The Making of Priya’s Shakti- Innovative transmedia project that attempts to change attitude towards rape victims in India

Title- Priya’s Shakti

Genre-Multi Media-Comic book with augmented reality, street art, social media

Producer-Rattapallax Inc-Ram Devineni

Budget- USD 250,000

Developed at – Crossover Labs and Dok Leipzig Net lab

Funded by-Tribeca New Media fund, Ford foundation

Rape and gender based violence is one of the most distressing issues facing modern India. Everyday there are reports of violent rapes, in villages and India’s biggest cities, of three years olds and 80 year olds, crimes that take place in homes, taxis and buses . Violence against women is cutting across caste, class, age and location.

New York based Ram Devineni, producer of Priya’s Shakti, was in New Delhi on December 2012, taking part in one of the protest marches against the much publicized brutal gang rape of a young girl that had taken place in a bus . He happened to speak to one of the policemen, who told him casually that the rape was obviously the fault of the girl, for being out of the house in the evening. This attitude -of first and foremost blaming the victim of the crime- was the issue that Ram wanted to explore more.

Priya’s Shakti is  a social impact multi media project that has an augmented reality (AR) comic book, street art and social media pages . It is a project that aims to create an alternative attitude towards violence against women. By tying up with NGOs who work with rape victims, the filmmakers have a long term plan to distribute  millions of copies of the comic book, to raise awareness against this issue.


I have been following interactive documentaries and trans media projects for a while now, and I find it interesting how different people incorporate interactivity in their projects. Coming from a documentary filmmaking background, I used to expect projects to reflect tons of research and filmmakers to work on access of key characters and deal with footage issues. But as I am learning quickly, none of these are necessary and the transmedia world is large enough to incorporate different forms of story telling.

As Ram mentions in his interview- the three holy grails of creating an interactive project are to create an app, or a documentary or a website that allows considerable viewer participation. Priya’s Shakti has none of the three.

Central to the project is a simplistic fictional comic book story, which has Hindu Gods coming to the rescue of Priya, a young rape victim. But what makes this project unique are the ancillary aspects. It is created as a multi platform media project that uses augmented reality, a technology more commonly used in advertising and by big corporates, to open the discussion on a social issue.


If you are checking out the project, do download the free app Blippar at the beginning on your smart phone. Then point your phone to the select images in the comic book, and you will experience another dimension to the book. You can hear animated voices of Indian women who have survived sexual assault and faced the trauma of being social outcasts. You can click your own picture against the image of Priya and a tiger (a metaphor for a rape victim ready to avenge her attackers), and post it on facebook, and join the campaign of “I stand by Priya!”. If you are in Mumbai, you can check out the AR – enabled street art that has been made in Dharavi.


I had a conversation with Ram in Mumbai just before the launch of the comic book, to find out more about his journey in the making of Priya’s Shakti. Ram has been working as a bank technologist with Citibank for the last fifteen years. But documentaries and films are where his heart lies and the birth of Priya’s Shakti coincided with him getting the pink slip from Citibank.

Can you take us through the journey of how you went about developing your initial idea?

I have always been interested in religious studies and in Hinduism. I went on a journey travelling across South East Asia and India, exploring different temples, and observing what different deities meant to people. I also read many Amar Chitra Kathas (extremely popular comic book series in India that has stories about Indian mythology). I just had this idea that I wanted to do a story on gender violence in India but had no idea in what form. I created a short film cut from old Bollywood films from the 1970s, basically a way to tell a story about this issue, using Indian mythological characters. So there were all these abstract thoughts in my head.


Ram Devineni

Why did you choose to make a comic book for this project over other media forms?

In October 2013 I got a notice from Citibank with a severance package. I decided to use the money as an initial development fund for my creative pursuits. I went with my short film for my first meet up in NY and in this very first event, I met Dan Goldman who writes graphic novels and comics. Dan saw the cut from the 19070s films and recommended that I make this into a comic book. (Dan Goldman is the visual artist for Priya’s Shakti.)

