Documentary films usually aim to bring the viewer into the lives of a person–to really show a story through the subject’s perspective. What’s a better way to do this than to let the subjects themselves do the filming?
Project 2×1, which premiered this week, is one of the first films to be shot largely with Google Glass, a device that isn’t available to the general public yet. Made by a group of young filmmakers, one of whom had been picked as one of Google’s early “Glass Explorers,” the 30-minute documentary focuses on telling the story of Crown Heights, a unique neighborhood in Brooklyn that’s the center of both New York’s large West Indian and Hasidic Jewish communities and home to two of the filmmakers.
I live in Crown Heights and went to the premier in the neighborhood this past Sunday. The diverse crowd of more than 100 people–some in dreadlocks and others with big beards and yarmulkes–reflected the point of the movie itself: to bring a greater understanding between two communities that closely coexist but hardly intermix. (I represented a third, much newer community coming to Crown Heights–the young hipster and professional crowd–that could also do for greater awareness of those around them).
Large parts of the film were shot with Google Glass, though at times there were more traditional documentary formats used, such as the sit down face-to-face interview. Mostly, though, the filmmakers asked people in the community to film their first-person experiences with Glass. A pastor shot the scene at Sunday church, and an older West Indian man at the playground hangout hub. A young Hasid brought us inside the packed rabbinical study center, and into the more casual moments of celebration at a wedding or even on the subway. Narration over the footage gave context to the happenings.
At times the effect was jarring. The inevitably shaky camera had the Blair Witch Project-style effect, and seeing deeply religious people of all ages slip on Google Glass heralds the unnerving possibility that such privacy-ending technology could one day be that commonplace. But the technique was completely effective in the larger context of the documentary. Each closely-knit community had its story, and its own places, that the other had never experienced. While all of the scenes could have been shot using a traditional camera, it would have been more invasive and harder for the filmmakers to gain access. The “voice” of the actual subjects would have been subtly diminished. Seeing the rapt church audience from the actual viewpoint of the pastor was something new.
Because of these factors, I felt that the filmmaking technique used in this context was less of a gimmick than I had first assumed when I saw the Kickstarter page a little while back. However, I do worry about a time when this kind of user-generated video capture becomes the norm.
There’s another screening and Q&A of Project 2×1 today, Friday, December 13, as part of the Brooklyn Film & Arts Festival at the Brooklyn Historical Society (details here), and the directors say to follow their Twitter account for news of additional screenings around New York City.