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hot docs talks: Passionate Storytelling
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Hot Docs Talks
Transcripts from interviews conducted at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, April 25 - May 4, 2003

Theme 2: Passionate Storytelling
Why do doc-makers tell the stories they tell? Is new media affecting how these stories are told? Can the Web work as a medium for passionate storytelling?

Sara Diamond and Peter Wintonick
Sara: So let's talk a little bit about storytelling in documentary forms, and the ways that digital media have allowed emotional content to emerge or not emerge.

Peter: I've always been confused when I go to these digital documentary forums. We're always talking about storytelling and characters, and I think it's kind of innate in any kind of expressive media - from poetry upwards or downwards - that there is some story or anti-narrative. So I'm always confused by the word "story", Sara. Help me out with this.

Sara: Okay, well I think that there is a sense with digital media - because you're building a database and have all these components or pieces of a story that are level, and then your participant or user has to kind of move between these and pick what they're going to look at - that the usual emotional arc of a narrative is not available with in a lot of Web based or "hypertext" media. I've been very impressed by, for example, the Sonic Memorial project and some of the other projects we've seen, where the material is so strong and yet the user can have an emotional experience at their own pace, according to what they're able and willing to take in and experience. And I think that's different than how documentary makers tell a story through a more traditional narrative.

Vanessa Bertozzi
The thing about sound that struck us was that it's so personal, and it kind of speaks directly to you. And we thought that sound had been kind of neglected on the Web. It was kind of tertiary, you know. So we wanted to make something that would evoke a place that no longer exists, and the Web was a perfect place to do that, because it is kind of an amorphous space - there are no physical strictures, and sound was the perfect medium for that.

We were thinking a lot about this infinite structure in new media. And even visually, in the Sonic browser, we wanted to create a sense of the infinite: a sense that you could go to the Web site and it just keeps going on and on - you can keep submitting stories and there's no limit. It's not something that's finite at all. It's something that we're hoping will just keep growing for years to come.

John Haslett Cuff
The documentary form has been around since the beginning of film. There are many varieties of documentary film. My film is a very good example of a POV [Point of View] documentary - it's a classic example of a POV. At the same time, it has other elements in it. The form is very fluid. There is no one form. There is no one form, and it's constantly evolving, and I don't think anybody is frankly going to do anything new. The technology may change, but stories are stories, and people are people. That's never going to change.

Velcrow Ripper
For me, for the 23 years I've been making documentaries, it's been a way for me to explore the world, explore the events that are unfolding around me and to try to understand them. It's always a very personal investigation for me, always. Documentary is a wonderful way to go deeply into something that you care about. And you do live with it, so you want to care about it. I spent the last two years actually just travelling around the world to these different "ground zeros", just trying to learn first-hand and take my time before I actually go and shoot. So it's an all-encompassing, all-consuming project.

Erica Pomerance
Dabla is the Bambara word for "stop" - and [Dabla! Excision] means to stop excision and female genital mutilation. And it's a film that I wanted to make to show what African women were doing to make this process turn around, to change a traditional custom that is thousands of years old.

This recent film is a film where I tried to make something joyful out of a very painful subject, and to turn around the trend towards Afro-pessimism and show that African people are also beautifully positive, hopeful - they sing, they dance, without any money they manage to make ends meet, they face their problems with courage. And they also know how to work change in a different way than we in the West. They work against speed, they're not necessarily running to beat time. Things take the time they take. They don't think that genital mutilation can be beat within five easy lessons - they know it's going to take time but they've got to start somewhere. And this is a movement that's actually very wide spread and has been going on for a number of years, but not getting much media attention. There have been a number of shock films on FGM. But not too many films in-depth, probing the cultural ramifications.

Paul Jay
Storytelling is storytelling, and whether you see it over the Web, or you see it on TV, or you see it somewhere else - in terms of the audience perception I don't think it's that big a difference yet. Not for documentaries. Certainly for features, you know, digital effects have changed, special effects have changed the way that feature films are done. But with a few exceptions mostly negatively. Because people get so hung up with that stuff that they forget about storytelling.

