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The 2022 Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 20 - 30, in Park City, Utah

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Sundance Film Festival 2022 - Interview with Karim Ben Khelifa, Director of SEVEN GRAMS

 

Interview by Claire Varney

SEVEN GRAMS is directed by photojournalist and war correspondent Karim Ben Khelifa. 

THE ENEMY, his 2017 award-winning virtual reality exhibition sought to humanize the images of war by allowing participants to encounter combatants on opposite sides of conflicts throughout the world.

 

Continuing his long standing committment to bringing forth personal narratives behind global issues, SEVEN GRAMS is an augmented reality experience that finds Ben Khelifa exploring the connection between smartphones and the conditions under which the rare materials needed to make them are extracted, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

SEVEN GRAMS is accessable to anyone on the free App, available on both  iOS and Android systems.

 

SEVEN GRAMS made its all-online 2022 Sundance Film Festival premiere in the innovative New Frontier section, now in its 16th year.  
The first time I met the director was virtually in "The Spaceship"- a real-time New Frontier digital platform experience where we gathered for a completelyb different type of a Sundance filmmaker reception. 

 

Later, I conducted this Q&A with Ben Khelifa:

 

CV

Please tell us how this project came about?

 

KBK

When I was in the eastern Congo working, it struck me that I had to use my phone in order to photograph the people in the mines. That was in 2015 when I was working on another project, but the idea stuck around.  Once I was done with that project, I started thinking about that very moment of recognition, and I then started working on this project. I was seeing what it would look like, asking does it make sense, and trying to push the idea a little bit further. So I started writing the project and obviously we got here!

 

 

CV 

Had you ever done anything like this before?

 

KBK

I had done a VR which was 3000 square feet where you have 20 people at the same time- it was quite a big breakthrough in 2017 because you had no such a thing at that point. So I was a bit into new media, but I had only done one piece before in virtual reality: We had turned this work, The Enemy, into an AR experience.  So, I had my first foray into augmented reality at that stage, and I was more interested in the medium in the way that it was so different than virtual reality - you’ve really got to think about it very differently. 

But what happened with The Enemy is that we had all the contents, everything was done, and we just adapted to augmented reality. I was interested in looking at what a project would be like augmented reality-in that medium, and one that could 'look like'. It didn’t have so much of 'look at' as when you do documentaries… there is a history of documentaries and filmmaking such a history in that.  

I think what happened with augmented reality is we just had a blank page, and I started designing by first writing, and then designing after.  Only the drawing comes after. Somehow it needs to make sense for me...

Sketches can be sometimes - especially with new media - can be sometimes sometimes confusing for people looking in from the outside: But words? No. 

So, if I can make sense writing somehow part of the experience that I envision, and people can get it and still be interested after reading that, then I think it’s a good start to move to the other stage which would be to design on paper. 

 

CV

I have read that you were designed your project this way for a certain  audience…

 

KBK

I come from a photo journalist very classic background in media. 

I’ve worked where we were all brought to think - Here is a story, here is a medium, and then you have the audience that goes with it. So let’s say I want to do a photo story and I do it for Time magazine….Time has its own audiences. But with this project I was really thinking more differently. I wanted to see what it would look like if you put the audience first, and then you choose the media after. I also simply wanted to speak to the newer generation. So much of the world that they understand is through their phones. 

And since I’m putting the medium also as the object of the protagonist somehow in the work - is also the medium - I’m curious to see how they’re going to be reacting when they find out the object they have the closest to them is also enabling injustices, and then for sure we can’t say it did not happen. 

All of this was really trying to design thinking, problem solving, and then putting all of this together.  

There’s no way I can design for Generation Z without researching Generation Z.  I’m myself not… I am 49 years old. I do have a smart phone and obviously a computer for a long time, but I’m not native in this. 

And even if my media habits have completely changed in the past 20 years, as most of us, that generation hasn’t known anything else. 

So it was really was up to me to try to study and research Generation Z, see what their habits were…what they like – what they don’t, what they consume, and there were a few studies that I could actually dive into that tell us a lot of very interesting things. 

To start with, Generation Z really care about nonfiction storytelling in the real story of this world. There’s a good element in that research which in that 75% of Generation Z is willing to experiment with new form of story telling. That tells me yes, we can experiment with augmented reality. 

Another component that was really important was that Generation Z doesn’t want to be just given bad news: They want to be given bad news with solutions.  

So from all of these studies, I started to having the pictures of what they are expecting-not necessarily exactly how, but that becomes a big puzzle and now is the time to put everything together. And there is no way I can put everything together without my audiences, because it’s a puzzle I don’t know. It’s a puzzle they instinctively know, so designing on my sides and with my team -and then going back to Generation Z -presenting my work even bit by bit…it doesn’t need to be the whole piece.  And debriefing.  It’s really questioning, and spending time failing most of the time before we actually get it right. 

 

CV  Your research into Gen Z sounds fascinating, like you could make a whole project about that!

When I read about the subject matter of Seven Grams in the Festival program and the press release, I knew I had to see this. 

Or more precisely… experience this.

I worked with HBO for many years, and they have a couple of documentaries that were based in the Congo. 

For these atrocities that you expose here…for this to still be going on in 2022, it is utterly astonishing. How can this keep going on? And what reaction have you had from the smart phone companies? 

 

KBK

We haven’t heard much from those big corporations. The way I’m looking at it is, and this is basically my job, is that I’m trying to make what is invisible - tangible. 

With this work we’ve really tried to use the medium, the storytelling, and then bring back the plights of the minors in the eastern Congo. 

