Caspar Sonnen

Caspar Sonnen. Photo: Corinne de Korver

The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is perhaps the most important showcase for nonfiction filmmaking in the world. Boasting a program of 309 documentaries produced in over 60 countries, IDFA thrives both as a popular public event and as a vital marketplace for filmmakers seeking to sell their work. For the festival’s two-week run, central Amsterdam’s already-crowded streets are choked with documentary lovers, and the city’s cafes hold host to meetings between filmmakers and distributors seeking common ground—or at least the best deal.

In the midst of this flurry of activity sits IDFA DocLab, a sidebar event focused on cutting-edge interactive and immersive filmmaking. While very much a part of IDFA, DocLab manages to stay distinct. It has its own website, and takes place at its own venue—De Brakke Grond Flemish Cultural House. DocLab’s dense program consists of a competition slate of 15 digital storytelling projects, including our interactive documentary Empire, plus another slate devoted to virtual and augmented reality projects, plus a one-day conference that functions as an annual state of the union on interactive storytelling. Throw in a handful of live screenings and a concurrent talent academy for young creators, and DocLab begins to look less like a sidebar, and more like a festival within a festival.

The architect of IDFA DocLab is Caspar Sonnen. Sonnen is not only a respected curator of interactive documentaries, but is also an evangelist for the emerging form. Since starting DocLab in 2008, he has made the event into a hub for a cadre of innovators working on the vanguard of documentary practice. Name a groundbreaking interactive project from the past seven years, from The Wilderness Downtown to Highrise, and odds are it has played at DocLab.

The day before DocLab’s kickoff, Sonnen and I sat down at De Brakke Grond to discuss the festival’s history and its program.

Kel O’Neill: DocLab seems to be growing every year—the program is enormous compared other festivals’ sidebars devoted to immersive or interactive work. Paradoxically, the sheer number of great projects on view here makes it feel like there’s a huge amount of quality work out there. Is it getting harder for you to curate this every year because there’s just so much good content? Like, does it become harder and harder as people become more drawn to this medium?

Caspar Sonnen: It really depends on how you define what you’re looking for, and how you define whether this is a medium. When I started the program, the initial question was “What’s going to be your theme? What’s going to be your focus? Is it going to be mobile, is it going to be interactive, is it going to be data, or games in cinema?” And I’ve always tried to say that, documentary is defined by what it’s not—it’s “non-fiction”—and that opens up an entire world of beautiful artworks that represent reality. So I’m going to define DocLab by what it’s not, and I’m going to look for stuff that is not traditional linear documentary filmmaking. That means it’s open to everything and anything, as long as it’s representing reality, and as long as it’s dealing with digital technology, or the digital revolution.

Kel O’Neill: Is there anything else that unifies the program beyond those parameters?

Caspar Sonnen: I would say storytelling has always been sort of a key word. I mean, “storytelling” is such an overused word now that I think everybody’s getting a bit tired of it. That’s actually one of the things that I found really interesting about the focus that we have this year on virtual reality and immersive media. A project like Felix and Paul’s Strangers, it’s actually kind of the art of not telling a story. It’s actually about how that medium is able to provide us with experiences. My initial feeling about that project was “Wait a minute, is this it? Is this like a tech demo? You just put a 360 degree camera in a studio of a singer-songwriter and he sings a song and that’s it?” And the piece has been growing on me. I’m like “Wow, this is actually really Zen.” It’s like slow food or the slow web. It gives us the opportunity to enjoy a moment. To capture a moment and enjoy that moment in its full. Capturing reality. Documentary art. And it’s a very literal form of documentary capturing. It’s almost like a time capsule of the moment.

So in that sense, one of the things that used to unify it was storytelling, which was a way for me to not include net art, or not go too deep into that. Or not to go too deep into hardcore infographics, but to try to find some narrative there, which I think is key to documentary cinema. But as media change, so does the definition of what we look for in the DocLab program.

Strangers: A Moment with Patrick Watson

From Strangers, a virtual reality project which Sonnen describes as a “time capsule of the moment.”

Kel O’Neill: The competition slate is unique in that it seems to contain some works that have huge audiences (I’d use the example of Serial), and some works that are more esoteric (I’d use the example of Empire). Is that part of what you’re trying to do as well? To mix the esoteric and the popular?

Caspar Sonnen: Especially in the competition, which is very much app- and web-based, the great thing of the internet is that still, and I don’t want to talk Net Neutrality and we’re in deep s—, but still, at the core, the web is still an even playing field for artists. Sure, a cat video can go viral, but that’s not the point. We can have very tiny projects, and we can have huge projects.

I think Hugues Sweeney from NFB said it best when, five years ago, they presented Barcode, which was a project containing 100 one-minute movies. There was a young filmmaker there that got really angry and was like “What is this s—ty project?” He hadn’t seen it, but based on the concept, was like, “Why do we want to watch one-minute movies? Why is that even valuable?”