What were the steps you took to get initial funding?


Well, the first funding did come from the severance pay! But in March 2014, Citi called me back again. So I went back to the bank, but on far more flexible hours.

I went to Doc Leipzig and Cross Over Labs, with literally just a pdf and a cover, and from there on the project slowly took its current form. The people at Cross Over Labs were full of questions for my project and I was happy that my project was of interest to commissioners and developers from round the world. I attended most of the documentary markets in the summer of 2014–Shefield, Pixel Labs and we got funding and grants from Tribeca New Media fund and then many other organizations.

What was the inspiration for incorporating augmented reality?

During my travels to Italy I was impressed with the artwork and frescoes of the 16th century Sistine Chapel. I remember thinking at that time, when I was looking up at the ceiling and seeing the Last Judgment by Michelangelo that I wish there was a way in which I could capture the scene on my cell phone and see the artwork in an enhanced manner. That was the trigger, and hence in my comic book, I have created scenes that use augmented reality, to give another dimension to the basic artwork.

How exactly does augmented reality work?

Augmented reality is simply an alternative or unreal view of the real world created by a software. I incorporated a specific QR code in many of the images that I created in my comic book and street art ( a QR code is like a bar code) . This code is then scanned and put in the Blippar software, and that’s pretty much it! You can see one image with your naked eyes, but scan the same image with your phone, using the app, and you will see another dimension to the image!

And why did you choose Blippar over other AR software?

Blippar was entering India, and they have just launched India offices. They wanted to do something in the social sector, and my project fit in perfectly in their larger plans. They were perfect partners!

What kind of impact do you expect this project to make?

I am not expecting this comic book to reach out to the tens of thousands all across India who face gender based discrimination. But I am hoping to start a conversation, to raise awareness about an issue that is one of the biggest issues facing Indian society these days. By tying up with NGOs who work directly with rape victims, the message could spread far and wide.


The comic book Priya’s Shakti can be downloaded free of cost from the website.


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Documentaries on Islam in India-my experience as a Supervising Producer

Documentary Titles-
Half Widows of Kashmir- 45 minutes
Rebuilding Lives in Gujarat- 45 minutes

Year of Production- 2014

Broadcast on Astro channel Oasis- September and October 2014

Production Companies- Creative Stew, Malaysia and NDTV Red Dot ,India

Astro , a leading pay TV broadcaster based in Malaysia had a brief- to produce a series of films that looked at Islam in various countries, countries in which it was a minority religion. The program was to be broadcast on an Islamic channel but there were plans to sell it to international channels around the world. The films in this series look at Islam in Myanmar, Bali, Sweden and England amongst others.

India was one of the countries Astro wanted to look at. I have worked extensively in India and know the Malaysian audience well and I approached the broadcaster with ideas from India that looked at beyond the obvious. I also knew various Indian production companies, who would do justice to the complexity that the subject matter presented. Astro was willing to explore the relationship further and my journey started.

The key to a good documentary is not the budget, its finding the right people
The first step was to find the right kind of team. New Delhi based NDTV Red Dot was keen to be commissioned internationally. They also had access to places like Kashmir, which were potentially sensitive locations to shoot in. And they were willing to go the extra mile even though the budgets were modest. Kuala Lumpur based Creative Stew, an upcoming production house, joined our team as we needed a Malaysian production partner.

Astro had previously tried to approach many of the established independent Malaysian documentary production companies, who had previous experience working with international broadcasters like History and Discovery. But none of them were willing to work at the local channel commissioning rate.

Our team managed, by choosing subjects which are grounded in research, by ensuring that the scripts and storyline were crisp and compelling, and by working with local crews. The key to a good documentary is often not the budget, but working on the right kind of formula to make them happen.

