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The Unfilmables Explores The Fate Of Imprisoned Political Activists, Hackers And Others On The Run From Their Government

We spoke to the man behind the project.

Tim Travers Hawkins has undertaken an unusual project; to document individuals who are hard, or sometimes even impossible, to get on film. Whether they’re currently incarcerated or on the run from their governments, these are all folks who have been removed from the public eye, either by choice or by force. Needless to say, this makes documenting their respective situations a daunting task, one that Hawkins has chosen to solve via a series of phone interviews that he plans to place in an interactive documentary.


The idea is that the viewer will be able to access the phone calls, as well as additional information on each individual situation, by navigating a 3D environment. It functions much like a computer game, where the user can interact with selected objects in order to reveal parts of the different stories.

We called Tim up and asked him a bunch of questions about this haunting project.

VICE: So tell me about The Unfilmables.
Tim: Often when you’re talking about making a documentary, the first thing anyone’s going to ask you is what your access is like. The Unfilmables is the opposite of the conventional way you’d want to do a documentary. We’re going for all the stories where access is almost impossible. It allows you to always be subverting conventional documentary form.

You’re aiming to create something completely fresh then?

Yeah, I think that’s the really interesting thing about The Unfilmables, which we’re creating through The Space Open Call. The core of the project is to tell stories that can’t be told in a conventional fashion.

Why is there a need to challenge conventional storytelling though?

With any media, we assume there’s a right, normal way of doing it, but that “normal” way actually contains a lot of assumptions about who the subject is and what the true way of conveying a reality is. Especially with something like a documentary, you kind of think, “well you stick a camera at it and what the camera is recording, that’s real right?” But it’s not, it’s a construction in itself: the way you frame something, the lens you use etc. All these things change the meaning of what’s being presented. The same goes for journalism.


In challenging conventions, is the project approaching what some might call digital art?

Yeah. For me, digital art is at that place where cinema was when it first arrived. People didn’t know where you were supposed to show it; at a fair? In a theater? Were you supposed to play music over it? Was it supposed to be a story or more of a visual experience, you know with the train thundering towards you.

The exciting thing about digital art and interactive storytelling is, that no one can really tell you what it should and shouldn’t be. And hopefully before it gets too nailed down, we can take it some interesting places.

The internet seems like the place for that.

It’s being crowded out by very clever branding, by branded content, which can be great and beautiful, but a lot of it is just so derivative and beige. There’s so much information that people find it hard to get excited about things. But I think The Space and the artists working within it are pushing those boundaries. Just like oil paintings were the medium of one time, now it’s information.

All right. So tell me about these individuals who can’t be filmed. Who’ve you talked to?

In broad terms, we’ve got a spectrum from subversive street artists in countries where that really becomes quite a huge political act to poets, performance artists and musicians, straight up political bloggers and human rights activists, political prisoners, eco activists who are in prison, and other kinds of activists in detention centers. There are a lot of different stories, all with this common ground of a lack of visibility and jeopardy surrounding their own unveiling.


I imagine most of these individuals must have known their actions would lead to this kind of necessary veiling of their person?

Exactly, and this is incredibly poignant in itself. For example, in the case of environmental activists; they are risking spending the rest of their lives in prison - disconnected from nature which is the single most important thing to them. It’s a massive sacrifice to have made for their cause. That’s why the project isn’t just about the politics and causes, but also about what it’s like to live with the consequences of your actions, even if it’s something you strongly believe in.

So beyond challenging conventions of the format, what do you hope the impact of this project will be? Do you hope to see activists freed from jail?

There are already existing campaigns fighting for the rights of everyone we've talked to, and I hope this can feed into those campaigns. If we can get more and more people aware of these issues and get momentum behind the campaigns, that’d be fantastic.

Good luck, Tim.