Over the past few months, continued news coverage of the violence in Gaza has left artist Zohar Kfir feeling disoriented. “Media outlets are all telling different realities,” she says. “It’s important to have the testimony of the people who live there.” With her latest project, Points of View, an ongoing interactive web documentary comprised of video footage shot by local Palestinians working with B’Tselem’s Camera Distribution Project, she’s tackling this perspective head-on.
An ocean away from Points of View's display this week at annual computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH’s Art Gallery, a 72-hour cease-fire for the Gaza conflict came to a close. With Israel and Hamas leaders agreeing to extend their negotiations for an additional five days, according to Al Jazeera Middle East, this event too, or its aftermath, may soon be one of the moments captured in Points of View.
In 2008, when Kfir visited the Jerusalem headquarters of the The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, also known as B’Tselem, she found herself in a room filled with stacks and stacks of DV tapes the group had collected from volunteers. From the moment she began watching them, she was transfixed; nearly a year before her visit, B’Tselem had launched a project to distribute video cameras and provide training on shooting and editing to Palestinians living in underserved, high-tension areas like the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Seeking to empower volunteers to document and prove human rights violations that would not have been exposed otherwise, for these events, participants were instructed to record without pausing their cameras, so that timestamps could prove that there was no editing involved. In addition to this footage, B'Tselem hoped to collect snapshots of daily life in these areas.
From the onset, Kfir and B’Tselem ruled out building a project specifically focused on violent content. They saw an opportunity to show the “human side,” one that’s rarely shown in mainstream media, and stories that revolved around significant events. “With cameras, you can shoot back,” says Kfir, “It’s a means of self defense.” Of course, in an environment where violence is an everyday reality, it doesn't escape the camera. In a number of cases, footage has even gone on to become evidence in legal proceedings; for one narrative arc in Points of View, for example, Gazan journalism students shot video clips of their lives after Operation Cast Lead, a three-week conflict in December 2008 between Palestinian militants and Israel. The footage ranged from a performance by a member of local band Palestinian Rappersz, who had lost his father during the fighting, to a peek at boys playing Counterstrike in a refugee camp’s Internet games club.
Kfir wanted viewers to have multiple ways of experiencing the content— in Points of View, one can interact with a 3D-map of Israel, with each video destination represented by a colored node. “I wanted people to know the anatomy of Israel and actively make a decision on what location to visit,” she says. Nodes on the map are connected with lines or “trails” – a viewer can follow them or ignore them. Filters on the side allow for another layer of readings, by place, topic or theme.
In addition to creating a sense of space, and teaching basic video production techniques, with this project, Kfir is also curating time: in ten years, she hopes that her project will be a capsule of Palestine. “I’m making an archive of B’Tselem’s archive,” she describes. To prepare for this, much of her efforts, in collaboration with data visualization studio FFunction, were focused on building out the backend and content management system. The idea was to create a sustainable tool that B’Tselem could keep using in the future. Users would be able to upload a video, geo-locate it and tag it, and easily have it translated visually on the map. Kfir and FFunction's database is capable of holding hundreds of videos.
Although recent events have slowed the video editing and curating process, she’s looking forward to adding more stories in the near future. In order for Points of View to become be a living document, the idea is to engage users enough that they continue adding content.
After working primarily on single-channel videos and installations, Points of View has become Kfir's first experiment in transmedia storytelling. Building an interactive web platform was crucial, she explains; she wanted the footage to be accessible all over the world, with audiences being able to explore the project 24/7. “There’s that experience of pressing play and watching something a director made with one conclusion,” Kfir says. “I didn’t want that. I wanted to fracture the narratives.”
As an artist, the balance of truth is always on her mind. “Editorial decisions will lead to creating one reality over another.” While she admits working B’Tselem's footage is already choosing one particular set of realities, that’s precisely why she transmedia storytelling is the perfect medium to relay these narratives. “Everybody has an opinion about the Middle East,” she says, “With this map-based project, people can explore from different angles— they have the freedom to construct their own understanding and form their own conclusions.”
Follow the growth of Zohar Kfir's project on Twitter: @pointsofviewdoc