Balance is the key to dealing with controversial subjects-

The subject matter of the films were sensitive. Islam and India have had a torrid history. India has the second largest Muslim population in the world, and news of riots and religious violence periodically hit the headlines. But I knew there were different stories too. India has produced Shah Rukh Khan (Bollywood actor) , Abdul Kalam (was President of India ), Irfan Pathan (a leading cricket star) , who are leaders in their respective fields and are loved by all Indians, across religions. There are many educated Muslims in India, very much part of the mainstream society, and their story is rarely documented. Our films are emotional stories of Muslims in India that have lived for centuries in a multi cultural society.

Half Widows of Kashmir-
half widows

Our first film was based in Kashmir, and we chose to focus on the story of Half Widows. It is a term used for women whose husbands have disappeared during the conflict with India. Most of the women we spoke to lived in Srinagar and their husbands had been allegedly picked up by the Indian army. We also travelled towards the India Pakistan border, where we met women who had been left behind as their men had willingly crossed over the border to join the militancy movement against the Indian state. The film chronicles the lives of these women, where what is right, and what is wrong is not clear. It could have been a political commentary and instead we focused on the personal lives of three Kashmiri women, who have spent their lives waiting, waiting for a closure.You can watch the trailer here.

Rebuilding Lives in Gujarat-


Our second film looks at Gujarat, a state infamous for the 2002 riots, and how some Muslims have managed to reintegrate themselves in the mainstream population. The story could have been one dimensional, but we were surprised to meet so many people who had managed to turn things around for themselves. We chose to focus on educated business professionals who beat the prejudices and managed to reinvent their careers to suit the changing modern India. One of the characters in our film is a businessman who used to be in the spice trade for decades, and whose factories used to regularly get burnt down in the riots that have hit Ahmadabad over the decades. After the 2002 riots, he reinvents himself to start a BMW showroom, a business he says is more in tune with the changing population of the city. It is just one example among many of how many Muslims have moved on as the society around them has changed.

My key message was to look at Islam in India not as black and white, but in all its shades of grey. The stories we made are an attempt at reflecting the complexities and subtleties of the lives led by Muslims in India. As a Supervising Producer, I had to ensure that we did justice to the complex subject matter.

The films will air on the Astro platform in September and October 2014, and will be distributed in major TV markets in the coming year.

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Proposition for a Revolution-Upcoming Documentary on India’s Aam Admi Party

May 2014 and India is in the midst of general elections. The buzz on social media has been unprecedented, and CNN called it India’s first elections on social media.

One of the earliest adapters of social media has been the Aam Adami Party, AAP, (translated as common man party) that has found support amongst many of the educated middle class. After Congress and the BJP, the two biggest political parties, it is AAP that has hogged the limelight and airwaves in the last six months.

The journey of this new political party has been extraordinary in many ways. It came into existence from the popular India Against Corruption movement in November 2012. Their first electoral victory was the 2013 New Delhi Assembly Elections. AAP emerged as the second largest party and ruled the state for 49 days. It now is participating in the 2014 general elections.

Following the transformation of AAP into a most talked about political force have been two young filmmakers, Khusboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla. Both were associates with filmmaker Anand Gandhi who made the critically acclaimed Ship of Theseus. Khushboo and Vinay’s documentary, Proposition for a Revolution, has been in production since 2012.They have recently launched a crowd funding initiative to take the film towards completion.

aap party cover page

What attracted them to this subject was the transition of a peoples’ movement into a political party. According to Vinay, they did not know what they were getting into when they started documenting the emerging party in late 2012. “We were following the party on an impulse. We were curious. Slowly, it became evident that the story playing out in Delhi was much bigger than what we had initially anticipated. We couldn’t hire professionals since we couldn’t afford them so all of us learnt to use the camera and sound equipment.”

Filmmakers Khusboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla

Filmmakers Khusboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla

Documentaries on peoples’ movement and protests have been popular in the last couple of year. The Square, about the Egyptian Revolution was nominee for the Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars in 2014.Fault Lines was about the Occupy Wall Street Protests, and there have been numerous films that have documented the Arab Spring. The catch about documenting peoples’ movements for filmmakers is always the same, one doesn’t know how things will pan out .The filmmakers of The Square had to edit their film twice as the events on the ground changed so drastically.

