A haunting memorial to Johnny Cash, a Dziga Vertov Community Remake, and living a bear’s story in Banff – Three Interactive Documentary Reviews

The Johnny Cash Project

In memory of Johnny Cash, an aptly chosen song entitled “Aint no grave” gets a hand-drawn treatment. This interactive music video is user-created. Fans get to choose a frame from the video and redraw it. A favorite frame is then voted on by users and it gets elected to be the frame that is shown. When played it looks like a slightly schizophrenic rotoscoping of live action, but the exclusion of any colors besides black and white adds a unity to the overall piece, and the flickering frames, each one different than the last, is somewhat sombre and haunting. Often a frame appears with text scrawled in the corner that wasn’t in the original, and skeletons and crosses blink in and out of existence in different areas. Both cryptic and meaningful symbols sit beside Cash at a table or walk beside him by a train. These are ghosts. These are artifacts of people, placing themselves beside cash in a way that was never possible before. As the old adage goes, “Death levels all…”

Seeing all the inconsistencies and additions in the renderings in a way feels like watching a thousand people’s graffiti drawn on Johnny Cash’s gravestone. It is well suited for the treatment of a dead man’s music.

I would imagine that the video will stay open to additions for a long while to come, maybe even forever. Perhaps the fate of this video is to remain an ongoing, evolving piece. One could only imagine what the video may look like in a few years time, after hundreds of thousands of user generated drawings have been filtered through, with the best and most interesting representing what you see. It really keeps the man alive. For as long as he has living fans, generation after generation of people could feed this memorial with new content. Aint’ no grave is right. In this piece his body is a perpetual living collage.

Man With the Movie Camera: The Global Remake

Commisioned by the BBC, funded partially by The Arts Council of England and the Canada Arts Council (these are the notable participants, in my opinion), this is a remake of the classic and monumental Dziga Vertov film using the recent technique of user-submitted content. Much like the Johnny Cash video, this site uses software to assemble a cut of the ‘remake’ shown alongside the original film. Scene by scene is recreated (or re-interpreted) by users. The overall result leaves a lot desired, but not much more expected.

Upon my viewing of the film (in which my cut may be unique to my viewing, but generally summative of the universal experience), I was a little bit unimpressed. The user footage was amateurish, with the exception of very few (maybe 3 or 4 scenes overall) which had something interesting to show. Maybe its the fault of the project’s creators. Maybe they expected too much, or left the project guidelines too open. Maybe its the lack of the video user-ranking, like the Johnny Cash one. Maybe its just that Vertov’s original is just too damn good. Whatever the issue, the users can’t be blamed. They participated and thats great. Good for them. Besides a very faint and dim intellectual value to this piece – to the idea of this piece, as a concept – there is not much to recommend of it. In fact, I recommend not viewing it at all. At just over an hour, its more worth it to watch the original and see a piece of film history. Try to imagine what conventions Vertov may have invented himself with that film, or how the audience may have reacted seeing it.

Or if your too lazy for some daydreaming while watching ninety year-old black and white footage, load up netflix and watch an episode of Futurama (always my second choice activity).

Bear 71

This one is an NFB production which started off as a traditional documentary, but was redirected into an interactive piece. I sure am glad that it happened. This one floored me. It tells the story of a bear who is tagged by rangers. The video of the tagging is seen, and the bear’s voice is narrated in first person style. She tells the story of raising her cubs, living in a valley that smells like hash browns, and the dangers and troubles she faces in this new world.

What this doc really does, is it gives the viewer a completely new perspective on the impact of humans on the environment. It stays away from being preachy, and instead allows the viewer to develop empathy for the animal themselves.

The most magnificent part of the project is the presentation of Banff provincial park. The digital map represents points of data, little bubbles with titles like “Wolf 113” and “Fox 28” dot the park and move around. I really got the feeling that I was looking at real data, real information on the movement of these animals. I was very impressed and more importantly  completely immersed.

The bear’s monologue continues over my personal exploration of the park. I discover traffic cams and video feeds, and I really get a feeling of this park as a place.  A marker represents my place on the map, I am Human 11463782. I can see Bear 71. I stay close to him. I wonder if he can see me. How he is reacting to me. The better part of me knows that this is not live data, and the little blip named Human 11463782 has no real-life counterpart, but between these flashes of realization I am there. I am navigating Banff. I am one of the animals. I can fly, bolt over mountains, split lakes with my movement. The sense of immersion was astonishing.

The doc is 20 minutes long. That basically comes down to 20 minutes of monologue from Bear 71, interspersed with video key points – which you may or may not see, depending on how far you’ve strayed away from bear 71 on the map. For 20 minutes, you can be an animal in Banff.

The ending of the piece really moved me. I won’t say what it was about, because you have to experience it yourself. The point is, the entire experience is immersive, it grants the power of exploration into the subject and into the viewers hands, and it really tells a story. It really, truly does. And a fun fact to boot? I was more engrossed in this 20 minute experience than any video game I’ve played all year.

Final Word: A marvel


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