‘Boomtown Babylon’ uniting global filmmakers

The upcoming interactive doc from Parisian prodco Honkytonk, director Lotje Sodderland and creative director Vincent Moon will examine the divide between rich and poor as global populations shift toward urban centers.
December 22, 2010

The web documentary format is allowing directors and producers to explore and redefine narrative approaches to film through collaborative, grassroots filmmaking. One such project due for release late in the New Year is Boomtown Babylon, an interactive doc that will examine the widening divide between rich and poor as global populations shift toward urban centers.

Financed by Media Fund Interactive and France’s Centre national du cinema (CNC), Boomtown Babylon is directed by first-time filmmaker Lotje Sodderland, an interactive producer who has worked for Amsterdam’s SubmarineChannel and ad agency Mother’s London office. Initially, her idea was to take the macro issue and examine it on a personal ‘micro level’ by shooting a collaborative film and weaving together interconnecting narrative threads in a linear edit for TV.

Two years ago she covered the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam’s DocLab program for Submarine and decided that the project would work better as a web doc. She rewrote the concept and pitched it to Arnaud Dressen, co-founder of Paris-based production company Honkytonk , who liked it and offered to produce it as a non-linear interactive web documentary.

‘The idea is to build a project by opening up the creative process of documentary filmmaking to local filmmakers around the world using production creative tools we are building internally,’ says Dressen, whose company recently produced interactive concert film iRock and the investigative doc Le Challenge with Canal+.

To secure financing for Boomtown, Sodderland and Dressen recruited Vincent Moon (a.k.a. Mathieu Saura), co-creator of the popular web concert series Take Away Shows, as the film’s creative director.

‘A lot of these collaborative, open, participatory film projects end up looking quite bad because of the variety in aesthetics and variety in quality,’ says Sodderland. ‘It’s good to have someone [like Moon] who has a very strong, extremely skilled visual approach to make sure that there’s stylistic cohesion across the whole project.’

In April, she and Moon flew to Phnom Penh to shoot the first of the project’s 10 films and work out the production method that nine local filmmakers around the world will follow. The Cambodian capital was an ideal city to shoot the pilot because of the social and political tension around government-forced evictions of squatters that legally inhabited buildings in the city following the fall of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.

The pilot screened in November at IDFA, where it was accepted into the festival’s round table pitch forum, and the final film will be delivered in November, 2011. Sodderland is now in the process of connecting with the nine filmmakers in a mix of cities around the globe to define nine more stories that will examine urbanization over the course of an hour in the day of a specific community.

‘The Internet user will enter this website and see the 10 streams available to them,’ she says. ‘Most people will select which locations they want to view, to visit or engage with and which themes appeal to them the most. It could be corruption, family, food, home – a selection of tags each moment of the day will be tagged with. The back end of the system then creates this bespoke edit for each user.’

Though the web doc is a nascent genre, the user interfaces and storytelling tend to resemble each other; many use the global map for navigation and a combination of stills, text and audio recordings to tell their stories. Sodderland says Boomtown Babylon will have a playful feel and rely primarily on video. The film will use Honkytonk’s in-house software toolkit Klynt, which defines the user experience according to the director’s vision for the narrative.

‘I’m very much a fan of simplicity especially when it comes to visual, interactive storytelling,’ she says. ‘We want to use the Internet as a way to enhance the story, not to distract from it.’

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