Khushboo says “This is one of the challenges that documentary filmmakers always face – the question of when does your film end? We shot with the party for just over a year from Nov 2012 to Dec 2013. By the end of 2013 we knew we had a very strong film about the evolution of a nascent political party in India. We had an “election film”.” Vinay adds, “While our film has value as an articulation of contemporary concerns, it is also a time capsule of a shared experience. The AAP is a shape-shifting beast. It will continue to surprise and upset with equal ease. But we have a story that is not just about the AAP. It is about looking inwards into our systems, how ‘politics’ is done, who is doing it. The act of looking back can also simultaneously be an act of looking at the future.”

The shoot of the film that took them more than a year has had its own trans-formative effect on the young filmmakers. They have relocated to another city, been in the midst of hostile crowds, escaped from media stampedes. Khusboo admits that being thrust into the heart of “doing politics” took a while to get oriented to. “I remember the first AAP rally we attended, it was a sensory overload. We couldn’t make sense of what to capture, where to place our lens.”

The filmmakers started filming without a production plan in place, out of passion and curiosity. But as the film got bigger they pitched and won the IDFA Bertha grant in mid 2013 to make a feature length film. They tried approaching Indian investors but they refused to compromise on their editorial independence. Vinay says, “Our film is a documentary set in contemporary politics and investors didn’t find that as an interesting proposition. Those who were interested in investing wanted to know if we are supporting AAP or are against it. We didn’t want to take money from people who had these concerns because it would compromise our position.”

The filmmakers have been happy with the response to their crowd funding campaign.They managed to raise 50 per cent of their goal in less than 10 days.According to Khushboo, “On one hand we wanted to use crowd funding to raise money, but on the other we also wanted it to be a community owned film. This would ensure that when the film releases, it is seen widely and the contributors become ambassadors and owners of the film in an organic way.”

crowdfunding pic

India has a huge domestic market for feature films. It is wonderful to see documentaries too getting increased visibility and filmmakers employing the same techniques for fund raising as their international counterparts. Wishing the Proposition for a Revolution team good luck towards completion.

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Asian Side of the Doc ,Chengdu

Masterclass on Interactive Storytelling and Panel on New Media Platforms-

It was exciting to attend the 5th Asian Side of the Doc (ASD) in Chengdu, China last week. There are very few international markets targeted specifically at Asian factual producers and broadcasters. The Chinese factual producers attended this conference in full force. I knew China wanted to be a big force in the factual market, but I didn’t realize that they were doing THIS quantity of work. State broadcasters, factual channels, video on demand services –all reeled out numbers -1500 hours of original documentary commissions, 200 million subscribers for a specific factual show- numbers that the rest of us can only envy. But it wasn’t just Chinese government hype. I was also happy to meet some gutsy documentary independents with ideas that questioned the country they were living in. They revealed passion and courage, two hallmark qualities of documentary filmmakers, that many of us forget in our race to meet commercial requirements.

Master class on Interactive Storytelling-

My favorite session at the Asian Side of the Doc at Chengdu was the Master class on Interactive Story telling by Michel Reilhac, Independent transmedia expert and Tom Perlmutter, Consultant and ex Chairperson of National Film Board of Canada (NFB). It was under Tom’s leadership that the NFB created so many cutting edge interactive documentaries, (a couple of which have been featured in this website-Bear 71, Fort Mc Money). Tom mentioned how it had been an uphill task for him to fund this new form of storytelling. “At the beginning everyone asked me why I wanted to set aside funds for technology enabled stories, it was a huge struggle, but I prevailed and that’s how NFB funds interactive documentaries.”

Tom Perlmutter and Michel Reilhac

Tom Perlmutter and Michel Reilhac

Michel and Tom call interactive storytelling – the birth of the new art form. Michelle ,formerly a commissioner with Arte, introduced his fascinating new app Cinemacity ,an app that allows you to explore and walk around a city by checking out all the films that have been shot there.

