenty of slap stick gags, old-men jibes and a sprinkling of social commentary. The whole thing is a giant in-joke – so if you’re a fan of the Python boys you’ll have a romp, but if not there’s little here to engage with (and there are better ways to be introduced to Python).
I’m not quite sure how this is a premiere when the documentary – commissioned by cable comedy channel UKTV Gold – was actually broadcast in November 2014. But never mind that – the real attraction here was the Q & A with the co-director Rogan and comedy legend Michael Palin. If you watch UK TV today you’ll probably associate Palin with more light-weight fare, such as history travelogues retracing Hemmingway’s journeys, or trips across the Sahara, Brazil or the Himalayas – productions that probably come under the fact-ent (factual entertainment) wing of television. But here, in obs-doc mode (observational documentary), Palin is no longer presenter but presented, and two storytelling art forms (acting and documentary) go head to head. And even though Monty Python – the Meaning of Live is more fun and affectionate than critical, it was very clear during the Q & A that a real tension existed between the stars in the spotlight and the “cheeky chappies” of the documentary crew waiting in the wings.
Rogan described the shoot as a two-stage process, where Graef (master of British institutional filming in schools, prisons and hospitals) began by following the Python gang through their rehearsals and meetings with a Canon D5, shooting a few sit-down interviews as well as observational footage, albeit from a distance of 15ft. The documentary crew also provided the 5 Pythons with camcorders for recording video diaries – a complete fail when it was revealed the actors instead gifted the camcorders to their grandkids (score!). Consequently, come the 10-day shoot of the live show, Rogan felt a level of intimacy and perhaps even honesty was missing and decided he needed “to be audacious and unapologetically intrusive” by physically getting closer (a obs-doc mantra). Or perhaps a better way of putting it, he “had to abandon Britishness”. And so he shot right up in the personal space of his participants (backstage can be cramped after all), planted go-pros in the dressing rooms and followed the cast running through corridors back stage. Interestingly, one of the co-producers is Holly Gilliam – Terry Gilliam’s daughter, and I wonder if this intimacy would have been allowed and achievable without her there to (literally) open closed doors. Graef apparently was very concerned the whole thing would blow up – but the gamble payed off, Palin was very complementary and “glad you did it in the end”, and the documentary does make you feel like you’re there, so kudos must go to Rogan for persevering and achieving a real sense of actuality.
I mention all this because – especially when you compare Palin in this film to his performances as a presenter and again as an actor – it becomes a nice example of the different levels of access and depth of storytelling you can achieve if you apply a different mode or approach (eg. obs doc instead of presenter/factual). Something worth considering for archaeology documentaries perhaps? (*cough* thesis *cough*).
EVEN ART’S GONE FACTUAL
The other film I squeezed in before the festival ended was DS30, part of Doc/Fest’s ArteFact strand. Commissioned by the AV Festival, DS30 was originally an art installation projected at the monumental coal wharf of Dunston Staiths near Durham, in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike. It’s a collage of raw sound, experimental music and film footage of mining communities and their work, gathered from the archives of the underground political group Test Dept, as well as the BBC, BFI and local collections. My knowledge of the miners’ strikes extends about as far as Billy Elliot, so I probably wasn’t the target audience for this film, although it did spur me to go google the events afterward, so snaps to the filmmakers for achieving that impact. It’s more experimental art than documentary: it’s very in your face, obnoxiously loud and angry – which is probably a fair representation of the actual events – but there’s little context or information provided nor characters to connect to. DS30 will either alienate or intrigue you, or impassion you – as it did an audience member in the Q&A who thanked the filmmakers and the academic behind the production for keeping the memory of these events alive – clearly this past is not past. DS30 is currently touring ex-coalfield venues in the north of England and Scotland.
The rest of my last days at Doc/Fest were spent squeezing in as many panels as possible. It was a pain but I had to skip the pitching sessions and the more indie-like discussions, but I’ll summarise them here to give you a taste of the the subject matter Doc/Fest covers. Topics included: where journalism ends and documentary begins; censorship vs freedom of expression; the future of the television license fee; US/UK compliance; comedy in docos; selfies and the future of reflexivity; filming in war zones; filming with drones; the future of the fixed rig; women in industry; proposal writing; composing; lots on aesthetics and DOPs; the influence of digital and interactive on traditional distribution; social justice and impact filmmaking; filming in/with China, Brazil and Ukraine; and masterclasses with Joshua Oppenheimer and Jeanie Finlay among others. My favourite title for a session by far was “Indiegogo: It’s a Brave New World for Filmmakers, and Time for Payback,” which certainly captures the current mood among indie documentary filmmakers, at least from my perspective. If only I had a time-turner! Instead, I skipped all of these sessions (in the hope that they’ll get posted on the Doc/Fest Youtube Channel eventually) and attended most of the television commissioning panels (which don’t get recorded) and the interactive/multi-platform gigs. My goal you see, was to try and locate where archaeology is currently positioned in the industry and where it might be going.