I could understand how they were trying to get their ninety-minute film made and it felt kind of s—– to be told, “Hey, explore other media and explore other formats.” But I loved what Hugues Sweeney said: “Can we compare a haiku to a novel? Is a haiku of less value than a novel?”

No. And that’s the thing about the Internet. They all co-exist.

A still from Serial

A still from Serial

Kel O’Neill: That raises the trope that’s out there with a lot of journalism about this. I think in pursuit of clicks a lot of people frame this work as “The Future of Cinema.” But it seems like it’s distinct from what we know of cinema, and therefore it’s not really the future of anything. It just kind of is.

Caspar Sonnen: And it’s not really gaming either. And it’s not campaigning for a better world using social media either, which can be part of a lot of these projects. I think there’s a lot of interactive projects being made for the wrong reasons.

I think the entirety of interactive documentary (if you can call it a medium or genre yet) has emerged—like cinema came—and was invented for the wrong reasons. I mean, you don’t invent a medium because you know what you want to do with it. So I think, yeah, it’s still all over the place. It means that curation is still hard. It means that curation is still needed, as the internet is huge. It’s great that we have an increasing number of curators. I’m really happy about the partnership we have with the MIT OpenDocLab. I’m really happy with what Sundance is doing, Sheffield, Tribeca. I think it’s really important that we start to create a larger network for these works.

Kel O’Neill: OK, on that: when it comes to OpenDocLab, obviously the work that’s being done there is incredibly impressive. But it also seems that there’s an instinct to define “the box,” I guess you could say. Is that something that you want to take part in, or do you see that as a curatorial obstacle?

Caspar Sonnen: I sometimes wish we could do a lot more with the OpenDocLab. I mean, we’ve done the Moments of Innovation project together. Because I’m not constrained by definitions, I tend to go for quality and not for whether it fits a certain box, which is a difficult way to approach it. That doesn’t mean that having a sense of what we’re doing and defining and creating categories and tags and actually distilling a grammar out of all these different unique little languages that all these projects develop isn’t of value. It’s of tremendous value.

It’s still remarkable to me how rare it is to see a truly successful interactive documentary. Because it is combining water and oil. Interactive and narrative are two conflicting forces. I remember a couple of years ago when the iPad came out, I really felt like, “Okay, we have a device that is tangible, that is nice, that is touch friendly. Apart from reading books, this is really going to be a platform for multimedia stories. And I’m amazed by how few are out there that are actually really meaningful. And it’s only now, like in the last year, that I’ve seen, in fiction and in documentary, that stuff is really starting to take off. It takes a while.

Kel O’Neill: Right. I think people go to gaming immediately when they discuss this stuff, but another component that I see the smart people that I know who are working in this field bring up is the solitary experience of reading. There’s something in those two genres.

Caspar Sonnen: That for me is why Alma: A Tale of Violence showed the true potential of interactive storytelling by being almost non-interactive. But the interactive that’s there is such a crucial part of the emotional meaning of that piece.

Kel O’Neill: Well, it’s binary. And one of the things that I’m starting to see now is that commercial companies are figuring out that the way to hook people in with interactive is through work with binary choices.

Caspar Sonnen: Yeah, I mean going back to what was the first successful computer game? What’s my favorite computer game of all time? It’s Pong, which totally has that same binary built in.

Kel O’Neill: Speaking of which, there’s an interesting ping pong match between the physical and digital worlds in many of the pieces you’re presenting this year—the Somebody app, for instance, takes digital messages into the physical realm, while Cucalu challenges users to “rediscover reality” with their iPhones. What do you think is going on here?


Cucalu in use

Caspar Sonnen: Have you tried Cucalu?

Kel O’Neill: No, I think it looks incredible.

Caspar Sonnen: Yeah, I mean there’s a couple of trends. Going back to your first question, when we started the program in 2008, we didn’t want to pick a single theme or a single technology or a single trend because there was not enough being done around a specific topic. We could have We Feel Fine, and that was it around emotional data. If you look at the web now, the web is 25 years old. It’s lost its innocence. Snowden has shown us that we all have lost our innocence.

So digital vs. physical, that’s one of the trends now. I mean, from 3D printing, to our addiction to screens, and not being able to connect to the real world around us on the one side, to, on the other side, the fact that our reality is becoming more digital.

So that’s definitely something that artists are dealing with. We need artists to make fun of Google Glass. Cucalu is a great example. It’s such a tiny project, and such a labor of love.

Kel O’Neill: Paul Schrader theorizes that movies are currently going through a “crisis of form” that may never stabilize, and could actually make it impossible for filmmakers to create content of consequence. Do you share any of his concern?

Caspar Sonnen: No.

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Kel O'Neill is one half of Jongsma + O'Neill, an award-winning Dutch-American creative team working at the intersection of documentary, art and technology. Jongsma + O'Neill's latest project, the interactive documentary Empire, can be experienced at Follow Kel at @keloneill.