Not many traditional broadcasters across the world have accepted interactive storytelling, but to accept something new always takes time. Michel mentioned how we invariably choose stories according to what our friends recommend (73% of Netflix use is based on recommendations). And increasingly broadcasters are coming to realize the power of the social communities.Searching for an organization to commission your trans media project? “Don’t go to broadcasters.Talk to alternative players in media,search for innovators and leaders,rather than traditional broadcasters.”said Tom during one of the conversations I had with him.

Some of the interesting highlights from the discussion were-

-Interactive is not a genre, it’s an ingredient

-Think in terms of user experience, not just story

-Simplicity and interface design are key to successful projects

Straightforward points that I feel all interactive projects must follow.

After the workshop we even managed to go and see some pandas, which is what Chengdu is really famous for.

At the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center

At the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center

Panel on New Media Platforms-

I was invited to moderate a panel that discussed the subject of Producing for New Media Platforms. It was great to have representatives from, and , two of China’s leading VOD services. The other panelists included Marcus Nikel from Italian public broadcaster Rai ,who is very involved with new media projects (one of the projects has been featured previously on this website) and Patrick Hoerl from Autentic, a Germany based producer ,distributor and pay TV channel manager.

The VOD platforms from China spoke about the millions of subscribers that they had garnered for their services, how they were still trying to figure out the best economic model for their services, and how they had to self censor viewer comments on social media. It was a well received panel with the audiences appreciating the fact that the Chinese VOD players were being open about the challenges they faced in running new media platforms.

Panel on New Media Platforms

Panel on New Media Platforms

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17,000 Islands- Interactive Experiment from Indonesia

Title-17,OO0 ISLANDS

Genre- Interactive Documentary

Country- Indonesia, Norway

Directors- Edwin and Thomas Østbye


Showcased at- IDFA, Sheffield, Rotterdam IFF, Fipa, CPH:DOX, IDF Yogyakarta

The thing about interactive documentaries is that you cannot passively watch a film for about an hour, enjoy it or hate it, and continue with your life.You have to be involved with it. Actively. Nothing reflects this more than 17000 Islands . It cannot be called a documentary. It is really more like an experiment in Trans media that expects audience participation at a whole new level. You are invited to edit the film, to break the film apart. So you cannot just watch the film and expect fulfillment. You can only experience the film if you edit parts of it, and try to put it together to form a new narrative. If you are not technically inclined, and do not want to get into editing online, than this might not be a project for you.


The two directors, Indonesian director Edwin and Norwegian director Thomas Østbye were funded by the Norwegian Film Institute. They were brought together as part of DOX:LAB, which is part of the CPH DOX festival.DOX:LAB handpicks filmmakers from Europe and non-European countries and the program funds them to create a piece of work together that reflects their different cultures, history, and narrative styles.

According to Thomas, they wanted to create a project that would reflect how the image of a nation is created. ““We wanted to loose control over how we represent the world in documentaries. To control it less and discover more. But we wanted to lose control in a controlled environment.”

They chose to use the example of the Taman Mini Park in Jakarta, Indonesia. Made by Suharato in the 1970s, the park was an attempt to represent a homogenized image of the different cultures in Indonesia. Though reality was the opposite. The filmmakers took a trip to Indonesia, and shot ordinary objects every 15 minutes during their visit. The images illustrated everyday realities of life. They returned to their edit suites and tried to edit these images together in a structured story. “And then we realized we were trying to do exactly what Suharato was trying to do. Present a structured image of the nation. So we decided to make an experiment, and open it out to viewers’ interpretation.”

17000 islands 2

The filmmakers met Paramita Nath (Highrise), who introduced them to Toronto based Helios Design, who created the entire interactive platform of project. They created the platform in which people could assemble and edit the audio and video in a timeline based editor. If some of the readers of this article are technically inclined, you can read about how exactly this project was created and the special software that was created here.

The entire project took two years to complete, and was made with teams working across four time zones. (Thomas in Norway, Edwin in Indonesia, Paramita in USA or India and Helios Designs in Canada) . The final project invites the viewers to break apart these images, and create their own map of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.

