This time last year, Kevin McMahon was crazily bustling around, busy with preparations for the premiere of his documentary feature Waterlife—a Great Lakes–centric statement about the environment and the liquid that gives it life—at Hot Docs. One year, hundreds of screenings, and umpteen awards later, including Hot Docs’ Special Jury Prize, he’s settled down (a bit) to chat and give back. Before he goes on to speak at Centennial College this weekend, we wanted to talk docs, new media, and of course, exchange a few watered-down puns.
While his 2009 film is a piece worthy of respect in its own right, it shines even more when the Waterlife project is considered in its entirety: it’s not just a movie, but a new media experiment, complete with a unique, interactive, smartly crafted website, a blog, and heaps of easy ways for audience members to make a move after watching the film.
“I knew that people would see the film, particularly people that live in the Great Lakes, and say, well, what am I gonna do about this?” says McMahon. “It seemed important for us to make connections to an environmental group, and create the web elements part of the film to give people an outlet, to be able to flow whatever passion or anxiety came out of viewing the film into concrete action.” That’s why everything the film touches—on the web, and at screenings—is linked to a local environmental organization, a group to join to make a difference (Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, for example, has been on board since the beginning).
This Saturday, Centennial College’s School of Communication, Media and Design is hosting a day of talks (what McMahon likens to mini-TEDTalks), exhibits, and more, called Fast Forward. With him at the helm of a groundbreaking, local cross-platform promotion project, it seems fitting that McMahon should start the set with his own conversation about new media, his vision for difference-making documentaries of the future. “Film is a really closed system. It’s a time-based medium. Most of us are most familiar with Hollywood narrative, which is a super-closed story where you’re essentially following a character—I don’t think, in some respects, it’s a good medium for us in portraying reality,” he says. “As we see that the problems we have are increasingly complex, it’s a challenge for doc makers to try and find ways to portray that kind of complexity, but the medium doesn’t easily lend itself to it.”
In a filmmaker’s statement, McMahon writes that “cinema—because of its technological biases—is much better at spinning illusion than revealing reality.” Somewhat perplexed, we inquire further, and McMahon explains: “The website…is open-ended, it’s non-linear. People go in there and explore, and learn about all the different issues, and in some ways I think new media presents better possibilities for portraying reality. They can show you something from fifty different viewpoints that are all equally valid, in a way that is really hard for film to do.” We tried, and it’s true—in the mash-up of images, and angles, and photos, you do get a little lost. But unlike simply pressing the mute button to quiet the drone of a monotone documentary narrator, you’re forced to learn something whilst you navigate your way out. And maybe by then, you’ll have learned enough to want to know more. Isn’t that the point, after all?
Kevin McMahon speaks at Centennial College’s Centre for Creative Communications this Saturday, April 24 at 12:30 p.m. Advanced registration is here.
Waterlife stills courtesy of Primitive Entertainment.