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a transmedia fairytale conversation for adults

kirsten krauth: interview, sarah gibson, re-enchantment

Snow White, Re-enchantment, courtesy ABC Snow White, Re-enchantment, courtesy ABC

You’ve received critical acclaim as a documentary-maker. What drew you to the idea of an online documentary that also crossed into other media?

I have been making documentaries for over 30 years and I have always been interested in experimenting with the documentary form. Re-enchantment was a new direction, allowing me to explore whether working in a multiplatform and interactive way could extend the documentary essay and the poetic possibility of documentary—both have been important in my previous documentaries such as Myths of Childhood and The Hundredth Room.

To be honest when I began this project, I was extremely frustrated with the documentary landscape that was dominated by ‘reality.’ I have always been interested in documentaries about ideas and fairytales were occupying my thinking at this time. Although I had no previous experience working in interactive online form I was excited about the possibility of engaging with audiences in new ways. Fairytales seemed ideally suited to an interactive approach.

I saw other documentary makers using the web to repurpose their documentaries originally created for television but I was more interested in working on a project that was conceived for the web, that could use interactivity to extend the purpose of the project.

How different was it to embark on writing an online documentary?

I knew I did not want to retell the stories themselves but to approach their interpretation at the same time as deepening our connection to the mystery of the stories. I was interested in the way artist and filmmakers had reimagined these stories and sensed that Re-enchantment would in itself be a work of creative reinterpretation.

I began with research into each story and a script writing process thinking about how we might engage with the interpretations. I knew I wanted all six story spaces in the forest to look and feel different, using the motifs and symbols unique to each. Bluebeard was the first space developed. This is a story based on keys and a forbidden room. The script developed around Bluebeard’s castle where you find a “corridor of interpretation” and each door you unlock leads to a different take on the story. Cinderella unfolds in a vaudeville theatre and carnival space where different stage shows and experiences with a wheel of fortune and kissing booth determine the ideas you encounter. Rapunzel is set in a tower within a tree where you find yourself in a lift and choose a hair treatment. Each floor you enter challenges you with new content about interpreting the story.

Many visual ideas came from workshopping my scripts with lead animator and graphic designer Rose Draper and interactive designers Catherine Gleeson and Keren Moran and producer Sue Maslin. There was a massive job of visual research by Penny Chai who fed many images by artists into the script development phase. As the visual designs and ideas for interactivity were developed, I did more research and writing. We were all working without a template. I had to learn a new language of ‘navigation’ and ‘asset management.’

It was at this script stage that I had input into storyboards and visual design but then these images and ideas disappear into the world of computer programming and I would not see the results till many months later. This is a very different and frustrating process compared to shooting and editing a documentary. I found it very challenging that in this process I was committing to visuals very early with little or no opportunity for editing and changes. I did not know how interactive elements would work until they were programmed. On the plus side, there was an enormous possibility of layering graphic elements and images that has made for an extremely beautiful and poetic aesthetic. I kept reworking text throughout.

The role of writer/director of content changes in the interactive form. In a linear mode you can structure your documentary around an unfolding argument, even a visual one. But in an interactive mode users skip, hop, immerse, revisit or even turn off the sound. I had to accept they go on a journey of ideas that you as director can’t control. So the challenge is that, even more than in linear documentary, the form must embody my ideas. Each section of the site then has to engage the user in some way with the thinking about the story.

What gave you the inkling to focus on fairytales?

As a small girl I had a mysterious book of fairytales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Dangers lurked in the woods. Caged birds and frogs changed into princes. The Little Match Girl died unfairly I thought. Each time I reread this book I thought I would be able to understand it, but I never did. Fairytales frightened me and fascinated me at the same time. When I became interested in Jungian psychology, I was once again confronted by the strangeness of these tales and their deep resonance in the human psyche. They have continued to surprise and delight me.

When I was making my documentary series Myths of Childhood (2006), I was drawn to fairytales because their more realistic depiction was an antidote to the over sentimentalised idea of childhood in contemporary western culture as a magical, precious time, a period separated off as special and permeated with adult nostalgia. In fairytales children are abandoned by their parents, mothers imprison and plan to eat their children and fathers have incestuous relationships with their daughters. But fairytales also provide hope in the battle against impossible odds and the comforting idea that others have been there before us.