The filmmakers accept that the project is complicated at a conceptual level and to create an entirely new web tool on the browser was even more complicated.The project has received 9000 page views since its launch in 2013.Thomas admits that “We were never really into interactive documentaries.It is only because we felt our film needed to be destroyed and restructured by several different people that we turned this into Trans media project.”

I have repeatedly tried browsing through the 17,000 islands website. And I cannot tell the story in one line. There is no real story here; it’s a concept that the filmmakers are trying to put forth. And hence I agree with the tag line of the project, its an interactive experiment in documentary image making. And like all experiments, this one is trying to prove something new. It is trying to introduce a new web editing software.The role of the Creative Technologist has never been clearer.Not all experiments give clear results, but each experiment is a stepping stone towards a better understanding of what kind of interactive projects could work in the future.

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Gurkha School-Unique treatment for Nepal documentary

Name of Project-Gurkha School

Director-Kesang Tseten,Shunyata Films

Country –Nepal

Broadcaster- Al Jazeera (Witness)

The Gurkhas from Nepal have been historically known for their loyalty, physical strength and courage and are well known as a martial race. The British began recruiting Nepalis for a special elite brigade way back in 1815, and till today there are Gurkha battalions in British, Singapore, India and Brunei armies. Over 220,000 Gurkhas fought for Britain in World War I. More recently, the Singapore government sent a Gurkha contingent along with the police to help settle the riot in Little India in December 2013.

For many Nepalis, serving the British army is a strong family tradition, but competition to join is fierce. Gurkha School looks at the process that the young men go through to join the British army.

Kesang Tseten , a Kathmandu based documentary filmmaker has always been fascinated with the subject matter of migrant workers. His two previous documentaries have dealt with migrant workers from Nepal working in the Middle East. The Gurkha School is the third film by Kesang in which he looks at the mind set, economic conditions and family pressures that drive young men to leave their country in search for what they hope will be a better future.

Documentary Filmmaker-Kesang Tseten

Documentary Filmmaker-Kesang Tseten

The film has a unique treatment, different from what’s usually popular in commercial television. The narrative is observational, making the pace of the film slow, but this very fact allows the characters to reveal more in a natural style. It is an interesting choice of a treatment, more suited to the characters featured in the film.

The rough cut was leaked out accidentally, and the film was seen by 60,000 people all over the world on YouTube. Kesang took it as an affirmation for the unique narrative. I think it’s a great idea that can be incorporated as a strategy for filmmakers-leak out parts of your film to check out audience response to command a better price with broadcasters or distributors.

I asked Kesang about the process he went through in making the documentary-

1.The narrative treatment of the documentary is unique. Why did you choose your narrative treatment? Was your film targeted mainly at the festival audience?

I was increasingly interested in the observational or direct cinema approach, after watching a lot of Frederick Wiseman, the Maysle brothers, and so on. And the subject of soldier recruitment, I felt,was perfect for being a observational film-trying to find a cinematic narrative from action, what happens, rather than from people telling us why and what. It was the approach as much as the subject that drew me to the Gurkha film. The film was not targeted at anyone in mind. I mean we film and try to make sense of what we film, let the material speak to us. Fortunately, Nepali audiences, high and low, festivals as well as television, to an extent, liked the treatment.

2. Were the characters comfortable with the camera in the background? In hindsight, would you have done anything differently in your treatment or story?

The so called characters were comfortable, but they weren’t deep characters, as you know. I had to find stratagems to make them ignore me and my small camera while my camera person was filming the more formal action. I don’t actually think people are ever totally unaware of the camera. It’s more that they have more important things to be preoccupied with, ie how will they do in the heaves, the run, the interview, etc. Also, perhaps people want to speak, to tell us indirectly perhaps what they are going through.

Young men trying their luck  to get into the  Gurkha School

Young men trying their luck to get into the Gurkha School

3. The single biggest challenge during the entire production process –

Getting the permission . I had no idea it would be near impossible to get permission to film the recruitment. I didn’t think it was such a secret, the entire process of why should they allow anyone in. As luck would have it, I got in through a personal connection. I happened to know a former British army general who vouched for me, taking a huge risk. They still wanted to see my films and interview me, but the recommendation was what got me in.

