2013 NYFF Filmmaker Profile: Eline Jongsma & Kel O’Neill (Creators – ‘EMPIRE’)

Shot in ten countries over four years, ‘EMPIRE‘ employs a broad range of storytelling techniques—including nonfiction filmmaking, multi-channel video projection, and experience design—to unearth the contemporary aftershocks of the world’s first brush with global capitalism.  By turns epic and intimate in its approach, ‘EMPIRE‘ explores the ways in which the conditions of past continue to define our lives in the present.

A hidden synagogue in the mountains of Indonesia. A Dutch-style village in the Sri Lankan rainforest. A white separatist enclave in the South African desert. These are just a few of the communities brought to light in ‘EMPIRE’, an immersive documentary project that examines the still-unfolding legacy of Dutch colonialism.

EMPIRE‘ videos and installations will be on display September 28 – 30, 2013 throughout the 51st New York Film Festival at several venues on the Lincoln Center campus including the Film Center, Walter Reade Theater, and Alice Tully Hall.  Viewers are invited to chart their own course through the work, and to draw their own thematic connections as they go.


When were you first introduced to the idea of “transmedia”? In your opinion, how do you feel the rise of transmedia art will affect/has affected the traditional models of narrative & documentary film?
Well, transmedia means a lot of different things to different people. We’d seen the term floating around for a long time, mostly as an alternative to the increasingly untrendy “new media,” but our first brush with transmedia documentary projects was at IDFA in 2012, where Empire had its European premiere.

Empire was programmed under the umbrella of Paradocs, IDFA’s experimental documentary section. At that point, Empire was a series of installations. Due to a last-minute venue change, we ended up showing these installations in the same building as the work from IDFA DocLab, which is IDFA’s transmedia documentary section. We soaked up the DocLab work, went to their events and really fell in love with the medium’s potential. We met Adnaan Wasey, Director of POV Digital, at one of the DocLab events and he urged us to apply for the POV Hackathon. We knew that we wanted to find a way to bring the work to a larger audience that may not go to museums and film festivals, so adapting it to the web seemed like the right way to go. It seemed like a natural progression.

Making Empire interactive and putting it online gives us the opportunity to create a portable exhibition. Originally, in installation form, the project allows viewers to wander from installation to installation, and from story to story. As a viewer, you get to be a bit more autonomous than you are used to: we give you the parts, but you do the labor. We are trying to use the same principles in the interactive online version. In that sense, we think that transmedia art broadens the horizon of visual storytelling and gives both the creator and the audience more power to experiment than they may have with other art forms. It doesn’t replace “traditional” film, it just offers a different way of going about things.

Specific to ‘EMPIRE’, why did you feel a transmedia approach was the best way to execute this particular subject?
It allows you to transcend geographic limitations, and makes it possible to showcase a series of video installations to a larger group of people, around the world.

EMPIREAs a 2-person crew (and husband and wife, at that), how do you split the responsibilities of production, editing, etc.? What is the most difficult aspect of having a 2-person crew?
Eline is generally in charge of pre-production. Kel takes care of the editing. We both shoot, and we both conduct interviews. As far as who operates and who asks questions, it really depends on who we have in front of us, and who they feel most comfortable with. We make these adjustments without discussion. We are so used to working together it happens naturally. The most difficult part for us is also the best part: we look more like a couple on vacation than a serious filmmaking team. It means that people don’t take us seriously and let their hair down more easily.

Speaking from a technical aspect, how many cameras did you have running at one time?  What kind of technical setup was used consistently?
We shoot with one camera at the time. We do multiple takes of the same thing, so it sometimes looks like there is more than one camera rolling.

At your presentation you described the influence of the Dutch East India Company as being the first multi-national corporation.  In comparison to contemporary times, are there any entities you would compare them to?
Sure. The Dutch East India Company was THE proto-corporation, really, in that it operated very much in the fashion of most modern corporations (issuing public stock, prioritizing profit above all else, etc.). But it also had some of the features that we’d associate with a contemporary nation state, in that it had its own militaries, and its colonies had local governments. They even minted their own silver coins, many of which, thanks to 17th and 18th century shipwrecks, are now scattered across the ocean floor off the coast of Western Australia. So the company existed in an odd space. It was kind of like the United States of Exxon-Mobil, or the People’s Republic of McDonalds.

In your experiences how does Dutch colonialism compare with the modern day influence of global capitalism?  Why is one described (in textbooks) as, the negative sounding, colonialism and one described as, the much more positive sounding, “free market”?
It’s safe to assume that, in a few hundred years, we will all reflect on the era of the free market with a fair bit of horror. Actually, make that a few years, not a few hundred.

EMPIREWhat was the most satisfying aspect of creating this project?
Establishing the conceptual rules for each installation and then finding creative ways to obey them.

How did your inclusion in the 51st New York Film Festival come about? After NYFF, where are you planning on showing ‘EMPIRE’ and what is your strategy getting it to the widest audience possible?
I think winning the top prize at the POV Hackathon paved the way for us. That and our commitment to put together an interesting show. The way that Matt Bolish , programmer of Convergence, works is that he really takes his time and feels out a project before he commits. After he saw some of Empire he called us in for a series of meetings in which we talked about what our vision would be for a short presentation. We just kept developing and developing our exhibition ideas, and refining our proposal. When it comes to transmedia, applying to festivals isn’t about throwing a DVD in an envelope. You have to go further.

The next step is launching the first two online adaptations—Empire: Cradle and Empire: Legacy—which will go live during Convergence weekend at empireproject.eu. Then we’ll finish up the last two adaptations in early 2014. From now until then, we’re full time evangelists for the project. Anyone with ears is going to hear about what we’ve been up to.

– Interview Prepared & Posted by Steve Rickinson


EMPIREAbout Eline Jongsma & Kel O’Neill
Eline Jongsma & Kel O’Neill are a married Dutch-American filmmaking team focused on cross-platform storytelling. They work as a two-person crew, and film, edit, research and produce all of their work by themselves. They spent 2010-2013 travelling more than 140,000 kilometers by car, boat and airplane through Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas while filming Empire. Before creating Empire, Eline and Kel were the US Correspondents for VPRO Television’s Prix Europa-winning documentary series “Metropolis.” Their journalism work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Vice and The Creators Project. Their videos and installations have been presented by museums, galleries and festivals throughout the world, including: the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF); the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA); the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR); Apex Art, New York; Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town; Jogja National Museum, Yogyakarta; Khoj, New Delhi; and CBK Zuidoost/Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA). Before they began working together, Eline worked as a fine art photographer, and Kel worked as an actor in independent film.

Facebook: /empirefilm
Twitter: @EmpireDoc



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