Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

«We are seeing a shift with the development of immersive exhibitions that use documentaries»

SUNNY SIDE OF THE DOC: Head of Innovation & Digital Experiences Maïté Labat on the decision to separate its PiXii Festival from the immersive marketplace offerings, what commonalities were present across projects and more.

Sunny Side of the Doc 2023 is set to boost its innovation section to highlight international creation and cutting-edge advancements in the industry. This upcoming event from 19 – 23 June will serve as a significant platform for industry professionals such as producers, studios, cultural institutions, creators, broadcasters, and decision-makers to converge and exchange ideas, while the innovation section will feature conferences, masterclasses, and case studies to address the industry’s innovation challenges, with a particular focus on XR (Extended Reality).

Ahead of our attendance in La Rochelle, Modern Times Review speaks with Sunny Side of the Doc’s Head of Innovation & Digital Experiences Maïté Labat. Here, we speak on the marketplace’s decision to separate its PiXii Festival from the immersive marketplace offerings, what commonalities were present across projects and more.

Can you tell me about your professional or academic background? How did you develop your initial interest in new media? Was it a gradual evolution or a sudden shift?

Over the past 12 years, I worked in cultural institutions like the Palace of Versailles and the Louvre Museum. Starting in 2009, I was responsible for digital production and innovation. During this time, I witnessed the emergence and growth of new media in our lives and cultural institutions. My interest in new media comes from producing experiences and storytelling through platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. I always work on complementary projects that revolve around a particular topic or story, exploring how the interaction with audiences has evolved through social media and digital platforms. Now, I’m focused on expanding the new media presence in Sunny Side of the Doc and the PiXii Festival in October.

I always work on complementary projects that revolve around a particular topic or story, exploring how the interaction with audiences has evolved through social media and digital platforms.

In the context of documentary and nonfiction film, what are the advantages of using a new media or multimedia approach? How does this influence your approach to programming and curation?

The primary advantage is reaching different audiences. Audiences today receive stories through various mediums, such as social media, newspapers, podcasts, and documentaries. Each medium contributes to the complete story, and the goal is to combine them to enhance storytelling. Traditional producers need to adapt to this new approach. At Sunny Side, we focus on documentary and emphasise new voices and the integration of new media. Our program includes case studies on how VR enhances documentaries and masterclasses on turning linear documentaries into immersive experiences. Every aspect of our programming revolves around documentaries and their connection with new media.

Invisible Michel Lemieux, Studio 4D ART
Invisible, a VR project by Michel Lemieux, Studio 4D ART

Sunny Side’s emphasis this year is on finding, expanding, and understanding audiences. What demographics do you see in new media production?

Studies show that young people are not very interested in linear documentaries. However, we are seeing a shift with the development of immersive exhibitions that use documentaries. Immersive experiences like exhibitions attract large audiences, including nonfiction enthusiasts. It’s interesting because these exhibitions, which rely solely on images like documentaries, appeal to families and young people. They have the potential to democratise documentaries. For example, if there’s a documentary about the Queen, creating an immersive exhibition that tells the story differently and incorporates various types of images can attract different generations.

In France, traditional TV channels like Arte primarily attract audiences over 50 or 60 years old. On the other hand, platforms like Netflix try to offer documentaries with a younger spirit. It would be interesting to see how the Netflix audience responds to documentaries.

Each medium contributes to the complete story, and the goal is to combine them to enhance storytelling.

Netflix is known for not sharing viewer numbers and information. It’s also interesting how Netflix has influenced the aesthetics of traditional documentaries. In your previous response, you mentioned the idea of democratisation. Can you identify any obstacles or challenges in terms of accessibility, usage, or audience interest in new media?

Technology is a significant hurdle. We can only tell new stories when everyone has access to smartphones. The widespread availability of the same devices and platforms enables us to create new experiences. However, with VR, for example, numerous types of assets and a lack of standardised formats pose a challenge.

For broadcast experiences, there are distribution challenges. Where and how can we test VR experiences? This is why we launched PiXii for the general public—to democratise and make technology more accessible. We also have an education project to bring VR into schools throughout the year. It’s essential to showcase VR to the general public because if it remains a technology used only by professionals telling stories among themselves, it loses its broader appeal.

Another hurdle is crafting the right story. It’s challenging to determine what makes a story truly engaging. We have an exciting experiment happening in Paris called Noire. It’s an augmented reality project about a young girl fighting for civil rights in the United States during the 1960s, just before Martin Luther King Jr. A case study will assess the audience’s response and engagement with the experience in June. To captivate audiences, compelling storytelling is essential, whether in podcasts, documentaries, or movies.

JFK Memento Targo, Meta, Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
JFK Memento, a VR project by Targo, Meta, Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

Why did you decide to separate Sunny Side and PiXii Festival? How does this benefit the mission of each event?

The decision to separate the two events was to target different audiences and eliminate confusion. Having both events run simultaneously caused confusion for both the general public and professionals. Moving PiXii to October was a strategic move, making it easier for people to attend without conflicting with beach holidays.

For Sunny Side, we have a dedicated room – the Innovation Studio – for showcasing VR experiences and nonlinear projects. The selection in this room will differ from PiXii’s, as it caters specifically to professionals and their needs. Sunny Side’s programming is focused on presenting the latest content, new projects, and works in progress to professionals. On the other hand, PiXii aims to engage the general audience.

To captivate audiences, compelling storytelling is essential, whether in podcasts, documentaries, or movies.

Can you tell us about the common themes and technologies you’ve noticed among the submissions? Are there any projects using ChatGPT or Midjourney?

This year, we integrated VR and nonlinear projects into the overall program instead of treating them separately. Interestingly, one team submitted a VR project and later submitted a related documentary project. It surprised me, but I’m unsure if they have been selected yet.

As far as I know, we haven’t received any projects based on ChatGPT or other generative AI programs. However, I plan to include a panel on AI in documentary to discuss its potential and applications in production and post-production. This panel would also touch upon the ethical considerations of using AI-generated content. While it may be too early to have such a panel this year, it’s a promising topic for future discussions. Overall, we received over 300 projects from 56 countries this year, a significant increase compared to previous years. Unfortunately, none of the projects were produced using GPT.

Darkening Hana Blaha Šilarová, Frame Films
Darkening, a VR project by Hana Blaha Šilarová, Frame Films

For better or worse! Still, many people in my journalistic space have concerns about AI. It seems to be used as a supplement rather than a replacement. Last week, I discussed ethical questions surrounding recreated images in Midjourney with a colleague in Amsterdam. The source inspiration for those images often involves direct plagiarism, and there are other considerations as well. Nonfiction features still do not capture an actual snapshot in time.

I would love to have a panel discussion on this topic this year, but I’m not sure if we’re ready yet. Having more historical context to generate ideas about nonfiction and AI would be helpful.

Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He is Communications Manager and Industry Editor of MTR.

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