I won’t go too in-depth here, but it’s worth noting that archaeology’s place seems undefined. At the commissioning panels the same archaeology programmes and topics were being rolled out across the streams of specialist factual, documentary, alternative platforms, history and science (I skipped arts and factual entertainment). Archaeology is a hybrid discipline after all, so it can’t be easy to lock it in to one category. Mind you, what the hell is “specialist factual”? Why and how is that distinct from “documentary”? Interestingly, the outlook for archaeology on television in the UK seems to be monopolized by BBC, Channel 4 and France Télévisions – presumably they’ve cornered that market and the other channels present (including Sky, ARTE, Discovery, Guardian, VICE, PBS, National Geographic) therefore have chosen not to compete in such a niche genre. In short, they each ruthlessly curate their content according to their target audience, their scale of production and for some, whether or not they have a public broadcasting remit. I wonder what the influence of these categories, the branding of the channels, and the personal preferences of the commissioning editors are on the content, storytelling and impact of the archaeology documentaries?
What isn’t new, of course, are the stories. The commissioning editors and some producers were very open and pragmatic about the fact that a lot of their programmes are basically recycled content ( “a surfeit of Pharoahs and Führers” according to the BBC commissioner), with their real efforts as television programmers focused on finding a new approach to storytelling and more diverse voices that reflect their target audience (ie. UK domestic). In particular they asked that pitches from interest parties include more female and ethnically diverse presenters: ‘Bring us the next Mary Beard!’ they cried. Which is good news for archaeology – we have plenty of potential new Mary Beards (a blog entry for another day). But what about the storytelling? Can’t we ramp that up too?
LET’S DO IT LIKE THEY DO ON THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL
Which brings me to the final session at Doc/Fest: “How to Pitch Your Academic Ideas”, hosted by the University of Sheffield. Or perhaps a better name for it would be: “101 in How Not to Pitch Your Academic Ideas.” This session was more straight pitching than training, and it had some gems, but overall what I learned from it was that we academics desperately need to learn how to communicate better – SweetJesus – it was painful.
Here’s a few take aways, should you be thinking about translating your research to screen:
1. Do your research. Not just on your topic of study, but on your pitch and your immediate audience (in this case, the commissioners of Channel 4, Sky, BBC, Nat Geo, ITV etc). One of the pitchers managed to insult the entire panel of commissioning editors by complaining about how they hadn’t covered his area of interest (evolution) to his satisfaction, then launched in to a 15 minute lecture about the evolution of insect penises. The response was kind of entertaining itself: the Channel 4 editor began by asking, “do you actually watch TV?” then proceeded to list about 6 broadcasted series on evolution she had been involved in during the past couple of years. It does make you wonder exactly who’s misunderstanding whom. Needless to say the pitch fell fairly flat. 2. Know your story. In the above case it was clear that it’s not enough for an idea to be interesting or freakishly weird to get picked up for broadcast, there needs to be an actual story. And, yes sex sells, but don’t try to con a conman. Thinly veiled or patronising appeals to the lowest common denominator will fail if your audience knows better than you how to do what you’re doing. 3. Own your story. Even if the research has its own story – for example there was nice historical pitch about revolutionary families of the Irish War of Independence that came with it’s own beginning, middle and end – it’s not enough by itself. When one commissioner gave feedback to that proposal, she complemented the research but said “you pitched your subject matter, not yourself.” The researcher’s response was just slightly defensive, saying she was not trained (or prepared?) to be subjective. As academics if we want to use storytelling we have to respect storytelling conventions. And storytelling is subjective. Again, it’s not a lecture with moving pictures, it’s storytelling, it’s authored. 4. Have a plan. The best pitch of the session was from a couple of robotics engineers, who pitched for a series on the future of robotics in our daily lives. They had a great positive vibe, episode outlines, participant case studies, tie-ins with existing drama TV shows and popular events and a very distinct authorial voice. In short, they pitched a vision and a plan to achieve it (but were still open to adapting it). Their enthusiasm was infectious. They saw the pitch as an opportunity to collaborate – not to lecture – and they took full advantage of it. Win. 5. Evoke emotion. Your pitch should evoke the feelings you want your story’s audience to have (interestingly I’ve read the same about academic presenting at the Thesis Whisperer). The robotics guys again aced this: they had a toy seal that purred and bobbed its head when you stroke it, which they passed around to great effect. The entire panel and audience was smitten, giggling and grinning – I’m smiling now remembering and writing about it! Sadly, one of the commissioners said that she loved their idea but had broadcast something very similar several of years ago, and it had unexpectedly flopped – the audience apparently found it boring (she put it down to its lack of extreme-ness, toasters rather than terminators). Which brings me to: 6: Persevere. Commissioners also mentioned that even of those few programmes that are green-lit, only 1 in 10 make it through writing, pre-production, production, post-production, pilot, and finally to series. So try, try, try again.
