News & Views

Bombay Sapphire, Tribeca Film Festival / Storyscapes

by Contagious Team

Contagious interviews Canada's National Film Board about media experiences at the launch of this year's Tribeca Film Festival

This year, as the Tribeca Film Festival opened in New York City, it chose to cast its eye to the future of film. Storyscapes, an exhibition sponsored in part by Bacardi's Bombay Sapphire, brings five interactive projects to a Tribeca gallery space to highlight how narrative and participation are evolving. 

Curated by Tribeca's director of digital initiatives, Ingrid Kopp, the projects represent the cutting edge of enhanced narrative multimedia. 'This is really the culmination of about 18 months of work to bring these groups together to tell stories in a different way,' says Ned Duggan, the brand director of Bombay Sapphire. 'We see it as the future of filmmaking, really, and the future of storytelling. And that's something Bombay Sapphire really wants to be a part of.' 

The standout among the works is A Journal of Insomnia, the latest from Canada's National Film Board, producer and benefactor of projects that have stretched in-browser experience like Welcome to Pine Point and Bear 71.

Beginning in September 2012, the team behind Insomnia, from interactive design companies like Akufen and Departement, asked insomniacs to record their illness: the sounds, the sensations, the feelings. Their audiovisual narrative is woven together to form the core of the experience. Participating gets much more intimate when one signs up to hear more about each story--participation occurs on the insomniac's terms, with a special link that's only active in the middle of the night. 

At the Storyscapes exhibition, in a large downtown Manhattan studio space, the Insomnia cube sits in a corner, where participants can enter and feel the weight of the loneliness and isolation the sleepless feel unfold each night. Additional exhibitions include Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin's This Exquisite Forest, a hurricane retrospective in Sandy StorylineCasey Pugh's Star Wars Uncut and Alexander Reben and Brent Hoff's Robots In Residence. The exhibition, which sold out several weeks ago, runs through the opening weekend of the film festival. 

We caught up with Hugues Sweeney, executive producer of interactive production at the National Film Board, and Tom Perlmutter, the NFB's government film commissioner and chairperson, to get the latest on the NFB's march to create media and media experiences. 

C: Tom, what's your background like? 

TP: I was a private producer, and was freelance, essentially, and knocking about, and ended up at the NFB. That gave me certain advantages. I had no affiliations with any system. So coming from a marginalized place guided my thinking, that interesting things happened in the margins. 

C: We started seeing really interesting things coming from NFB two or three years ago. Was that around the time your mandate started getting defined? How did that work? 

TP: Before I was head of NFB I was head of English programming, and we were doing experiments and things that were interesting but didn't go anywhere because that technology wasn't ready. We did North America's first interactive feature film, about seven or eight years ago, we did that as a partnership with the Canadian Film Centre, and the platform we had to use then was DVDs, to create interactive work that the audience would play on their own. There were three creators we brought in to work on interlocking stories, and would actually play them like conductors, in terms of taking you in different directions in the story. 

C: What is the relation with the creators? How does the working process happen? 

TP: You set up a context, you take risks, and say, 'Let's push this.' Hugues was coming from a more traditional organization--Hugues you take it over. 

HS: Most of the projects are three or four-headed beasts. Rarely will one person lead the production. It's about bringing people who didn't know each other, or haven't worked together before, around a certain point of view or subject or form, and have them really creating the possibility of these things happening. For me, it's really about how form takes the shape of content. For Insomnia, my daughter was just born, so I was handling bringing the baby for breastfeeding in the middle of the night, staring at the ceiling, and thinking about mental health issues. That's a very important thematic at the NFB, and I was thinking about how insomnia is such a growing issue, and how it's shared with so many people but in complete solitude, and how the internet is the best medium to share that story, because it creates interconnection, you know what time it is, it can be live. There's that relationship, particularly at night, there's a very intimate dynamic with the screen the proximity and the darkness around you. 

So it really started from that, and in that process for this project specifically I had three things that were important for me: We had to use internet attributes to tell the insomnia story, the fact that we're live, for instance. The second was to have the insomniac be the main protagonist, to be really at the centre of the thing, and the third thing was to bring the issue from an individual point of view to a collective point go view. So those were the three things that framed the concept, and then I went to Guillaume [Braun, lead producer] from Akufen, the interactive design agency, and we started to look at what that frame means. 

C: The work you guys are doing is innovative but tied to those thematics, the environment, community displacement, or mental health, but it's never heavy handed. It never feels like there's a brief, but at the same time it feels like it has a theme. How do you maintain a light touch and still talk about important things? 

TP: Again, there's a context. And the context at the Film Board has always been one driven by social issues, classically in terms of documentary and so on. And there's always been the context of creative innovation. So, with Insomnia, the arc is a new form of working with content from outside. Whereas in the late '60s there was a guy called Arthur Lipsett at the Film Board. And he was doing incredible stuff, taking discards from other filmmakers and found material and creating works that influenced George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick. So there was always this element of that. 

I think what's really interesting is that it's so rare that you get to a moment in time where you're actually creating a new art form. This is what's happening. And within the NFB, art forms are narrative-based. These things, you could say, border on installations you'd find in the gallery, but don't go into the concerns of a visual artist that might be much more linked to materiality of objects, for example. This goes into a narrative space. And in that narrative space, it's anchored into these social realities, again, going back to that play idea, the idea of exploring the artistic potential of something new. How do you begin to define what this language is, and how does it evolve? 

C: You guys have done a great job capturing the minds of internet people, people who are interested in forward-thinking media forms, and art. But I also see really broad appeal in the social issues you tackle. So how have you found people who are maybe outside of this supposed target responding to things like this? 

TP: Our own view is that we have a lot more work to do in getting out there and connecting to people. When people discover the kind of work that Hugues is doing they're astounded, and so we have an enormous responsibility. If it's not seen and interacted with it's not an interactive project, it's just something that's sitting there.  Part of our mandate is to transform people, in the way art transforms, and engages. And to do that you've got to reach out.

Contagious Insight      

The NFB has a wonderful mandate and over the years it's produced many interesting work that's stretched the medium. However, despite exhibition aspects of things like Insomnia it has yet to break the browser window or the screen as its primary successful mode of address. As different mediums mature, though, we're hopeful the NFB will be collaborating with those that can stretch them with just as much deftness.

A Journal of Insomnia
Photo credit: Josée Lecompte