I want to stress that the work is not to boycott the resources of the Congo: it’s simply not possible. 

 

CV

What do you hope your project will ultimately do? 

What do you hope the impact will be? 

 

KBK

I hope my target audience Generation Z realizes there is a problem in their smart phones, and all of the electronics.

I can’t stress enough that if we can have fair cotton and fair coffee trades- fair and equally; then we can do the same with minerals.  We can do the same with those resources. 

 

Generation Z is not the demographic that buys tons of electronics, but they will be buying more, not less, electronics in the future.  I hope that knowing that there can be injustices in the manufacturing of their phone, they will ask those companies to clean up their supply chain and operate due diligence along each step.

So I’m really hoping that this little grain of salt- this incomfort that they will realize, will stick around long enough for them to make a choice when it comes to buying new electronics and to check on those companies and ask, ‘Is they are violence in the making of my electronics, or can you guarantee there is not?’

 

It’s like what happened with fur coats. People wanted to buy fur coats, and you had middlemen who wanted to have a better and more equal system. This is a whole ecosystem that needs to be put in place. Seven Grams is a grain of salt in that ecosystem that I hope will help that ecosystem to live and to prevent injustice happening in eastern Congo. 

 

 

CV  

Thank you, The situation is just so tragic. 

I’m interviewing you here for filmfestivals.com.  But your production is different than most offerings at a film festival.  It’s in the festival section called, The New Frontier. Can you tell us about that?  

 

KBK 

The New Frontier is the melting pot of multidiscipline artists trying to find out ways to tell stories. New ways and completely new mediums of mixing things.  And that is the beauty and the complexity of it. But this is definitely trailblazing the future of storytelling, and I could not be more happy that to be there simply with my work and surrounded by such amazing creators within the New Frontier selection. 

 

CV  I agree, it’s terrific. And you and I “met” in something called The Spaceship, which was pretty crazy.  I guess that wouldn’t have been the case if it had been a regular film festival -not all online. Or would it? 

 

KBK

We could’ve met in Park City in the same random way- at a party or a screening of movie, and then just opening up a conversation: I think it was exactly the same happening there (at the Spaceship), but we definitely needed a bit of time to get the habits.  You couldn’t apply exactly all the same social rules as in real life, because in real life you and I would have shown interest and said ‘let’s have a conversation.’ There on the spaceship it was more like me jumping- or you jumping, and then having a bubble burst to some extent - and then we go into another bubble after that.  But that’s a different way, and invaluable since there was no way in real life to interact with the current pandemic happening in the world. 

 

CV

How would you have presented your project differently if the festival this year was in person? 

Tell us…this is not like a film that people go to see in a theater or stream.  But rather, everyone can access your project right now for free.  

And how would you have presented that differently in person?

 

KBK

I wouldn’t have presented anything differently if I was in Park City, because Seven Grams is an app that you can download on your Google play store, or on the iOS for free. So you just go through the storytelling and then you erase the app.  It’s just a one shot/one thing, and it’s also an experimentation in storytelling.  People could’ve borrowed it or completely downloaded it on their own phone, put their headphones on and then go through the 25 minutes of storytelling that is within.  

So it’s an augmented reality: A 2D film action life of a young minor that I codirected with TT Hernandez.  

And then the last part, which is a bit more context of each of those minerals, and then also -what are the solutions? As we said earlier, with Generation Z -this can be the start of a change here.  

 

CV

It’s interesting because quite a few, if not the majority of filmmakers and I would think even directors in the New Frontier category are looking for distribution deals at Sundance. But yours is already available and free on the app - which is quite different. 

 

KBK  Yeah, I’m not actually looking for distribution! I’m just available there at the festival, and you are part of the people who will amplify my voice and tell other people to go and access this. 

So, there’s really different ways to get the word out through media, but also trying to find people who are completely in line with what we do, and recognize the significance of the work that we produce, and are willing to put their name on and run with it. 

It is a distribution that will go on over time. We are here for the long run. We are going to be pushing this for quite some time. It’s not just a one shot. 

 

 

CV is there or will there be a follow up to this? Does the project continue?

 

KBK  The project, yes we continue, but we’re not going to be producing more. We do have a physical exhibit with objects from Congo that we brought back from there: The minors tools and a smartphone from there. Minors are making two dollars a day: Two dollars a day is the price of 2 water bottles in eastern Congo.

We’ve also got a SIM card which is also two dollars, we’ve got a few pills for headache and for skin disease - they cost two dollars. 

We are trying go beyond the digital experience.  I also have a full set up of a physical exhibition that goes with it and that gives more of a tangible aspect. 

 

We won a prize recently at a documentary Festival in southern France, FIPADOC, which is the most important festivals for documentaries. 

Ongoing, the project will have a beautiful life made up of a lot of users and people talking about it and hopefully trying to help the situation and impact it for the better.

 

CV

I see POV listed in the credits- how are it connected to Seven Grams?

 

KBK

POV is a coproducer.  They are one of the organizations that from the get-go said this is an important story. ‘We are not sure exactly how you’re going to tell that story but we want to be there with you along the way and support you with our networks- support you financially in producing this work with you and France Televisions in Paris. The executive producer is Lucid Realities, also based in Paris. 

 

CV

Thank you for bringing this all to our attention. For so many to not know that this is going on and how horrible this is ….as we’re looking at our iPhones.  Tragic

 

KBK

Yes. I hope you have a completely different understanding of the issue this way, and it becomes closer to you.

 

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