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What we’re watching: Kony 2012, “BLA BLA” and the extra point

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Yesterday at SXSW, a fascinating interactive animation by Quebec filmmaker Vincent Morriset called “BLA BLA” won first prize in the Interactive Art category. While we’re not sure that the treatment of an animated protagonist and inkblots and the starry night sky fits the Storyboard bill as either narrative or journalism, we can see why it won at SXSW – and why the National Film Board of Canada backed it in the first place.

Luckily for this site, the NFB has been up to other things that fit more cleanly into Storyboard’s mission. They got viral attention this winter when the release of their documentary “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” coincided with the maelstrom around the Susan G. Komen for the Cure/Planned Parenthood funding controversy.

But as “BLA BLA” indicates, some of the NFB’s most innovative work is in experimental storytelling, such as one new interactive documentary (yes, interactive documentary) with first-person narration from the point of view of … a bear. Set in the Canadian Rockies, you can enter “the uniquely modern territory where the wired world ends and the wild one begins.” Meet “Bear 71.”

Kony 2012

Along with everyone else, we’ve spent the last week watching the drama surrounding “Kony 2012,” a megaphone-ready campaign calling for the capture of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Storytellers have been talking for some time about how stories get told, by whom, and in what context. And “Kony 2012” has hit a nerve, not only with photojournalists and political writers but also with with Ugandans themselves, several of whom took to open protest before screenings around the country were canceled this week.

For the record, the filmmakers have gained support for their viral approach from some journalists, including The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof; while outlets like Foreign Policy and writers like Dinaw Mengestu argue that it is fundamentally flawed. We’re fairly sure, however, that fodder for discussions of appropriating or benefiting from someone else’s misery has never before been as abundant as it is in this video from Invisible Children, which includes footage of a traumatized child as a lead-in to an extended dance performance by not only the filmmakers but what appears to be an entire high school.

On a less controversial front is a CNN story that offers minimal fanfare and hints at tremendous complexity. Alan Moore kicked his first extra point almost 50 years ago in high school, then headed off to Vietnam. After he was laid off from construction work in the Great Recession, this grandfather of five still dreamed of playing college football. And so he did. This extraordinary profile of a 61-year-old kicker for the Faulkner University Eagles includes inspiring elements without becoming manipulative.

Somewhere between “Kony 2012” and CNN’s profile of Alan Moore sits “The Road We’ve Traveled,” Davis Guggenheim’s video summing up President Barack Obama’s first term. Davis, known for his policy-focused documentary work, produced the film on assignment for Obama’s re-election campaign. News footage combines with heartwarming photos and narration by Tom Hanks as Guggenheim works to build a very simple narrative from the roller-coaster ride of a presidential term.

Guggenheim’s latest is not, and is not meant to be, journalism. But it’s useful to look at the way that these three videos – each of which was designed to evoke emotion in millions of viewers – approach their narrative arcs, and the degree to which complicating information is adopted or avoided. However necessary a strong grasp of narrative is for effective policymaking and good reporting, the question of “how simple is too simple?” seems destined to dog us for a good while longer.




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