All of that said – and keeping in mind that pitching/storytelling tips listed above will stay more-or-less the same across platforms – is TV our only path to getting our stories to our audiences? Back in 2007 Peter Fowler remarked “if you want to play the TV game you have to play by TV’s rules,” but is that still the case? With the rise of digital production and distribution can we do what so many independent documentarians are doing and bypass the broadcasters and get our stories out via alternative platforms? Interactive documentaries? Virtual Reality storytelling? Or, if we want to stick with the broadcasters, is there more leeway now for different approaches and values in storytelling? Will shifting from factual television to other modes and formats take our stories deeper? Show ourselves and our audience something new?
Check back for the next entry on the future of archaeology documentaries according to Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015!
Day 3 of Sheffield Doc/Fest for this intrepid archaeologist kicked off at 10am with the UK premier of The Empire of Scents by Canadian director Kim Nguyen. An audio/visual journey into smell? Is that even a thing? Well, here it is, and somehow it works – and surprisingly well. The Empire of Scents is a essay-like journey into the world of smell and its vital role in synesthesia (the mingling of the senses, memory and emotion in human experience). How does smell work, why does it matter and what would life be like without it? The story of smell is told through the weaving together of the personal passions and experiences of various olfactory experts, including perfumers, a chefs, truffle hunters, saffron harvesters, an astronaut, a botanist, an Alzheimer patient and a tea ceremony master.
This journey is a gentle one, humorous and affectionate, with lots of small, unexpected hooks, twists and turns along the way. Most affecting is the story of a young woman who, having survived a car accident but suffering brain damage, found she could no longer smell. Gone was her sense of taste, her awareness and enjoyment of her environment, and even her memories of loved ones. Can she ever recover her sense of smell? Also, what does space smell like? Can the smell of a truffle also unlock its sound? Do flowers fall in love with each other through scent? Do humans? And is the secret ingredient of perfume really whale vomit? Personally I would have also liked to know if it’s true that archaeologists who specialise in coprolite analysis really can smell the health of said poop’s owner – but maybe that was a little to much on the nose for the filmmakers. Get along to The Empire of Scents when it arrives at your local cinema: this is a bouquet of stories worth savouring (and if you’re in the US you might even get to scratch and sniff your way to an answer at the films premier later this year).
I also had the privilege of attending the European premier of A Sinner in Mecca by Indian/US filmmaker Parvez Sharma. Shot primarily on iPhone (there’s some b-camera, animation and archival to plug the narrative gaps), Sharma tells his own personal story of how he made the dangerous Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Over two million pilgrims make this journey every year – the largest annual gathering of people in the world, including the elderly, the frail and families with children – so how can it be dangerous? Especially when there’s a Starbucks within shouting distance of the Kaaba? Well, in Sharma’s case the danger is very real and very personal: Sharma is an openly gay documentary filmmaker who has been publicly labelled an infidel (for his last film A Jihad for Love) and who now lives with his husband in New York. Both filming within the Hajj sites and homosexuality are strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, the latter punishable by death, as testified by a friend and witness of such an execution in the opening minutes of the film. And yet Sharma must go on the Hajj in order to fulfill his spiritual duties as a Muslim: “I am now faced with a crisis of faith, I need to prove that I can be a good Muslim and be gay”. That conflict makes this is a dangerous spiritual journey as well – is Sharma’s faith strong enough to survive the disapproval of his family, the personal test of his character and the modern political conditions literally dictating his movements?
By filming chiefly on an iPhone not only do we share Sharma’s journey on an extremely intimate level but the filming itself is allowed to be gritty, raw and human. There are few polished crane shots of crowds circling within The Sacred Mosque as you’ll see on slicker films, instead we are down in the scrum, on the ground amid the crush and debris of millions cramming their way through the physically and mentally arduous rituals of the Hajj.
This is a terrific film and one that will no doubt be discussed and debated in film schools for years to come, throwing up questions of ethics (how do you get a release form signed when you’re shooting under cover?), reflexivity and impact (like The Look of Silence discussed in the last post, A Sinner in Mecca is banned in the country of origin, and so is being distributed in Saudi Arabia non-commercially by DVD and digital download through grassroots channels). The most powerful moment I experienced in seeing this film was during the Q&A when a young Muslim woman up the front of the cinema burst into tears thanking Sharma for the film – no-one else in the room was so affected. Her words drove home to me that the Western reception of this film is going to be very much secondary in importance to its Muslim reception (even though the commercial success may be the opposite) and I look forward to reading how it is received by Muslim communities and critics around the world. Stay tuned for more on A Sinner in Mecca.
