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Movie Lovers We Love: MIT’s Open Doc Lab Provides the Research Arm to the Future of Documentary Storytelling

Movie Lovers We Love: MIT's Open Doc Lab Provides the Research Arm to the Future of Documentary Storytelling

“We’re at a moment where as a culture we are keenly aware of the technology underlying storytelling because the technology is changing so quickly,” explains Sarah Wolozin about the Open Doc Lab at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The web and other emerging technologies have revolutionized how we experience stories. But technology has always driven new forms of storytelling and storytellers have driven technological change too.”

Wolozin, the director of the lab, which is the brainchild of its Principal Investigator Professor William Uricchio, is a documentary filmmaker who has worked on public television projects like “The College Track: America’s Sorting Machine,” “This Far by Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys” and “I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts.” She has also created stories for the web, radio and live satellite programming.

As director of the OpenDocLab, Wolozin is interested in creating a hub for documentary innovation. The lab hosts faculty and students who specialize in studying media in transition, media that looks to change today’s media landscape.

“If we can bring digital storytellers together with our researchers, I think some pretty interesting experiments can come out of it,” Wolozin explains.

“There are so many of these emerging technologies impacting how we experience stories — non-fiction stories in particular,” Wolozin told Indiewire. “We don’t sit back and watch them. We are using multiple screens; we are living in a participatory culture where people are making their own media. All of that impacts how we’re telling stories. When there were technologies like paint and photography, we used those for telling stories. Now there is code, big sets of data, mobile technology, ubiquitous computing and a lot of new storytelling platforms. If we want to understand our world, we need to be using the tools of the day to tell our stories.

“But we’re also finding that people want a place to dialogue as well as experiment. People are searching for a new vocabulary, asking similar questions – How do you create emotion in an interactive experience? How do you create a larger narrative out of many smaller ones?  How do you engage and empower communities? How do you create movements? So we’re trying to help that conversation along. Right now there is no road-map; it’s a time of great experimentation.  But now maybe it’s time for a few road-maps.”

MIT is no stranger to being a trailblazer in the film field. The university was once the host to direct cinema filmmaker Ricky Leacock, and Glorianna Davenport founded and directed the Interactive cinema research group there. For the members of the OpenDocLab, their work is just an extension of this legacy. 

The lab hosts a series of fellows and visitors. When asked why MIT is a good place for something like this, Wolozin responded, “All kinds of people pass through so it’s easy to hold events and bring new ideas to our community. We can foster dialogue and we do that in a lot of different ways. We have two game labs already — they’ve been doing interactive projects since the beginning. If we bring these storytellers to the film world, we can learn from each other.  The Center for Civic Media is here. They work with communities and technologies to empower and engage them. We have the Media Lab right here full of people inventing the technologies of the future. It’s an informed community. We have humanists who understand technology and are surrounded by it.”

Aside from the lab’s current programming, which includes panels and residencies with artists working in the interactive space, the lab is doing research on topics like the role of the author, how participation works in documentary, emerging technologies and tools, and impact assessment.

Regarding that last project, Wolozin said, “There needs to be an entirely new way to measure impact. You’re including the audience and the subjects in the story-making. It’s not just about how many people are watching your show anymore. It’s about what kind of conversation your project is creating. The impact can be far deeper and long lasting. You’ll be seeing a bit of our research about impact assessment soon. It’s really about understanding what tools are available to storytellers, how to use them and when to use them and when not to!”

Wolozin’s own inspiration comes from the art world. She’s especially inspired by installation work by the likes of Bill Viola and Krzysztof Wodiczko. “They’re so immersive and provocative. They are pushing the boundaries of technology in order to explore fundamental questions about what it means to be human. And Wodisczko addresses social issues that are often not discussed in a a very public space.

New waves of documentary storytelling are almost here, Wolozin thinks, “At the Open Doc Lab, we’re forging a new alliance. Technologists and filmmakers are two communities that are just beginning to work together. But it’s key that they do so that the new storytelling experiments come not just from the technologists nor just from the storytellers but from their combined efforts.”

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