In preparation for Update or Die, we spoke with curator and festival organizer Caspar Sonnen, Head of New Media at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and creator of IDFA DocLab, who will be speaking at the conference.
How would you define a digital documentary?
I wouldn’t. When we started IDFA DocLab, ten years ago we really tried. We quickly stumbled upon the fact that it’s hard to define what is a newspaper today. It’s also hard to define what is a documentary. When we do, we usually define what it’s not instead of what it is. I think interactive documentary moves quite freely between established media, like feature films or video games or art installations. Actually, the flexibility, the fact that it is such an undefined art form, is the thing that attracts me. The freedom you have within non-fiction—as long as you keep a close relationship to reality, and not just make everything up, everything else is free. The fact that there is very little established business models or established history means that you can do a lot of things that are not possible with existing formats.
What are some side effects of their influence on our lives?
It’s interesting to see how interactive documentary is pushing traditional media, not necessarily with that as an intention, but I think interactive documentaries were the first try out: what does it means to tell a visual story when you’re not sure whether someone is actually listening to the audio? Can you combine text with video? Does that even work? I remember ten years ago when we were starting IDFA DocLab, for one of our first web series, a lot of people were like, ‘Who wants to watch a beautiful cinematic short film on their cell phone? That’s just an insult.’ I think now, we can all agree that the best way to see a beautiful piece of cinema is on the biggest screen available. However, when you’re in bed or in an airport, we all watch amazing things on our cell phones, and maybe that requires a slightly different aesthetic. Interactive documentary projects and web series have shown that people are actually consuming things like this, so it works.
I think you can see, years later, how we got sucked in and our personal lives became commodified by social media. And at the same time, we’ve lost the urge to share our inner secrets on a personal blog for the entire Internet. There’s no difference anymore between the Internet and the rest of the world, the physical world. The Internet used to be a place where you can find kindred spirits, now they’re everywhere and people are much more about releasing each other from the Internet. This is a big question…
It feels like a lifetime question!
Yeah, for me that’s what IDFA DocLab is about, the art we show, those works deal with these questions. Look at BLA BLA by Vincent Morisset, which is a wonderful way of exploring what interactive means as an art form.
I think this conference is not just about saving some of the best examples of the work that came out of the open, experimental Internet that we knew for the last ten years, it’s also about saving the Internet itself that we’re losing.