Theo Rigby

Theo Rigby, director of the Student Academy Award®-winning documentary Sin País (Without Country), is taking his next project to the web. In this post about his experience working with Mozilla developers at Hot Hacks, which is about to get underway at Hot Docs in Toronto.

An interactive demo for Theo Rigby's 'Immigrant Nation'
'Immigrant Nation,' is a web-based documentary project that Theo Rigby ('Sin Pais') is prototyping at Hot Hacks.

Like many other documentary filmmakers, I know how to update my film’s website, and that’s about it. I don’t know HTML, let alone HTML5. And the semantics of transmedia, cross-platform, interactive, new media, etc. makes my head spin. With a brand new project, untested ideas, and a whole lot of passion, my team and I will dive headfirst into the Hot Hacks event Mozilla is putting on at Hot Docs this weekend. We will be paired with Mozilla engineers for two caffeine-infused days to ‘hack’ together a prototype for the interactive element of a new project I am directing, tentatively titled Immigrant Nation.

The stories I tell are often intimate and emotional, deal with complex issues, and are in general, pretty heavy. My mom often asks me, “When are you going to make a comedy?” “Soon mom, soon,” I tell her.

The prospect of creating an emotionally and intellectually engaging storytelling experience on the web — a place where extremely cute kittens, flop-hair Justin Bieber, and astonishingly short attention spans reign supreme, is honestly a bit daunting. The last thing I want to do is put a huge amount of time, effort and resources into something that nobody will use.

Enter the hack: A quick way to make something that represents a proof of concept that uses relatively little resources to answer the questions: Will this idea work? Is this using the storytelling advantages of the web to the fullest? Will people want to use this? Are we on the right track? Is this cool?

The crux of Immigrant Nation is to make immigration issues personal by connecting users to their own immigration story. The working idea is to build the project out of a series of dynamic short documentary films that address immigration issues across the country, in addition to an interactive component where people can create and share their own immigration stories. Users will be able to plot their own immigration story on a data-rich timeline to see how their immigration story fits in with the immigration waves that have populated the United States. The idea behind this approach is to highlight the collective immigration story we all have in the United States in an effort to de-politicize hotly contested immigration issues, and shift the often vitriolic dialogue to a more personal, human and productive conversation. We have created a short demo for the interactive part of the project:

We’ve had a few brainstorming sessions with Mozilla this week, and will try to focus on one specific part of the project at the hack. Our ideas are constantly in motion, but the working plan is to put most of the time and energy into developing “The Wave,” where users can submit their own immigration stories, place themselves in the history of immigration to the United States and see immigration trends over many decades. We will arrive with prepared media from the recently finished first film of the project, The Caretaker, as well as still images from the project, design elements from the interactive demo we created, and U.S. census data of immigration numbers. On Saturday morning we meet our Mozilla engineer collaborators, and we have two days to make it happen.

I’m excited, kind of nervous, don’t really know what to expect, and definitely feel out of my element. I’m trying to let the optimist in me take over and tell myself that failure is not a possible outcome of this venture — whatever comes out of the weekend will be one step closer to creating a story-world that works.

Theo Rigby is the director of the Student Academy Award®-winning documentary Sin País (Without Country), an exploration of one family’s complex and emotional journey involving deportation that will air on POV this summer.

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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.