4. Can you share with us the process you went through in getting the funds to produce your films?

Some of my films have been funded by development agencies that deal with the issues my film have been about, for example, migrant workers. The migrant workers going to Malaysia, the Gulf is over two million. This affects every aspect of development and thus I was able to make films about the world and realities of the migrant worker. I have also been supported by IDFA several times, and Busan, and by the Finnish and Norwegian governments in my last film (Who will be a Gurkha). You apply to these places with a proposal, outline, treatment and a rough cut to these places.

5. What has your distribution strategy?

My film premiered at IDFA as an official selection and has traveled to 20 film festivals around the world .It has been taken to several villages, released on 70 plus cinema screens. The original feature length of the film was 75 minutes long and the one broadcast on Al Jazeera was a shorter 47 minutes. Plus, the rough-cut was leaked and put on You Tube for a long enough time for 60,000 to view it! I also think online is definitely a more sustainable option for documentary film distribution. After all, a filmmaker takes a year or more to make a film, so showing it in festivals and occasional screenings is clearly not enough.

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The Making of a Documentary Game – Fort McMoney

Title – Fort McMoney

Director- David Dufrensne

Producer/Broadcast partners- TOXA, Arte and National Film Board of Canada

Launch- IDFA November 25,2013


Fort McMoney is a new documentary game that makes players interact with the world of oil and money. It’s based on the town of Fort McMurray in Canada, which has one of the largest oil reserves in the world. The player will be a character who comes to a virtual town that has grown from 10,000 inhabitants to 100,000 in just a few years. He explores and interacts with other people, to come to know more about the city from where 1.5 million barrels of oil are extracted every day. Billions of dollars can be made but at what cost? There is a huge environmental impact on the planet. The game is played over a four week period where the players have to interact with other people to gain influence, to vote for referendums and to decide on the destiny of the virtual city.

Game photo

The subject is not new- the oil industry and even Fort McMurray has been an issue that filmmakers have tackled before. But the format is new. There are only a handful of documentary games and they are restricted largely to the audience involved in serious games. French public broadcaster Arte and the National Film Board of Canada have come together to take this initiative to a much larger audience- an audience interested in interactive new formats and in international politics and energy issues .

I have not played this game yet. I am curious about this subject and interactive documentaries as a field  and will review the game shortly. Why did David Dufrensne, the creator of this game choose to make a documentary game  over a traditional documentary? I asked him this question and a few others to understand what went behind the creation of Fort McMoney.

David Dufresne

1.Why did you choose to make a documentary game over a conventional documentary?

Precisely to avoid getting into what you call… a normal documentary. I’m joking, but just barely. I have great appreciation for the documentary genre, but I’ve been interested in other forms of writing for years. Even in my latest book, which investigates the topic of anti-terrorist police in France, I tried to delve into different forms: non-fiction, gonzo journalism, investigation and web-style fragmented writing.

2.Do you think this format will have better reach and create more awareness about the issue? Or was it a more personal reason that involved your passion and interest for the interactive world. Is this documentary-game a serious game (a term) that users are familiar with?

We’ll find out in… a few days:-) What we’re hoping to do is create an opening or, more specifically, take up where others left off. What a simulation or management type video game had to offer struck us as particularly relevant in this instance. Let’s play reality. Let’s take control of a city that exists, that drives the economy of a gigantic country – Canada – and make it a topic of international debate. That being said, let’s not delude ourselves. Clearly, what’s called “gamification” can’t be considered as a miracle alternative. Some topics gain in intensity and immersion; others lose their punch. In the case of Fort McMoney, we were counting on the game to serve as a vector for interest, as a lever for debate, a tool for confrontation and total delinearization. With this wild desire: to provide an exploration of the city on a par with its unbridled and limitless development.

