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idfa's doclab: documentary storytelling

An eclectic harvest at this year's DocLab, the new media program of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, focusing on new forms of documentary storytelling. Yesterday's DocLab Presentation: Back to the Future featured a wide variety of projects, ranging from a graphic novel to live storytelling, while DocLab Live 4: The Web Rocks presented web documentaries loosely centered around music.

What these projects, and their makers, seemed to have in common is a 'medium-independent' approach to storytelling, comparable to the difference between story and plot. If story is the raw material from which a plot is crafted, in these cases the story is molded in a specific medium, be it film, an infographic, a book, etc. Of course, the medium being the message, the form chosen will define the experience of the story, in the same way that a single story can be told in many different plots. (Remember Queneau's 'Exercises in Style'?)

Thus, to the afternoon moderator's bewilderment, a documentary can take the form of a graphic novel and the New York Times produces non-textual journalistic pieces in many interactive and nonlinear formats, trying to find the best-fitting form for each subject. (One beautiful, though tragic example is 'Scenes From a Ruined Boulevard', which documents the devastation in one street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.)

Other highlights of the day included:

  • 'Highrise / Out My Window', a web documentary made with 360° cameras brings to life the stories of people living in highrise buildings in 13 cities all around the world. Using people's apartments as the interface, the project creates intimate collages of people, objects and views out of the window.
  • 'Kenk', subtitled 'A Graphic Portrait', documents the story of an iconic Slovenian-born Torontonian, who has been called "the world’s most prolific bicycle thief" and a "self-styled urban environmental crusader". Based on video footage and still photography, this graphic novel has an awesomely gritty black-and-white style, inspired by the aesthetic of oldschool photocopies. The team behind this project is now turning the book into an animation film, a process they dubbed "palindromic filmmaking".
Les Communes de Paris
  • 'Les Communes de Paris', a web documentary offering an interactive tour through the recently envisioned Grand Paris, telling the stories of its people and neighborhoods, from the postcard center to the far-flung banlieues. While its interactivity is based on one of the most classic interfaces (the map), the film manages to draw you into its myriad stories and convey the unique energy mix of the hyperlocal and cosmopolitan Paris.

household tales illustrations

Besides writing the Ghormenghast trilogy and other novels and stories, Mervyn Peake also worked as a visual artist, illustrating his own books as well as classics such as 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Treasure Island'. Like his books, Peake's pen drawings are darkly expressionistic, grotesque and poetic - fantastic in the old-fashioned sense of the word.

The Mervyn Peake website collects many of them, but somehow omits his illustrations, first published in 1946, for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, from a collection titled 'Household Tales'. Not surprisingly, Peake's images fit the magical atmosphere and strange logic of these tales perfectly, bringing out their humor as well as their darker, scarier side.

Here are some examples, from 'The Goose Girl', 'The Golden Bird' and 'The Bremen Town Musicians'. The first one especially is a quintessential fairy tale image...

The Goose Girl - Mervyn Peake

The Golden Bird - Mervyn Peake

The Bremen Town Musicians - Mervyn Peake

red-hot shoes

We all know how the fairy tale of 'Snow White' ends, right? The prince marries Snow White and they live happily ever after... But the Brothers Grimm version - the original if there ever was one - has one last gruesome twist up its sleeve, which Disney not surprisingly left out. It takes place at the wedding ball, where the wicked stepmother appears after the mirror has told her she is still not the fairest one of all.

Then the wicked woman uttered a curse, and was so utterly wretched that she didn't know what to do. She had no peace, but felt she must go to see the young Queen. And when she recognized Snow-white she stood rooted to the spot with rage and fear. But iron slippers had already been put upon the fire, and they were brought in with tongs and set before her. Then she was forced to put on the red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped dead.

Medieval poetic justice, though the method would seem to fit Cinderella's stepmother better.

loch lomond

Loch Lomond - 1

Loch Lomond - 2

Loch Lomond - 3

Loch Lomond, Scotland's, and in fact Britain's, largest lake, dressed in the purplish hues of autumn...

edinburgh castle

Edinburgh Castle - 1

Edinburgh Castle - 2

(Only a few phone snapshot details of Edinburgh Castle I'm afraid...)

this painting is not available in your country

The painting titled 'This painting is not available in your country' by Paul Mutant satirizes copyright restrictions and geoblocking in particular. Like a Magritte for the digital age, it also cleverly plays with the reproducibility of art and the changed relationship between "original" and "copies".

This painting is not available in your country - Paul Mutant

To flesh this out a bit, its self-referential statement is both true and not true on several different levels, creating interesting paradoxes. Where 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' pointed out the difference between an object and its representation, 'Not available' is about different shades of representation in what Baudrillard called hyperreality, which takes place entirely in the realm of representations.

First of all, the work is a representation, not of a real-world object, but of a statement from the digital world, familiar to everyone who listens to music or watches films online. Thus it is a representation of a representation, but a digital representation brought back to the physical world.

Also (assuming this actually is a real painting and not a digital creation), the work is a physical object, an original, which can't be copied in the sense that its physicality - of paint on a canvas - is unique. Here the work's statement creates an obvious paradox, precisely because it suggests there are copies. (Blocked availability still implies their existence...)

On another level, in the digital world the usual response to a geoblock is a) frustration, and b) to find a work-around to access the work you were looking for. In this case, the work invites you to dwell on this frustration until you realize that this is it. What you see is what you get. In other words, there is no real pipe blocked by the statement on the canvas.

But perhaps the greatest irony lies in viewing this (digital copy of a photograph of the) painting online. On yet another level, it makes the statement true: the painting, indeed, is not available in my country. (In fact, I don't even know where it is physically located.) Which brings back another kind of frustration, also born of the digital age, of being teased by and not being able to see all the original artworks in the world, and having to make do with crude online representations...

Via Neural.

Update: To add yet another representational meta-layer, the artist created an infographic documenting the spread of his painting online - including this blog's review. The result was included in his exhibition in Három Hét Gallery, Budapest (until 14 June).

archibald strohalm

This one's in Dutch, from Harry Mulisch's first novel 'archibald strohalm' (1951), which apparently has never been translated, yet.

Geloof jij aan een hiervoormaals? Ook hier was het weer de omkering, de wederkerigheid, die hij overal ontmoette en die hem steeds weer mateloos boeide; het heen en weer vloeien en wegvallen van alle vaste punten, het vlotraken van omlijningen en grenzen, axioma's en wetten, die in duizendjarige arbeid waren vastgelegd. Het was mooi, maar gevaarlijk. Hij, archibald strohalm: de man die de nieuwe axioma's en wetten zou ontwerpen, waarmee gewapend men alles te lijf kon en niet op beslissende punten de armen machteloos omhoog zou hoeven te heffen. Als hij het kernaxioma maar eerst vond, waar al het andere zijn bloed uit moest putten. Hij had het nog niet gevonden. En zolang hij het nog niet gevonden had, dreigden er grote gevaren in het vlotraken en wegvloeien! De felle angst, wanneer men op een stoel staat, die omvalt. Misschien was het alleen een elementaire kosmische beweging, die hij in zijn werk wilde vastleggen. Maar wat is een vastgelegde beweging? Geloof jij aan een hiervoormaals? Hier stroomden de antwoorden in de vraag terug, hier was een grote wijsheid bereikt, die niets bewees, omdat het vaste punt ontbrak. Was het er niet, dat punt? Bestond het alleen uit de vertrouwende overgave, waarmee men zich in het stromende begaf?