#SheffDocFest 2018 Diary | Part 2

A Perspective on Emerging Tech and Its Place in Authentic Storytelling

By Dr Jodi Nelson-Tabor @digital_resrchr

The 2nd day of the festival I was completely immersed in the Alternate Realities Summit, which was the focus of my attendance at the festival. I was really keen on learning what were new forms of documentary practice emerging with the new tech evolving in VR/AR/Mixed reality. And what new workflows and ways of approaching story through these new mechanisms. William Uricchio’s presentation on how ’Stories are Changing’ he talked about algorithm filmmaking and how large amounts of investments were going into (self/AI) projects, rather than VR. (Algorithmic filmmaking melds portrayals of the self with their portrayals of the world.) 

These statements of emerging tech and industry investment echoed what I was hearing at a previous event at VRWorld in London, where the panellists also said that money was moving away from funding VR tech (other than to the large corporations), but rather towards more immersive content that would be personalised to the user through algorithm and AI.

A really interesting question was posed during the panel from an audience member who asked, “if we are merely reflecting our own world view through AI and machine learning stories (as opposed to authored stories) how will we, as audiences experience the ‘other’ outside of our own perspective?” A very interesting question and one that filmmakers need to consider when creating content for these new platforms and technological production and delivery tools.

Next was an interesting and passionate talk by Al Jazeera journalist Zahra Rasool, Head of Contrast VR, spoke on Authenticity and Diversity in Storytelling through about her project entitled ‘Yemen’s Skies of Terror’. She posed that we are often presented with stories told about the developing world, rather than stories told with the developing world. Because of this, stories are often skewed and singular in how they represent some of the most critical issues of our time. Her lack of access into Yemen provided an opportunity to collaborate with locals and train them as 360 filmmaking citizen journalists in order to capture content and develop stories from the locals’ point of view.

Larger questions were being posed by Ruthie Doyle’s presentation (Sundance New Frontiers) entitled ‘Making a New Reality’ where she asked specific questions around agency and mitigating bias in these new forms of storytelling. How access to equipment and the creation of content for marginalised groups was very important to make sure that diversity is addressed.

Additionally, that there are sufficient mechanisms to support growth in this sector from all voices, not just white, entitled males. She mentioned some key concerns that we should be aware of, such as Bias Narratives, Innovator Stereotypes, Participation and Representation Gaps, Meritocracy and Pipeline Arguments, Patronising Attitudes, Biased Algorithms, Filter Bubbles and False Democratisation, Consolidated Media Landscapes, Cybersecurity, Privacy and Regulation, Ethical Boundaries, Lack of Safe Spaces, Appropriation and Co-opting, Diversity Stigma, Navigating Disruption, and the Achievement Gap. And while there are certainly a lot of key concerns not only for the makers of creative content for audiences who will consume it, but there were also interventions we, as a collective creative industry can implement to mitigate these key concerns.

Tree Key Themes emerged; Mitigating Bias, Mitigating Groupthink, and Designing Better Policy & Infrastructure. The overarching intervention however, was to engineer robust inclusion in imagining our future.

At the end of the day, I attended an immersive video installation called DOUBLETHINK. In George Orwell’s dystopian classic novel ‘1984′, doublethink is the act of holding, simultaneously, two opposite, individually exclusive ideas or opinions and belief. And in this experience, as the viewer, I had two choices I would face. Either I could choose to enter a metal shipping crate labelled HOPE or a different one entitled HATE.

I chose HATE (only out of curiosity as my proclivity is always to move toward love), and my colleague chose HOPE so we could compare our experiences and report back what we saw.

From my own experience, I was led into a dark shipping crate with six benches where only 1 other participant was waiting. The lights went out.

The film projection started with a flickering green screen and text in front of me that gave specific instructions, such as; look ahead, no blinking, keep feet apart and off the ground. An eerie, hollow soundscape moved all around me in surround sound. Then an actor walked into the frame on the screen and delivered a monologue to the audience, breaking the 4th wall. He ranted about a secret report and how his father was punishing his generation and that children were only born to pursue their parent’s revenge. The actor was in a small, warehouse-like room with a desk, book bound files, an old-school red telephone and a camera on a tripod, which he moved and focused on the audience. He also took out of his pocket a recording device the size of a mobile phone and placed it on the desk to record the event. He then got a secret phone call that we didn’t hear, and when he turned back to the audience, revealing he had a bloody nose. Then he became more and more agitated, and seemed to almost faint, as if he had perhaps been poisoned. Then he turned a knob on what looked to be a boom box or clock behind him and the screen flickers and goes blank.

Then we were shown a multitude of overlapping images. Gory and gruesome, horrific and sad. As I had seen this type of ‘scene’ in films before, say like when a character in a film is kidnapped and their abductor keeps them locked away in a room with blaring metal music, abstract wall paper, low lighting and a TV set playing on a loop horrible, negative-type images.  But as soon as the images started in our case, they stopped. The experiment was over.

As I conversed with my colleague, she revealed her experience was about love and inclusion and she was shown a very similar film and image sequence – but themed in love.

DOUBLETHINK is supported by from Welcome, with input from mental health researchers, so I imagined this would be a social experiment around how perhaps media influences our choices, behaviours and relationships. I could only deduce that the social experiment was a commentary perhaps on how the media and the images projected in news, advertising, social media and films could alter or even modify behaviour in people, based on the intention behind its making for good or bad. That we, as filmmakers have a supreme responsibility to nurture and shepherd the content we create toward good intentions for these very reasons.

Receiving images over and over again of negativity and hate your body and mind start to gravitate toward that behaviour and even puts you in an agitated state and denial – much like the actor behaved in my version of the film.

However, images of love and peace and harmony had a very different effect on how my colleague viewed the world because of perception and intention behind the images portrayed. I think the video installation is also a commentary on our modern-day interaction with social media, the news media and the immense amount of noise we sift through and filter out every day. That these agencies and organisations who try to persuade our thoughts, our buying and purchasing power, even our influence voting preferences (i.e. Cambridge Analytica/Facebook) show just how powerful the medium of imagery and media are and how even at a subconscious level it can have a negative effect in our choices, behaviours and relationships on a daily level.

Rounding out the day, I attended the sold-out presentation by Mark Cousins entitled ’30 Images in the Dark’, which focused how we as filmmakers consider the aesthetics and emotion of ‘looking’ and how we examine how our ‘looking selves’ develop and how our social and cultural surroundings shape what we see.

Does Utopia mean anything to documentary filmmakers? This was one of the first slides and questions that Mark proposed to the audience. I found this particularly an interesting presentation as he scrolled through a lot of obscure films and stills that I had never seen before and showed us a world through his own perspective.

Pointing to various objects in the images from colour to shadows, to objects and camera positions; and how really ‘looking at this aesthetics’ enabled us to tell really interesting stories. It reminded me of John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing, which was a book that accompanied a BBC series by Kenneth Clarke (Civilisation), which represents a more traditionalist view of the Western artistic and cultural canon, which criticise traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images.

I think in the era of all the new and emerging technology, we can perhaps get overwhelmed or even very lost in remembering the purpose and meaning of creating film and telling authentic and truthful stories. This presentation brought it back for me and helped me imagine we can be free to use any mechanism to tell our story. To not be bound by obstacles. Rather, to tell stories with images and show our audiences where we want our audiences to look in the frame through – whichever device or new tech tool they are now ‘looking’ experiencing it on.


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