Loretta Todd
I think one of the things that we've been really afraid to be is to be affectionate with our subjects. I've seen documentary people put them up on a pedestal, or they patronize them, or whatever. You know, there's a lot of things we do to try to show our regard for the people in our films. But I think a lot of times in documentary, in the mainstream or non-Native documentary, there's always been a fear to be affectionate. And one of the things that I've noticed lately in documentary is an opening up to this idea of affection. If nothing else in the Aboriginal community, when we're on our game - and I can't say we always are - but when we're on our game, when we are who we're supposed to be, that's one of the things that we value: affection and kindness for one another.

Rae Hall
I think of documentary loosely as storytelling, and sometimes I think Zed is an entire project - if you kind of view it in a non-linear sense - there is a documentary on our alternative pop culture there, but in a more traditional form. But one of the opportunities that we're going to have with Zed as it moves along is that there are kind of micro-documentary forms - first person storytelling - that we're going to engage in more and more, in terms of commissioning those pieces. Certainly, we've had mock documentaries, and have had smaller documentary films simply uploaded to the site. But I think we can get into a more interesting experiment in micro-documentary content that is told in a linear fashion, and then has a non-linear application. So that's one of the directions we're looking at in year two. Year one was just about staying on the air without imploding.

Ana Serrano
My passion has always been: how do I marry narrative expression with the interactive medium? And actually many people don't think that that's possible. A lot of people will say interactivity and narrative immersion are...that interactive narrative is an oxymoron, and that you can't have an interactive experience and an immersive experience at the same time. At Habitat, what we're trying to do is prove them wrong.

When people say that you can't have an interactive narrative, it's because for the most part interactive narrative projects look at interactivity as navigation. That's sort of a very plebian way of looking at interactivity, and it's also a very banal way of looking at interactivity. It was important in the beginning, because we were just playing with the form. But now I think what producers and interactive producers are looking for is interactivity having a meaningful point in the actual narrative. So that interactivity as an action that is invested with narrative meaning.

Jim Compton
The way I look at television, the way I look at documentaries, is like we did in the old days: Everybody sat around the fire, and everyone had their perspective. And the television industry is the same way. Everyone has their perspective. And up until I think the network [APTN] got its feet wet and launched, there have been other people that have been telling those stories, but with their own particular perspective. I think that the pet project for us is to retell those stories, but from our perspectives - so when you sit around the campfire, everybody has that perspective, and that's what you're going to get. I think that it's time for Aboriginal people to start pushing forth their perspective. You may get, as the historians say, revisionist history. Well, it's not revisionist history - it's the retelling of a history from a perspective that has not been heard before. It's similar to journalism.

Alex Shuper
The thing is that everybody talks about this "digital revolution", and what's cited as the digital revolution is largely the rise of digital computers, the rise of digital video cameras. And that's definitely the case, but the ability to create and amass that kind of information is only part of the equation. The other part of that equation is the ability of people to construct a story out of that material that is created and amassed. Otherwise, it will just fade into oblivion. Again, that's why I think that the most important part of the digital revolution is what has yet to take place. And I like to think that our film Edgecodes and our Web site edgecodes.com are a big step in that direction.

Marc Glassman
The Documentary Organization of Canada, formerly the Canadian Independent Film Caucus, has for 20 years represented the independent voices of documentary filmmakers in Canada. And those voices are the voices of people who in many cases were raised through the National Film Board, and in many cases the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. And those people have come forward and are making their own films. And so the real sea change - which has been happening over that whole 20 year period - has been the change to the John Walkers and the Peter Wintonicks and the Laura Skys, and all kinds of people who are indies, and who are mavericks, and who make their films their own ways. People who make their films sometimes with the CBC, sometimes with the NFB, sometimes in coproduction with international organizations, but who make the films they want to make as much as they can, with whatever money they can. That's the good part.

The bad part is - and it's really tragic - that many of these filmmakers, and the younger generation that is following them, are finding more and more that there is less and less. There's plenty of topics but there's no money. And with no money, how do you make the films? And so the real difficulty is that there are lots of interesting people out there - many people I see in mid-career are people who started in their twenties and are now say forty years of age, forty to fifty - who are great, who have established themselves (and this is not just in documentary but also in fiction), but who are now struggling to be able to make the kind of works that they want to make.

Arlene Ami
What was really important to me in making this documentary was getting the women's stories out there. I was really inspired by their courage and their strength, and I thought it was important that these stories get out to a larger audience. Also, by making this documentary, I was hoping that other women who were in similar situations would find out about the women's stories, and know that they weren't alone in going through what they were going through. So that was really my intention with making this documentary.

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