Creating the new: the technology in mixed media documentaries

This article was originally published in Dutch on
Authors: Sander Hölsgens and Tamara Witschge

More and more film festivals are showing VR installations, AI work, interactive documentaries and 3D renders. What does this say about the state of documentary film? Why do documentary makers rely on these technologies? In this article, we highlight the work of makers who use new technologies to show a radically different perspective.

In Leviathan (2012), anthropologists Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel attach GoPros to fishermen’s torsos, between flying seagulls and amid fishing nets. The target? Creating a sensory experience that does justice to the tumultuous life at sea. Leviathan shows how important recording equipment can be to the aesthetics, ethics and overall structure of a documentary.

Castaing-Taylor and Paravel regard recording equipment as an extension of their own experience. For them, traditional cameras provide too limited and one-sided a perspective, which means that they use a range of technologies in their oeuvre – from mobile telephones and handy telescopes to moving robotic cameras.

Castaing-Taylor and Paravel are no exception: the use of new technologies is increasingly popular. Not only does this equipment require new skills, but it also changes the type of productions that audiences see. For what purpose do makers use these technologies? And to what extent does this development benefit documentary productions?

Does virtual reality lead to more empathy?

In the summer of 2020, EYE Filmmuseum screened Roger Ross Williams’ VR installation Traveling While Black (2019), which can also be viewed via The New York Times. In the film, you – as a viewer – sit at a small table in Ben’s Chili Bowl, a restaurant in Washington. Ben’s Chili Bowl was featured in The Green Book, a mid-century guide to charting which restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and hospitals would be safe for African Americans. The VR work explores stories and visions of everyday racism, from Sandra Butler-Truesdale’s memories of institutional segregation to Samira Rice’s memento of her son Tamir – who was shot dead in 2014 by police officer Timothy Loehmann.

The anti-racist film aims to evoke empathy and solidarity. As in other VR works such as John Hulls’ Notes on Blindness (2016), Sarah Berkovich’ Being Henry (2016) and Gayatri Parameswaran’s Home After War (2018), it is all about creating an immersive experience. In fact, in a recent interview with NRC journalist Dana Linssen, filmmaker Roger Ross Williams says that VR work is “able for you as a white person to feel what it is like to have black skin”.

Virtual reality is – in Ross Williams’ words – an “empathy machine”. Behind this term lies not only a far-reaching belief in technology as a tool to evoke solidarity and empathy. This rhetoric also suggests that it is possible to experience what everyday racism feels like from white privilege. The subtitle of the interview, “that’s what it feels like to be black in the US,” also hints at this.

Documentary makers can indeed use technology such as VR to tell crucial stories and offer marginalized people a platform in the fight against structural injustice. But the tenor of the interview is problematic. Because, as Neske Beks recently wrote in the OneWorld article What voice does white have in the fight against racism? writes: “a white person cannot, never, tell what it really means to be of color and to be discriminated against on the basis of race”.

The Moments of Innovation platform – a collaboration between MIT Open Documentary Lab and IDFA Doclab – places technological innovations such as VR in a historical context. What preceded Traveling While Black? Or more precisely: why is there such an emphasis on immersion in the social debate surrounding VR? The researchers behind Moments of Innovation say this debate has a lot in common with Robert Barker’s age-old description of the panorama: the goal is to make viewers feel “as if they are actually in the relevant place.” The actual technology behind virtual reality may be a recent development, but the thinking behind it has a longer history than you might initially think.

Querying through technology

Tran T. Kim-Trang also tries to understand the social debate about technological development in a broader context. Why do we so applaud one technology and shun others? What does that say about a society? And how can documentary makers give new recording equipment and media forms a new meaning? These kinds of questions return in the long-running The Blindness Series (1992-2006). In eight short videos, she explores everything to do with vision and representation in the context of the United States – from stigmas surrounding dyslexia to the white beauty ideal behind cosmetic eyelid surgery.

In Ocularis (1997), the fourth part in the series, Tran examines the social role of surveillance cameras. When will this increasingly smart technology be used to protect citizens? And when to monitor or even control them? In order to take a position, Tran deploys exactly the technology she is requesting. In other words: Ocularis uses the technology and aesthetics of surveillance recordings.

The Blindness Series stems from the tradition of activist, intercultural video art, with affordable video cameras, engaged art collectives and underground distribution channels as infrastructure.

After the eight videos of The Blindness Series, Tran transferred Landless in Second Life (2010), a project to immigration that takes the online role-playing game Second Life as its starting point. For a year she reflects in this virtual environment on the uprooting that migration can entail. Who decides whether you are entitled to a new place to live? How are you accepted? Is acceptance what you want to strive for? Can you also criticize your new living environment? And who controls your happiness, your values, your language, your family? Tran pushes these critical issues to the fore with an overarching question: Are there actually immigrants in a fantasy world like Second Life—a piece of software developed in San Francisco that revolves around freedom of mobility, community, and alter egos?

By drawing sharp parallels between virtual communities and American migration policy, Tran draws attention to concepts such as representation, the right to own land and cultural diversity. Unlike many other committed documentaries, this one doesn’t even involve a camera; the shooting of the events in the role play takes place virtually.

Landless in Second Life shows how a fabrication of virtual, manipulated images can relate to reality in a critical way. In a world where diasporic and socially isolated communities are ubiquitous, virtual technologies such as online role-playing can reveal existing boundaries and provide more equitable alternatives. But here too caution is advised, emphasizes feminist and postcolonial filmmaker Trinh T. Min-ha (2013, p.166): “In this age of Augmented Reality and of Remote Control, where relationships away from the computer are at stake, we may have to learn anew when to turn the machine on and when to turn it off”. New technology offers opportunities to reflect on social issues. At the same time, it is crucial to keep questioning technological developments in order to avoid becoming addicted to them.


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