Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, and Peter Odabashian Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker‘s American Tongues was the inaugural film that launched POV when the series began in 1988. More than 20 years later, they continue to produce acclaimed documentary films that take a humorous and critical view of American life. Their most recent film, made with co-producer Peter Odabashian, The Anti-Americans (a hate-love relationship), is a whimsical look at what Europeans think of American politics and culture. Other films include Small Ball: A Little League Story and People Like Us: Social Class in America. (Left to right in the photo: Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker and Peter Odabashian.)
But just because they’re great at making funny and smart documentaries doesn’t mean that these award-winning filmmakers are resting on their laurels — they continue to push themselves into the digital realm and to explore the possibilities of interactivity. When we last checked in with them, they were busy at work on a prototype of a Web-based game for middle school kids. We asked them to fill us in on their latest project, Past/Present.

Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker: For the past year or so, we’ve been playing in the sandbox of Web-based interactivity, conceiving and building a prototype of an immersive 3-D single-player American history game called Past/Present. The underlying idea is to engage middle schoolers by having them “become” everyday people from the nation’s past and then having them navigate a richly-designed historical landscape, where they encounter non-playing characters and make life-changing decisions that lead to multiple outcomes. You can see what we’ve been up to at americandynasties.org. We were aided by a great team of game designers from Muzzy Lane Software, who helped us realize our vision: they provided technical and creative expertise in game building, and we pushed them to recognize what we wanted in terms of story and structure.

Past/Present - a game by the Center for New American Media

A still from Past/Present, a game created by the Center for New American Media

It’s been a fascinating — and often frustrating — process, but now that we’ve done it, it’s going to be hard to go back to doing traditional straight-line television documentaries. In all our beta testing, it was great to watch the sheer pleasure and familiarity that younger people have with the two-way nature of digital media, demanding to interact with the media they are consuming. (You can see some of the students’ reactions on our site.) To be able to harness that for documentary work is an exciting challenge we hope to attack soon.

But as much as we’re on board, we like to think that we haven’t exactly drunk all the Kool-Aid that some interactive evangelists have been selling. We’re old enough to remember the 1970s, when portable video was the next great thing, and we know about the mountains of bad video that was shot accordingly. Skepticism is warranted.

Since Past/Present is more akin to historical fiction than a documentary — we had to create characters out of whole cloth and write their dialogue — the analogy to nonfiction media is imperfect. But the lessons we learned about creating interactive works still apply. A couple of our commandments: build interactivity from the ground up, not as an afterthought; and realize that while people think they like the idea of infinite choice, in reality they take comfort from an unseen hand guiding them through the maze.

For the inner control-freak that resides in every documentary filmmaker, interactivity can seem like an invitation to anarchy, where all messages are blended and mashed into the same media porridge for short attention spans. Sometimes that’s true, but does it always have to be like that? If we nonfiction filmmakers want our ideas to be heard in the future, we need to figure out how to make interactivity work for us — on whatever digital platforms that are out there.

After all, why should World of Warcraft players have all the fun?

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POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.