Today’s social documentary filmmakers are taking cues from the immersive storytelling of transmedia, using techniques therein to engage wider and more diverse audiences on the urgent social issues of our time.
Transmedia as a buzzword has taken on a life of its own beyond the film world, translating to mobile campaigns, television shows, advertising, and even books. Whether called transmedia, multi-platform, cross platform or just cross media, filmmakers from all genres no longer just make films. Aspiring filmmakers in the social documentary sphere are facing the prospect of a media campaign of overwhelming proportions. But innovative and passionate socially-minded individuals are taking chances and creating blueprints for future filmmakers. Social documentary projects are increasingly more than social and more than documentary.
The transmedia world as demonstrated by pioneer Lance Weiler can be daunting for the grassroots social documentarian. In the ultimate expression of an immersive storytelling experience, Weiler created an ongoing narrative beginning with film, and in its latest iteration, as a real time interactive gaming experience taking place in Park City. Through cell phones, audience members became active members of a Pandemic 1.0 population being tracked online.
Weiler’s genius is a sense of realism and interactivity that is echoed by bigger studio-backed films, such as 2012 and the now infamous website for The Institute for Human Continuity, which calls into question the ethics of realism.
Others are more obviously immersive than real, but with similar effects. Consider the evolution of the NBC series Heroes, which expanded storylines and created new characters exclusively online and with audience preference. The Heroes narrative also draws heavily from the storytelling techniques of comic books, and by design attempts to lure that audience into the television world. The show’s Facebook page also boasts over two million fans.
Social documentary filmmakers, however, are looking to share a realism that is, well, actually real. Because of the narrow focus and objectives of these projects, the sense of endless creation demonstrated above seems impractical. Ali Samadi Ahadi demonstrates otherwise. While his distinctive documentary The Green Wave doesn’t move much beyond the film platform, it incorporates the unique creative elements of transmedia for a much different experience. Ahadi uses a mix of animation, on the ground footage, and narrative from actual Iranian bloggers to weave the story of the green revolution from the perspective of the Iranians who lived it.
Still others approach social documentary by first tackling other spaces. Newcomer Jacqueline Olive is taking on the sensitive issue of lynching. The Always in Season Island project had roots in museum exhibitions to raise awareness of the prevalence of lynching in American history all the way through the 1960s. It’s a history that still has profound effects on the families and descendants of lynching victims.
Olive, an alumnus of the BAVC Producers Institute, expresses the environment for lynching through a Second Life world that somewhat controversially asks visitors to place themselves in the crowd attending a lynching. The interaction takes place both in and out of Second Life in online spaces, but the lynching experience enables participants to examine their own capacity for change. The documentary film, Always in Season, is still in production.
Another route for participation in the social documentary experience is through citizen journalism. Also still in the production phase is Leah Mahan’s film Turkey Creek, about the endangerment of an idiosyncratic and historic community of coastal Mississippi. The community of descendents of emancipated slaves is struggling to protect the wetland environment in the wake of rapid urban development.
The struggle is universally felt across the Gulf Coast and consequently inspired the Bridge the Gulf Project, which marries social awareness with cultural preservation. Community members are matched with citizen journalists to capture their individual stories and contribute to the larger media campaign for what Mahan describes as “cultural survival, environmental justice and sustainable development.”
Derrick Evans, a Turkey Creek community leader, expressively describes the community’s aspirations to “diversify the picture, diversify the voice.” Ultimately, this is what transmedia strategies can do for social documentary.
Transmedia doesn’t just create interactive spaces for awareness but also for creative expression that strengthens community bonds. Roland Legiardi-Laura teaches Bronx teens creative writing and poetry and picked up on the life of teenagers as lived through smart phones. Beginning with a documentary film, To Be Heard, about the lives of three teenage poets, Legiardi-Laura developed the idea for an online space and mobile app through which teens can read, share and edit called Power Poetry.
What these and many more social documentary projects demonstrate is that regardless of the transmedia scope, filmmakers must be strategic from the start. Any transmedia endeavor is also a collective work, whether it’s with techies or community members. For social documentaries, transmedia is about manipulating media to develop effective engagement and impact. Storytelling, and consequently transmedia, is the tool for activation.
Transmedia for Social Documentary has also been cross-posted on the Tribeca Film Institute blog.