Documentary in Cyberspace

INTERVIEW. Bente Milton and Mikkel Stolt set out to do a personal investigation of the online phenomenon Second Life. "My Avatar and Me", selected for IDFA's Reflecting Images, goes with co-director Stolt on a journey into a virtual world, as the lines between fiction and reality gradually blur until the protagonist can no longer distinguish between himself and his computer-generated alter ego Mike Proud.

Defining where reality ends and fiction takes over is a perpetual cinematic conundrum, even more so in the new Danish documentary "My Avatar and Me". This blurring of lines was a challenge for co-directors Bente Milton and Mikkel Stolt when they started shooting their documentary – in cyberspace!

"Second Life is still huge, though you don't hear about it so much anymore. The point we wanted to make is that there is a tangible, real-life dimension to it."

"Second Life is still huge, though you don't hear about it so much anymore. The point we wanted to make is that there is a tangible, real-life dimension to it."

Bente Milton, who is head director, first heard of Second Life on a TV show back when the online phenomenon was still relatively unknown in Denmark.


Bente-Milton_210Photo: Peter Engberg

Bente Milton

Born 1960, Denmark. Milton's most prominent film, the acclaimed "The Children of Gaia" (1998), received numerous awards including Pärnu's Grand Prix and honours from Golden Gate Awards, Nordic Panorama and Prix Europa. "Alison's Baby "(2001), a portrait of the armless single mother Alison Lapper, brought her the prestigious Prix Italia. "My Avatar and Me" (2010), made with Mikkel Stolt, is Milton's first film in feature-length and selected for IDFA's Reflecting Images.

Mikkel-Stolt_210Photo: Peter Engberg

Mikkel Stolt

Born 1965, Denmark. Director-producer, MA in film studies, co-founder and co-owner of Fenris Film & Multimedia. has directed and produced documentaries and short films as well as TV documentaries, educational films, and exhibition and museum videos. "My Avatar and Me" is Stolt's first feature-length film and is selected for IDFA's Reflecting Images.

Milton Media

Founded 1992 by director-producer Bente Milton. Film and television production company specialised in documentaries and educational programming. "My Avatar and Me" is a feature debut.

Fenris Film & Multimedia

Founded 1993 by Jeppe Raasthøj and Mikkel Stolt. Produces documentaries, educational material and multimedia equipment. Produced the children's documentary "We Rule Because!" (Mikkel Stolt, 2002) about a Danish team of young basketballers. Screened at several Danish festivals. The musical documentary "Fado" (Anders Leifer, 2003) was chosen for the Vancouver International Film Festival.

"I found it weird and compelling at the same time," Milton says. "We decided to do a kind of anthropological study, where we dispatch a filmmaker to travel in Second Life and investigate the phenomenon – from within.

"So I had to find a suitable person. It wouldn't hurt, either, if that person was somewhat gawky. In Second Life, he would then be living out some of the dreams that had eluded him in real life. In a fantastic world limited only by your own imagination."

"That's when I came into the picture!" Stolt cuts in. Milton guffaws, "I met Mikkel at a film course, where he came barging in way too late and almost fell over a chair."

"It's funny, because as I remember it, you were the one who arrived late after a run-in with a car park attendant and with a bawling baby in tow," Stolt says, before Milton takes the word again.

"Suffice it to say, we impressed one another and I instantly knew he was the one! Mikkel has the ability to comport himself with a delightful, ironic detachment from his own awkwardness."

A Virtual Kiss

Dividing the roles, Milton became head director, in charge of the structure and the content, while Stolt directed the shooting in Second Life and had a say in other matters as well, according to their contract, which called for reaching the greatest possible agreement. That way they avoided the worst conflicts.

They made a trailer, indicating the direction of the film and introducing Mikkel as well as Rob Gould, their photographer friend, and gorgeous, mysterious Helena. But how do you even film in Second Life?

"We had no clue," Stolt says. "Via Second Life, we got in touch with Rob, who is a photographer, both in real life and Second Life. He took us into this world and, together with him and our technical producer Jeppe Raasthøj, we figured out how to shoot in full HD in cyberspace. Through Rob, who was always walking around with a camera on his shoulder, we met Helena and soon we had the basis for exploring Second Life and for a good story. We all agreed to start filming and see where the story would take us."

When you say "meet," you mean in cyberspace?

"Yes!" Stolt says proudly. "It was a new way of working, but wildly fascinating."

"It was a lot like real life," Milton adds. "Rob knew Helena, and I guess he was a bit in love with her, too. He knew the bar she used to frequent and he took us there to meet her. Mikkel wasn't entirely unmoved by this blond bombshell, either …" Helena helps Mike become a cool avatar with the skills to
mingle with the cyber jet set and make a successful career for himself as a filmmaker in the virtual world – a career he has dreamed about, and vainly struggled for, in real life.

"We didn't expect Mikkel to become so absorbed and even outright attracted to Helena. It just happened. A lot of people who have seen the film ask us if Helena is a construction. But no, she isn't. We still don't know who she really is. We don't even know if she is a man or a woman," Milton says.

Stolt himself is convinced Helena is a woman. "I was surprised at how many real feelings Second Life engendered," he says. "There is a scene of Helena and me kissing, and when we shot it I could feel it physically. It was weird for Rob, too, who had to film it. I was amazed how powerful it felt."

Framegrab from My Avatar and Me
"My Avatar and Me"

New Ways of Social Interaction

"My Avatar and Me" follows both virtual Mike and real-life Mikkel, whose relationship to his flesh-and-blood is put to the test. But how much is real and how much is fiction?

"After the first few visits to Second Life, it became clear to me that it's impossible to distinguish between fiction and reality in Second Life," Milton says. "If you ask me, it makes no sense to talk about that distinction in Second Life and I found it interesting to explore that perspective. Second Life is still huge, though you don't hear about it so much anymore. The point we wanted to make is that there is a tangible, real-life dimension to the lives that are lived there."

Allowing the story to develop at its own pace had some unforeseen consequences.

"The story started getting a life of its own for us and taking some unplanned twists and turns. The whole structure of the story had to be developed when we found out what was happening to Mikkel in Second Life. This fictionalising actually takes place on the film's real-life level, while almost everything that happens in Second Life is documentary," Milton says. "Though in real life I wasn't actually kicked out in the street because of my Second Life relationship to Helena," Stolt says. "For me, it was important to do a film that breaks down certain boundaries. Running a professional risk as a director by making a film that is self-reflecting, satirical and documentary all at one time," he adds. "Also, the film thematises what it means to be human in a modern world where technology creates new living conditions and forms of interaction that feel no less real for being virtual."

Milton concludes, "Our ambition with this film is to explore the grey area between fantasy and reality and – to be fancy about it – to expand our perception of time and space. I think it's important to redefine our concepts now, at this point in time, when humanity is facing such huge challenges. All indications point to technological developments continuing to accelerate. Science tells us we're approaching a dramatic point where evolution will make a quantum leap ahead, and where we risk coming up short with respect to the technology we have created. It's a scary thought, unless humanity turns out to hold a huge untapped potential just waiting to be unleashed.

"The question is whether we will let egotism and the pursuit of material wealth win out over love and the life of the mind," Milton says.

The title of the film is inspired by the double meaning of the word "avatar". In Hindu mythology, an avatar is a higher spiritual being who descends to earth to guide us, while an online avatar denotes a graphical representation of yourself.