Knit’s Island: what You See Is Not Necessarily What You Get When Filming a Real Documentary in an Unreal World

Following their first documentary film, shot inside the Grand Theft Auto videogame (Marlowe Drive, 2017), Ekiem Barbier and his team went back for more with Knit’s Island (2023), set inside the DayZ survivalist game. The French filmmaker spoke about his approach during a panel discussion on “The Documentary in the Digital Age” held last November as part of the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM).

Ekiem Barbier first became interested in the documentary genre as a student at the Montpellier Fine Arts school. “I soon realized that whenever you watch a documentary, there’s an unwritten rule that says you must agree that everything you see is real. But I didn’t agree because for me it’s all like fiction,” he said. “I don’t really see any difference between documentary and fiction. I’ve always wondered why we have this thing in our brains that makes us believe that what we see in a documentary is more real than fiction.”

Not surprisingly, Barbier and fellow directors, Quentin L’helgoualc’h and Guilhem Causse, took that concept to the limits by filming in a location completely outside the real world. “The original idea was to make the most unreal documentary possible in a place most people agree is not real at all,” he said. Online videogames had quickly become mainstream. So, without missing a beat the directorial triumvirate picked the world of Grand Theft Auto as the location for their first documentary. For his second production, Barbier gave the nod to the online multiplayer-focused sandbox game DayZ set in a post-apocalyptic world.

“Anyone playing this game must eat, drink, stay warm, and never get sick, There’s no storyline. The only goal is to survive,” said Barbier. “There are no cars or motorcycles like in Grand Theft Auto. You can walk for hours without meeting a single soul and it takes two hours just to get from one village to another. When you meet anyone, it’s a big deal. And you want to make the most of it. So, to me the film is also all about encounters.”

The body is a camera

The DayZ production team created three player profiles, two acting as documentary journalists and a third as a camera technician. “The images in the film are from the point of view of the camera technician’s avatar, which was also the director of photography on location. In this case the camera is a body, one that breathes, eats, and can get sick,” Barbier said. “As long as the avatar breathes or has the sniffles, the frame moves.” It’s easy to see the intrinsic subjectivity of the documentary medium itself in such a context.

In spite of all this, the French team remained fixated on the idea of creating a classic, linear documentary. Because as far as Barbier is concerned, it’s what you decide to show and not to show that defines cinema. “For me, cinema must have a framework. In a sense, virtual reality on its own can never be cinema,” he said. To this end, the production team did everything they could to treat the project like a real documentary. They asked for permission to film in the game, just as they would have done for any real physical location and asked for consent from the players to use their image, even though as avatars their anonymity was secure.

“We decided to experiment by meeting virtual people and pretending they were real. And to treat virtual space as real space," said Barbier. “It is actually part of reality after all since it does exist somewhere. Even if it’s only a fantasy or a figment of the imagination, it’s very real in that sense. It says something about the people that incorporate it. I think if we posed such questions in the real world, some people might be too uncomfortable to answer.”

Knits Island Still 5
Knits Island still shot

The very real paradox of virtual worlds

Paradoxically, the documentary manages to lift the lid on a portion of reality where we ultimately meet everyone in the film literally offscreen. At one point, a mother disconnects from the platform when she hears her baby crying in another room. During the opening scene survivalist mercenaries rave about the pleasure they get in capturing, torturing, and killing people.

“There’s definitely something very strange about being in a virtual community,” Barbier said. “You’re alone…but with other people. You have the impression that you can live out your fantasies – like being violent – when it’s just you in front of the screen. Virtual worlds present this huge paradox. They’re supposed us bring us together, but in a way it’s the very opposite. They keep us apart, isolating us. You might think they’re creating a sense of community when it’s a feeling of alienation they’re building. Minds come together in tiny groups on networks that feed off shared opinions.”

Know thyself

In a way Knit’s Island is a behavioural study of virtual communities reminiscent of the work of early 20th-century anthropologists. During the RIDM panel discussion, moderator Samara Grace Chadwick (executive director of The Flaherty) drew a parallel between Barbier’s approach and the one that documentary filmmakers took in filming an Inuit community in Nanook of the North (1922), over a hundred years ago.

“Not much has changed since then,” Barbier said. “When I first saw Nanook of the North, I thought it said more about the people making the documentary than about the subjects being filmed. I guess that just goes with the territory when you’re an anthropologist. You think you’re studying one thing when you’re actually studying yourself.”

Barbier himself seems ambivalent about how we use technology. “I catch myself sometimes reaching for my phone and I don’t even know why. A part of me is doing the gesture but I also feel there’s something about it that wasn’t my idea. Sometimes I’d like to just get away. I wonder whether our interest in the virtual comes from within or is it being imposed on us? I don’t know. I really don’t have the answer.”

Philippe Jean Poirier
Philippe Jean Poirier is a freelance journalist covering digital news. He explores the day-to-day impact of digital technologies through texts published on Isarta Infos, La Presse, Les Affaires and CMF Trends.
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