On Day 4 of Doc/Fest I attended the European premiers of Speed Sisters, a romp of a film with a great soundtrack about Palestine’s (and the Arab world’s) first all-female speed racing team, directed by Lebanese/Canadian filmmaker Amber Fares; and How to Change the World by Jerry Rothwell, an archival/talking heads film about the origins of Greenpeace. Unexpectedly, according to Rothwell during the Q&A, the latter film was not instigated by the NGO, but brought to a rough cut stage before the key figures were invited to be interviewed (therefore, and refreshingly, it’s not really an institutional/ized film). Now, this blog entry’s getting a bit long, so suffice it to say that if either of these show up at your local cinema, or more likely on your Netflix, then you should definitely check them out, they’re both humorous, moving, and enjoyable viewing and nice examples of thoughtful but bold storytelling with a social justice edge.
And now to business!
I attended quite a few panels on commissioning and multi-platforms, but I’m just going to talk about one particular panel today:
The most interesting panel I attended over these two days was definitely ‘Imperialism of Inquiry: How Fair is Our Foreign Filming’. This panel dealt more with the current affairs/journalism end of documentary filmmaking for television, made for white, western and predominantly UK audiences. It started off with a discussion on the importance of ethics in investigative foreign filmmaking, and in particular addressed informed consent (what happens when you loose control of your participant’s image to unscrupulous internet trolls or advertisers, an inevitability in digital broadcasting) and differing censorship standards (eg. UK documentaries cannot legally film or broadcast the testimony of UK child rape victims, but they can do so of African child rape victims – so which country’s broadcaster’s code/legislation is more ethical?). When do your duties to your participants, local crew and fixers end? Certainly not come final cut, nor post-broadcast, but the consensus was: as long as necessary, even if that means years of litigation battles and individual or community sponsorship. Hence the importance of having the support of a production company, broadcaster or distributor with a sturdy legal department, and having someone checking over your shoulder to dot your i’s and cross your t’s before release. Also important, as pointed out by Jezza Neumann, was being prepared to change your story as conditions on the ground dictates.
But what is “fairness” really?
I’m not even sure if fairness is a good word. To me fairness implies equal treatment rather than duty of care – and maybe that works for some forms of journalism, but this is documentary storytelling. I’m not sure if all participants should be treated fairly. Or who should be the one to decide what is fair (directors? commissioners? producers? legislators? participants? the audience?). Just as there’s a power discrepancy in life, so to is there in filmmaking (although the power usually rests in the hands of the filmmaker until release). For example, if Sharma’s film was “fair,” there would have to be interviews – or at least attempts at interviews – with the Saudi Royal family, clerics, police and executioners – to hear their side of the story – putting Sharma’s life directly at risk. Is that truth? Is that really fair? Is that really the story that needs to be told? Are there exceptions or special cases? Should we be aiming for fairness on an individual person-by-person basis, or on a larger, meta-story basis?
Which brings me to the matter of representation. Strangely, no one seemed to acknowledge the fact that this whole discussion was being held by a mostly British, mostly white panel of filmmakers and commissioners, to a mostly white audience in the UK (no Skyping in to Sheffield?). So no surprises that there seemed to be many questions unasked and unanswered.
Fortunately there was one voice that cut through the others: Nigerian director Femi Odugbemi (DVWORX) seemed to be a late addition to the panel (he was not listed in the programme) and he raised the question of why UK broadcasters insist on sending white British presenters and crews to cover stories instead of employing experienced local filmmakers who are already on the ground. He also shared his frustration that foreign filmmakers insist on filming the worst and the poorest scenes in Nigeria – one of the slums in Lagos even has a fixed filming permit fee, thus making filming revenue part of the local economy. In Odugbemi’s personal case, although he works in Nollywood as a director, producer and festival chair, when he is employed by European crews (including one BBC story) he has been reduced to being a fixer and driver, and excluded from seeing the treatment, seeing the final cut of the film, and even told to keep his opinions to himself. The rest of the panel were fairly shocked by Odugbemi’s account – some even implied that that’s not meant to be case – kind of discounting his perspective. But aren’t documentarians supposed to be expert listeners? Personally I would have preferred a whole panel of filmmakers from Odugbemi’s position – then perhaps we could really get the low down on ‘How Fair is Our Foreign Filming.’
At one stage it was mentioned that the job of a documentary filmmaker is to give your participants the chance to use their own voice, not to give your voice to their problems – but I don’t think that’s possible unless your participants are co-directing, producing, and really owning the production. But then, what would that mean for the authorial value of documentary? Again, is this a case of different rules for different subjects materials? If we want equality in filmmaking, to address the power discrepancies between commissioners, producers, filmmakers, participants, and audiences perhaps we have to be more than “fair”.
More on Sheffield Doc/Fest in the next post, and I realise this post has been light on archaeology – but I’ll bring it home soon!