3. Would you be able to describe the production process so that producers around the world who are thinking of getting into interactive projects get a clear idea of what it entails?

I had just arrived with my family in Montreal. Hugues Sweeney at the NFB told me to go see the Toxa team. After a short chat and three coffees, it was all settled. I suggested an idea that was simple – but impossible: making a SimCity for real. Once they agreed, I was really stumped: We had to figure out how to do it.

The first thing was to go on location. Get a feel for the city, its oil, its money, its inhabitants. I asked some friends who are game designers for advice and, together, we laid the groundwork for the game’s mechanics. Next, we wrote, tossed out and rewrote dozens of scripts. I like to write the script while I’m on the site where I’ll be shooting – in the car, at a restaurant or hotel. Whenever I have five minutes, I jump onto my Scrivener (, the most fantastic work tool I’ve ever had :-) I like for the location where I am to take over the entire space, my whole mind. Prison Valley was built on a Mean street, an autonomous film; Fort McMoney was constructed in a limitless space that extends as far as the eye can see. I think the project bears that mark. At least I hope so. All the work after that involved continually striking a balance between what the game required and what a documentary demands. One of the difficult things is making technical choices very early on and praying really hard that they’re the right ones and will still be valid two or three years later.

FortMcMoney 2

It was two years of madness, writing, editing and rewriting scripts. It had several production stages, including development (1,940 hours), research, investigations, shoots in various locations (60 days) and editing (7 months).
As time went by, people dropped out of the project and others came on board. Fort McMoney is really the result of multiple skills in addition to many cultures and approaches: the North American approach, embodied by Toxa and the NFB, and a more European one, represented by my collaborator Philippe Brault behind the camera and the Arte team.

4.What would you say would be the one skill set that someone getting into interactive projects should develop before they even think of a project?

Find a good story. And make sure that it’s a strong story. Do lots of shoots, don’t sleep much. And constantly think about the best format to showcase that… bloody story. In other words, it’s always the narrative that determines the rules. But the rules change. And the rules here are web tools.

5.How easy was it to get funding for this project?

The answer is obvious: Fort McMoney exists because of public funding. There are various ways to fund interactive projects in Canada and a number of organizations provide different funding programs, including the Canada Media Fund. The NFB is a government agency that produces auteur documentaries, animated films and interactive works. In recent years, the NFB has been devoting 20% of its production budgets more specifically to interactive works.

The search for funding went rather smoothly. The NFB and ARTE (license purchase) were involved from the start. The first funding request for development that TOXA submitted was approved in the first round by the Canada Media Fund, as was the funding request for production during the second stage.

6. Would you be able to share the budget for this project?

The total budget for the Fort McMoney project is $872,000. Of that, the NFB’s participation was $270,000 — about (30%) of the total budget. TOXA, the project initiator and major producer had access to funding programs devoted to interactive works via the experimental component of the Canada Media Fund. It was also made possible thanks to the participation of ARTE, another partner in the project via a license. From what I know, Fort McMoney is a web documentary with production costs in the midrange of documentary productions in Canada, and more specifically at the NFB.

7.There have been a number of films from Canada in the recent past, interactive and documentary, tackling the subject of oil and drilling. Do you have any expectation on the overall pressure this is putting on the big oil companies?

Just on the basis of my own experience, I can tell you that I’m inclined to say “yes”: the companies are under pressure. The Big Oil Companies were extraordinarily creative in finding ways to make us wait – over a year. At one point, they were on vacation. In other instances they couldn’t take us onto a site for this or that reason: a problem with weather, security, safety or professional secrecy. Fort McMoney players get to experience that game of hide and seek. They too have to be creative if they want to reach the core of the world’s biggest industrial site.


8. Do you think an interactive game that really needs significant user participation could put off a potential audience who is used to more passive forms of media and could have been interested to know more about the issue?

It’s a risk. And that’s what makes it exciting. Personally, I believe that Fort McMoney, like other interactive works, is in a category similar to Research and Development. Everything needs to be formulated, worked out, and called into question.


Filed under Interactive Docs