Vali Fugulin will participate to the Panel “Gaming and Documentary” at Sunny Side of the Doc 2016, June 21 @ Agora.

As a filmmaker in residence at the National Film Board of Canada, Vali Fugulin devoted two years to an extremely exciting project: creating a game for children that is also sure to be a hit with adults. This unique opportunity allowed the director to try her hand at a new form of writing, aided by the Montreal-based independent video game studio Minority Media. She also brought several talented collaborators on board for her project.

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Question : Could you explain the genesis of this « game doc » or « Doc game » ?

Vali Fugulin : I’m interested in human groups, everything that leads people to band together, interact, support one another thus my interest in social innovation. I have young children and the content they consume usually comes from a gadget they’re holding in their hands, whether it’s a computer or a tablet. I stopped being opposed to that at some point and decided to reach out to these kids through the tools they treasure, apps, and games, not the ones that I know best which are television and the big screen. So, for my residency, I proposed a fun interactive documentary about social entrepreneurs with a game interface. As residencies at the NFB are for exploring, pushing the boundaries, and there’s a pioneering aspect to the, the more my work progressed, the more I tried to figure out how I could integrate a documentary aspect into a game. I researched what already existed in docu-gaming and serious gaming. Together, my producer and I concluded that my project would be not a docu-game, but a full on videogame, without losing sight of the fact that my strength lies in storytelling and human stories.

The game is made for tablets and mobiles, but since not every child in the world has a tablet, the game can also be played on a computer. It lasts 45 minutes. Kids are very intuitive and will play it instantly, parents might fumble a little more at first. It’s an easy game to play as I wanted people to focus on the content and not the performance.

 

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Question : Why choosing the video game when you’re a documentary director ?

Vali Fugulin : At the end of the game, we meet though photos and texts five of the social innovators who were the impetus for the project. Each character is inspired by a real person and true story. The path of the hero in the game is based on the combined real paths of these people. They’re all people I would have loved to film in a documentary but now they became fictional characters. In this residency, I wanted to totally reinvent myself, and learn a new way. The game provided me with the opportunity to do that.

Question : How did you work with a videogame agency?

Vali Fugulin : When we decided to create a game, we wondered which independent company could produce it with us and we found Minority Media. They already had an auteur approach, so our DNA was compatible. Like us, they want to address serious issues but they create metaphors and turn them into games, in order to arouse a feeling. Minority more or less invented empathy games. Theirs is a game culture, and I came from a documentary background, wanting to tell a story based on reality. We came from two very different backgrounds. We had to compile a glossary with their game designer Ruben Farrus, because we were using terms that didn’t have the same meaning for both of us. I was always talking about reality, meaning real people and stories, but for Ruben, in games, reality means what is plausible. And to get a “message” across via the game, I constantly wanted to explain and show, like the true documentary filmmaker that I am. But with games, learning happens as a result of empathy. You learn because you feel and experience, not because you observe. You’re in the character’s skin. I also wanted close-ups all the time, to bring out emotion. I was acting like a filmmaker, but games use a different language that I ended up learning. In a game, you are the main character, so the main character should be almost silent as we’re not going to put words in your mouth. As a player, we want you to experience and feel things, not to be told how to feel. The storyline of the hero thus had to be shifted by moving conflicts around and having allies talk in place of the hero. It’s another world of creation and Ruben was very generous in sharing his knowledge with me. Basically, I was the project’s idea person, with a team to interpret my world. It was an ongoing dialogue between two very different fields of practice: documentary filmmaking and games. Above all, I wanted kids to feel empathy for the characters. I was constantly thinking of my social innovators, who work trying to solve unsolvable issues and help people who are suffering. I wanted to share their spirit through the game, and the idea that you can change the world, one small step at a time.

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Question : By working on this project, did you realise that it might be a new opportunity for documentary to push boundaries, by merging technologies and creating new storytelling?

Vali Fugulin: The sector of the Game has been moved away during many years from cinema and, thus documentary, concerns. I would say it has been even “snubbed” because synonym of young audience, geeks and nerds. It’s really time NOW for hybridation because gaming professionals use very tremendous tools. The collaboration we can create between a film-maker and, for example, a game designer, is very enlightening. They literally taught me a new language that I did not think of possible, in light of my 20 years of experience.

I think that the documentary makers should rather learn gaming techniques, mainly gameplay codes or interactive storytelling. And vice-versa: these professionals have to gain everything to feed on cinema.

Question : Is the NFO a kind of pioneer on this hybridation programs ? Is it easy to coproduce with Canada?

Vali Fugulin: This willing to support and finance interactive projects is in its DNA. The NFO has always been – and still is – a pioneer by supporting animation, developing Imax format and so on. Its autonomy makes it strength and you really can develop coproductions. Innovation is the key for such projects. And people behind who initiate them.