The idea for Re-enchantment was seeded by a conversation. I have been making documentaries since the 1970s and increasingly my documentaries have taken up the relevance of psychological ideas for contemporary culture. In all my work I have been pushing our expectations of documentary. I was chatting with my friend and producer Sue Maslin at an exhibition opening. When she heard I was interested in fairytales she suggested that this would make a great interactive documentary. At that point I had no idea how one made an interactive documentary but we both agreed that fairytales were ideally suited to an interactive form.

Do you have a favourite fairytale?

I ‘lived’ the Hansel and Gretel story as a child and as an adult spent a long time learning to burn the witch in the oven. A fairytale will mean different things to us at 5, 15, 35 and 55. I love the dark aspects of fairytales, in particular stories of the negative mother who imprisons and threatens to devour her children. Now I think about what we can learn about ourselves as older women from the Baba Yaga or old witch stories.

Did this initial response colour how you went about directing the project?

I knew that the power of fairy stories lies in their mystery. They are poetic and cannot be reduced to ‘this means that.’ I think it is exactly because of this they continue to enchant and satisfy us. Visually I wanted to keep a poetic quality and the story spaces to be evocative and where possible playful. Rather than stripping away the mystery and enchantment, the project threads together various interpretations and versions of a story from the perspectives of psychology, social history and popular culture in a way that deepens our connection to and fascination with the richness of fairytales. It is the connection we make to a story that gives it the power to excite our own reimaginings.

The visual language throughout Re-enchantment reflects the symbolic language of the story, for example the use of the shoe motif or hair, and responds to the content or interpretations of the story being considered.

You’re a Jungian therapist. Do you find the symbolism of fairytales affects the way your clients see the world, or how you practice?

Fairytales can help us make sense of inner and outer life experiences. I always liked what the novelist Phillip Pullman once said, “your life begins when you are born, but your life story begins when you realise you were delivered into the wrong family by mistake.”

In the therapy room I have observed that if we are able to see our own personal history in terms of story we are much less likely to be overwhelmed by negative life experiences. When we can imagine our selves as the fairytale figures in say Cinderella or Snow White, we gain new psychological insights into sibling rivalry, overwhelming envy, poisonous, devouring love and murderous hatred. We are introduced to the ways in which difficult life experiences can be endured and even overcome. Tales tell of the ensnaring witch who is defeated, the murderous husband who is killed, the spell of enchantment that is broken and the transformation that is possible.

How great do you see the impact of fairytales on contemporary literature, film and television?

I have been interested in the way traditional fairytales have a powerful hold on our cultural imagination. Adapted, revised and parodied they greet us in print and popular fiction, as a reality TV show to find an Australian princess, at the movies as Pan’s Labyrinth and Sex and the City, in advertisements for everything from Chanel to Moccona coffee and hair conditioner to Magnum ice cream. I am fond of the work of Tim Burton who often speaks about the power of fairytales in his own narratives and how all monster movies to him are a version of Beauty and the Beast. Visual artists, photographers and filmmakers are constantly reimagining these traditional stories. Fairytales are perpetually in the back of our collective minds. Knowing fairy stories provides us all with a rich vein of motifs and narratives available for creative reimagining.

Fairytales are of course cultural snapshots of the time and location of their telling, but they can also open out wider cultural questions for us today: Why are we caught up in the princess fantasy? Why do we project greed and overconsumption onto children? Why is cosmetic surgery of the foot on the rise? Why are older women demonised? Why is death our night-time entertainment?

As well as the Forum, the Re-enchantment site also features curated exhibitions. Why is that?

I draw together work by artists exploring particular themes. There are two online now: “Woman and Wolf” and “The Heroine Re-Imagined.” I am confident that there are hundreds of visual artists, photographers and filmmakers who are working with fairytales in some way or other. The Gallery provides a place for their work. This project is a conversation with others who are interested in fairytales. This is the heart of the reason why I wanted to do a project that is interactive.

Re-enchantment, writer, director Sarah Gibson, producer Sue Maslin, Inside Out Productions with the assistance of Screen Australia, Film Victoria, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the University of Technology Sydney; ABC On-Line, ABC 1, ABC Radio National;

RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 27

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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