When Non-Linear is the Best Way to Structure a Documentary
What if you have an amazing story to tell, but it doesn't work as a traditional documentary?
Take a cue from Hervé Cohen's immersive web-doc to see what happens when you let the viewer decide how to view a story, in what order, and from whose perspective. For Cohen, the result is Life Underground, an interactive documentary where you can travel through over 14 city subways across the world, by geographic orientation, or by themes like 'love,' 'migration,' or 'aging.' If you come across a character who seems intriguing, take a detour and unlock more about that person. While a subway car may travel in a line, your film need not.
Having grown up using the Paris subway, creator and cinematographer Cohen always recognized the inherent intrigue, and interconnectedness, of a group of strangers riding the subway. Traveling the world, Cohen used a Sony A7SII and Sennheiser MKH50 to capture the stories of 40 different people riding to create one global subway line where viewers can travel in any direction. Cohen's project first premiered at SXSW, and No Film School caught up with Cohen post-fest to talk about capturing his subjects, organizing modules for interactive content, and the beauty of creating a non-traditional story.
NFS: What is the background o the concept for Life Underground and how did you chose the different metro locations?
Hervé Cohen: Growing up in Paris, the metro is part of your everyday life. In the Paris subway, like in most cases, you experience diversity; you cross paths with people from all walks of life, but you rarely interact. Over the years I realized that there was a lot to see when you travel on the subway and I sometimes experienced feeling curious, intrigued, even attracted by a fellow passenger. A man holding a bouquet of flowers is combing his hair in the reflection of the window train: is he about to propose or is he on his way to see his mother he hasn’t seen for so many years? A woman in a suit seems to be nervous, and doesn’t want to sit down. Is she on her way to a job interview or is she going to court to meet her future ex-husband she filed divorce against?
Also when I travel to foreign countries, there is no better way to experience the city and the mood of its inhabitants than to go underground and find yourself in the middle of the crowd where you can observe faces, the way people dress, the way they move, their codes, etc. Often, by being underground, you get to understand something of the society that is above. I often had this fantasy about interacting with someone but of course, I never dared to talk to anyone. The only way to have this fantasy come to life was to make a film. This way I would have a good reason to reach out to my fellow passengers: “Would you agree to be filmed?”, “After your trip, would you have a moment so I can record your voice and you’ll tell me a little bit about yourself?” Then the miracle happened. For some reason, dozens of random passengers agreed to be filmed and to open up, telling me those profound stories, sometimes stories they had never told anyone.
Here is a clip of one such story from Life Underground:
As for the metro locations, I partnered with an organization called UITP – International Union for Public Transport – which gathered a lot of transportation agencies all around the world. They felt this project would be a great way to promote public transportation by focusing on the passengers, on the human aspect of public transportation. So they reached out to their members asking them if they would want to participate in the project, which required a small financial contribution in order to fund it. It’s a kind of sponsorship in a way, since Life Underground would promote their subway system internationally. In this way, I’ve had the participation of 15 subways that I hadn’t chosen and decided to be part of Life Underground, which is great!
"My goal was to capture the pulse of the city by filming passengers’ bodies and faces as if they were living portraits."
NFS: What was the strategy for filming inside each different place?
Cohen: My goal was to capture the pulse of the city, the mood of its inhabitants by filming the movements of the crowd, passengers’ bodies and faces as if they were living portraits, sitting still in their thoughts or walking fast on a corridor. It was also about finding beauty underground, filming the architecture, the trains, the way the tunnel lights illuminate passengers’ faces. And of course, over the course of a five-day shoot, my goal was to identify about 15 passengers following my intuition—my genuine desire to connect with them—and to film them during their travel and then audio record their stories outside of the subway in a quiet place, to have a clean voice recording.
My strategy was to hire an assistant/translator; generally a young enthusiastic film student with positive energy to convince passengers to participate in the project. The five-day shoot would always begin on a weekend, this way the passengers would be more available and I could focus more on passengers’ stories. Then over the three remaining days, I would film the crowds during the peak hours, the calm of an after hour subway ride, and the “beauty shots” etc.
NFS: What kind of crew and gear did you have, and did you need to get permission to film?
Cohen: With the partnership of the subways, we didn’t have to worry about a film permit since it came with their participation. I filmed with a Sony A7SII, which is a great camera in low light and also very discrete. People wouldn’t generally pay attention to me. I also had a DJI Osmo stabilized gimbal so I could film in the corridors, walking up and down the stairs, following my passengers in a very fluid way. As for the sound, I had a Zoom H6 with internal mics to record during the subway shoots – we didn’t use any boom pole as to be as discreet as possible. During the voice recording sessions, I used the excellent Sennheiser MKH50.
My goal was to film 15 passengers per city—in some cities it was more difficult than others to reach that goal. Then I had to select the 3 best passengers’ stories in each city to keep the cost reasonable. If I had a bigger budget, I would certainly go beyond 3 passengers per city but every passenger’s story had a cost with editing, post-production and translation and subtitles into 9 languages.
"I also had a DJI Osmo stabilized gimbal so I could film in the corridors, walking up and down the stairs, following my passengers in a very fluid way."
NFS: What is the difference in the approach for organizing the story, as this as an interactive documentary rather than a traditional linear story?
Cohen: In order to craft this interactive documentary, I had to think of short modules, featuring short travel sequences in subways where the viewer would “encounter” a passenger and a sequence following the passenger throughout his/her journey while listening to his/her story. The passenger’s story found its natural length at about 2:30 to 3 minutes so I realized it would fit well with the format I had in mind. I had to imagine that the viewer would craft his/her own journey around subways, following his/her own intuition, this way reproducing the experience we have in subways when we look at someone and may become curious, intrigued or inspired.
The interactive web doc offes the viewer multiple possibilities of traveling: by random, by theme or by selecting cities to “travel” to. Then the viewer, along the trip that was chosen, meets passengers and is able to click on their names to unlock their stories and continue the travel with them. So all these “modules” being short sequences of travels and stories compose a larger web of encounters and stories where the viewer navigates and creates his/her own adaptable structure of storytelling.
NFS: How did you come up with the structure for ways to travel, from randomly to themes of 'love' or 'aging'?
Cohen: I wanted to offer the viewer the possibility of embarking on a random journey around subways of the world and be surprised by the locations and the passengers. It’s my favorite way of navigating the web documentary, but I realized that it would be appealing to travel around thematic journeys with stories of love, youth, aging, life transition, work, migration, which appeared to be the most recurrent themes. I actually found out that many viewers really love embarking on a specific thematic journey and explore it through multiple passengers’ voices in different locations.
NFS: What is different about the logistics of creating an online documentary like this versus a film that's edited and exported?
Cohen: After the post-production is completed, the sequences need to be included in the interactive web platform. I don’t have any skills in web design or coding so I have been working with a team who crafted the interactive website. It’s been a really big and complicated project. I was lucky to work with such smart and skilled web designers and coders.
NFS: Lastly, what do you see as the beauty and benefit of non-traditional storytelling that you use Life Underground?
Cohen: I think Life Underground is a really good fit for a non-traditional way of storytelling, like an interactive web documentary; being able to craft your own worldwide subway trip the way you want to and, if you are curious about someone or feel compelled to “meet a passenger,” you just go ahead and click on a passenger’s name to unlock his/her story. It’s actually reproducing the subway experience when you get on a train and all of a sudden, you look at someone and are intrigued, curious or even attracted by a fellow passenger to know more about him/her. The viewer feels more engaged, more active and, consequently, is able to feel more empathy towards the passengers he/she meets.