In the dish pit: a Q&A with Mark Hoffe, director of interactive web doc Bubble Dancers
Ever been in the dish pit? I know I’ve passed by a few in my time, especially while I was working in bars and restaurants in my student days. Who are the folks working in this messy, splashy corner of your favourite establishments?
In Bubble Dancers, our new interactive series of web docs, we are taken into the restaurant industry through the back doors and alleyways of St. John’s, Newfoundland, and introduced to men and women who literally do our dirty work, and whose voices are usually drowned out by the clatter of cutlery and the clanging of pots and pans. Check out the trailer below, and the full project here.
We decided to pick the brain of Bubble Dancers director Mark Hoffe who, along with his production partner Brad Gover, is doing very interesting things in interactive documentary with his production company Mad Mummer Media. This Q&A is a must-read for creators working in new media and web doc fans alike.
NFB blogger Jovana Jankovic (JJ): This project describes dishwashing as a “misunderstood” occupation. The portraits in the project aim to “challenge preconceptions” about the job. What do you think are some common misconceptions about dishwashing work and why was it important to challenge/disprove these views?
MH:I love underdog stories, and the concept for Bubble Dancers grew out of that love and my previous experience working in kitchens, first as a dishwasher and then as a cook. Dishwashers are the unsung heroes of the restaurant industry and there seems to be a general notion among the public-at-large that dishwashers are somehow uninspired or lazy people. As Bubble Dancers proves, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The cooks always get the glory, and the servers always get the tips, so it was important to shine the light on the dish pit and celebrate the underdogs so people might reconsider any preconceptions they hold about dishwashers and the job in general.
JJ: Many of the people profiled in the film are struggling with adversity and marginalization (like Fernando the refugee and John, with his physical disabilities and childhood trauma). What approach do you take to telling these kinds of stories? As a documentary filmmaker, what’s an effective way to represent personal histories and struggles like this?
MH: It all comes down to respect and honesty. You have to listen to people and let them tell their stories. Of course you go in with questions prepared, but the best interviews happen when you reach a point where those questions are thrown out and you just have a conversation with the individual. That happened with John and Fernando. It happened with all of the bubble dancers, really. They were all very open and honest, and we thank them for that.
JJ: What do you think are the advantages and opportunities offered by new media like interactive web docs? Is this format a better way to tell stories than traditional doc media? Why did you choose this format to tell the stories of the dish pit?
MH: I wouldn’t say it’s a better format than traditional linear documentary filmmaking, because it all comes down to the content and how the story needs to be told. With Bubble Dancers, the interactive web doc format was a perfect fit because it allowed us to explore the lives of multiple people across four key media: video, photos, text, and music. It really opens up the experience for the user and allows her or him to discover the stories in a personal way. That’s great. From a storytelling perspective, this was my first interactive web doc and I found the format both challenging and inspiring. Once you are pushed to think non-linear, so many exciting possibilities open up.
JJ: You’re from Newfoundland, yes? What is it about St. John’s that made it a compelling setting for these stories? Is there something in particular about the hospitality industry, and the back ends of kitchens, that drew you to that world in St. John’s?
MH: Bubble Dancers happened at an interesting point in the history of St. John’s. After a long period of relative isolation, St. John’s, and Newfoundland and Labrador in general, is finally becoming a big tourist destination and also becoming a multicultural hub of activity. The people profiled in Bubble Dancers illustrate this, so that was intriguing to explore throughout the process of making this project.
JJ:Can you take us through the process of developing the project? How did your collaboration with the NFB begin?
MH: My producing partner, Brad Gover, and I both worked in the restaurant industry and began as dishwashers. About five years ago, the NFB and the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation released a call for “new screen” projects, so we pitched an early form of Bubble Dancers and got one of our friends—a former kitchen co-worker of mine—to take part in a photo shoot so we could pitch it visually. He was great, but ultimately moved on to being a cook by the time it came to shoot. We pitched it, and the NFB was in.
Annette Clarke was there from the beginning as producer on the NFB side of things and was crucial for this project’s success. Jon Montes came on later in the game as associate producer and also had keen insight into how certain elements should and shouldn’t be executed. I won’t say it was smooth sailing all the way, but if it was, I would wonder how honest we were being with each other. Irreverence is key when it comes to creative collaboration. In any case, I think the NFB is on the cutting edge of digital, non-linear storytelling and their growing catalogue of interactive projects backs that up. We were lucky to work with them.
JJ: What advice would you have for emerging film and media creators who want to launch an interactive web doc in today’s crowded online media landscape? What makes a project like yours unique, compelling, and engaging?
MH: People want to see something they haven’t seen before, and we thought people who work as dishwashers were going to tell great stories, stories people would engage with because they come from dishwashers, a job people aren’t commonly exposed to. It’s always hit or miss, but I guess it comes down to finding that hidden gem, finding great people to tell great stories, and, well, picking a great title. I love the title Bubble Dancers and, to be honest, we had to fight hard to keep that title. Pick your battles. That was worth it.
JJ: Which of the characters in Bubble Dancers did you find the most compelling, and why? Any updates on developments in their lives since the project was completed?
MH: They are all compelling for different reasons. I might have a favourite, but that’s my secret. Sorry. It comes down to your life perspective and your own experiences. Those guide your identification with one person over another. That’s one of the joys of the interactive experience. Who are you drawn to? Why? You learn something about yourself in the process.
Check out the Bubble Dancersinteractive series of web docs here, and share your thoughts in the comments. Thanks to Mark Hoffe for taking the time to chat with us!
Awesome Hoffe 🙂