As the 2023 FIPADOC drew to a close, the first international documentary event of the year saw a handful of awards given out to its film selections across Industry Days and Competitions. But, aside from the traditional documentary formats, FIPADOC is also a festival that embraces new forms of storytelling. Its SMART section highlights new media works in various forms, including AR, VR, web series, and more, all within an informative foundation.
Unlike some of the other new media selections across the festival circuit, the focus of FIPADOC SMART was wholly on accessibility. This accessibility included that of subject matter and presentation. So, across its selections, end users could easily navigate the technology of the respective project and understand the presented narratives without any advanced theory, academia, or abstraction. The selections featured at FIPADOC Industry Days HQ Bellevue Centre incorporated a myriad of immersive, innovative stories, web series, and 360 film experiences, pushing the envelope beyond the traditional watching experience. And, as I wrote in my highlight of the 2022 IDFA DocLab, the technology is rapidly coming to speed with the project’s narrative presentation. No more is the feeling that the narrative is constructed to serve the tech—instead, the opposite.
Modern Times Review was on-site throughout FIPADOC, so we spent quite some time at its SMART offerings. VR headset on, or tablet in hand, we explored several projects, trying to keep our focus on those relevant, topically, to our editorial line. However, such projects can sometimes be fun or informative without the need for intensive social contexts. This would be the case with my personal favourite Missing Pictures. A simple premise for a VR experience that acts as a homage to filmmaking, as well as a fantastical take on the idea of «what if», Missing Pictures featured 3 of 5 (the previous two having played last year) hypothetical films from filmmakers whose ideas never quite got off the ground. Here, Japanese Director Naomi Kawase’s (amongst further episodes Lee Myung-Se and Catherin Hardwicke) richly animated film on acceptance was both a visual treat in its colourful anime style and a heartfelt story. Another such project was the AR of FORM! (dir. Emilie Valentin)– a simple project exploring the concept of design and its history.
Ukraine was also the focus of several interactive selections at FIPADOC SMART. The war-torn country was invited as the guest of honour at the festival, so its subjects were featured heavily across all programmes. However, in the SMART selections, there were two. Firstly, there was the full VR You Destroy. We Create (dir. Felix Gaedtke, Gayatri Parameswaran). This project, which was not interactive but focused on immersion, highlighted how art & culture are primary targets of Russian aggression in the country. Through walkthroughs of bombarded cultural institutions and interviews with several local artists and curators, both underground and status quo, users can virtually «meet» those creatives on the front lines while drawing context and understanding the importance of art in times of conflict. The second project was another VR installation, albeit animated and significantly more meditative. The French creation All Unsaved Progress Will Be Lost (dir. Mélanie Courtinat) sees a melancholic journey through a ghost town. Initially following the forced evacuation post-Cehrnobyl, All Unsaved Progress Will Be Lost takes on a surreal tone in its lack of specificity to a particular time and place. As its female protagonist refuses to evacuate her home at the behest of arriving troops, we wonder when exactly this project is set. It could very well be 1986 or 2022/23.
Finally, two epic-scale VR installations were presented, each with very different topics but nonetheless effective. The first I watched was 21-22 China. A Canadian production directed by Thierry Loa, and the first in an upcoming series, sees a floating gods-eye view over the vast country of its title. From bulldozer-heavy land clearings to the most urban metropolis imaginable, to the columns of Zhangjiajie National Park, China 21-22 is a near half-hour journey through industrialisation, globalisation, and a country we in the West are always in need of further information. The second large-scale project was the nearly 50-minute On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World), a coproduction between France, UK and the USA. This virtual masterpiece of animation and virtual storytelling tells the story of January 13, 2018. Specifically, a fateful day in Hawaii when a morning alert announced the incoming ballistic missile. For 38 minutes after that, every citizen of the small Island-state experienced the real threat of nuclear annihilation, taking actions as most of humanity would have. Not only is On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World) a well-documented account of the days’ proceedings and fallout. It is also a timely take on the proliferation of nuclear arms around the globe, their supposed «place» in geopolitics, and the step-by-step deconstruction of their power. On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World) may be one of the finest combinations of art, technology and narrative I have yet seen within the new media space, with an immersive score from The Haxan Cloak to boot. Not surprising as it comes from the creators of the classic Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness.
Many other projects were presented, including the previously written Plastisapiens (dir. Miri Chekhanovich, Edith Jorisch) and the 2023 SMART Award-winning The Man Who Couldn’t Leave (dir. Singing Chen). But across its 20 selections, FIPADOC SMART fulfilled its mission while adding another documentary festival to the growing list highlighting new storytelling methods rooted in technology and non-fiction narrative.