In advance of its national premiere on KCTS 9 and PBS stations nationwide on February 24, Washington Filmworks is partnering with SIFF, KCTS 9, and SAP to present the Seattle premiere of the new documentary from Sandy Smolan, The Human Face of Big Data.

This free screening event on Wednesday, February 17 will kick off at 7 PM at SIFF Cinema Uptown and will be followed by a panel with Sandy Smolan (Director / Producer, The Human Face of Big Data), Shwetak Patel (MacArthur Fellow, University of Washington), Trish Millines Dziko (Executive Director, TAF), and will be moderated by Enrique Cerna (Director of Community Partnerships, KCTS 9).

To see the trailer, event details and to RSVP go here.

Sandy Smolan, who lives part-time in University Place and part-time in L.A. provides a great example of the interesting projects that local filmmakers are producing. With his long list of credits, we thought Sandy would make for a fascinating interview, and we weren’t wrong. Here’s some of a conversation we had with Sandy Smolan last week:

Could you talk a little bit about how you came to set roots in the Pacific Northwest? And about parts of the film that were shot in Washington?

Sure, my wife is an actress named Pamela Reed and she’s from Tacoma originally. We thought it would be really interesting to try an experiment to move to Seattle, we’re on the water in University Place. I’ve come to love living in both places.

I’ll tell you a funny story. The film is very technology driven and we really wanted to humanize it. I had an idea for the opening that was about a family using technology to celebrate the birth of a new baby, and that became kind of a framing device for the film. I had this image and I realized the perfect place to do it would be in the northwest. We ended up shooting the opening of the movie six houses up from where I live. And also part of it in Point Defiance. But I love that, talk about close to home.

I’ve been taking the movie around the world –  in the last six months we’ve screened it in San Paolo, Rio, London, Italy, Mexico City, and wherever I screen it I love that one of the first opening scenes is this beautiful sunset over Puget Sound, and I’m a little bit home.

Can you tell us what you find interesting about the documentary form?

In my background I have moved back and forth between features, TV series, documentaries, and now VR films. I love that in this film I can bring in different parts of my work as a director to bear, so I love that we have this nature of combining styles.

All of my films always have a strong visual element – I think film at its best is a visual medium – we’re conveying ideas but we need to do it in a way that really engages audiences. The thing I like about documentaries is that truth is often stranger than fiction, and that’s powerful.

Our challenge in this film was taking abstract ideas, data that you can’t see … and we wanted to make a film that was both awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time and that showed you the fact that technology is neutral but what we do with it has immense power for both good and bad. We wanted to engage the audience in a debate about the use of that technology. So it’s not just about presenting information, but presenting it in a way that keeps the audience’s attention and doesn’t lose their interest in something that could be really complex. But also the hope was to stimulate and keep it interesting enough to have people really start to ask questions and to think about the world in a different way, which is what we all try to do as filmmakers.

What are your thoughts on how the growing use of big data impacts the film industry?

Everything we do now is digital, so there are several answers to that question.

One is just that our tools are digital and we’re moving data all the time. As filmmakers, we live now almost entirely in the digital age and that fact is going to impact everything. We have to start to learn that language in a way that we didn’t necessarily have to before. The other answer is that we’re understanding the universe, we’re understanding the nature of life, more because of big data. As filmmakers that is a whole area that will be fascinating to explore – there’s certainly new information up there that we’ve never had before and that becomes more stories we can tell.

Why do you think this topic was an important concept to explore at this point in time? 

We’re all putting out data, we’re all using data. There’s this invisible world around us that most people don’t really realize. Every phone call you make, everywhere you go, there’s a digital record being kept of that. There are decisions being made now by growth companies, by tech companies, by government that are really defining how we will all live in the future. No one is really asking the questions about who owns the data, who uses the data, who has access to the data. We can all be content to be blind and let other people make those decisions, or we can be informed and educated and realize that we actually have a say in that if we choose to have it.

What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about? 

When we first finished the film I was invited to bring it to San Francisco and was brought down to Stanford (there’s a Virtual Reality lab at Stanford). I was given a demonstration of a $30,000 headset and the man that ran the lab turned to me and said that in about a year Oculus, which has just been bought by Facebook, would be coming out with a headset that was under $500 and was just as good.

I did a little demonstration where you put the headset on and suddenly the floor drops out and you’re standing 30 feet above the ground and your mind tells you you’re 30 feet above the ground even though you know you’re not. You’re asked to step off this plank and everything in your being says, “don’t do it.”  At that moment I thought, “my god, this is going to be the future of entertainment.”

Six months later I was at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had been working with a wonderful startup tech company in Seattle called Chef Steps. They’d asked me to come in and help tell their story and we had done a film that had been nominated for a James Beard Award, and we actually won that award. While I was there, I noticed the Tribeca Film Festival already had a VR component. There were already films being made and I saw a few that were mind-bogglingly good and engaging and I thought, “I really want to be a part of this new medium and be a part of a group of filmmakers creating a new language.” It’s like going back to the first days of cinema. All the tools that we now use as filmmakers, somebody had to figure out – the dolly shot, the close up, fades, dissolves – and that same line now has to be developed with VR.

To my surprise five months later I was making a VR film and two weeks ago I just premiered at Sundance, so that’s how fast the world works.

About The Human Face of Big Data:

The Human Face of Big Data captures the birth of a planetary nervous system as the massive real-time gathering and analyzing of data enables us to address some of humanity’s biggest challenges, including pollution, world hunger, and illness. Focusing on both the promises and perils in the growing big data revolution, this captivating film illustrates a revolution, which many experts believe will have a thousand times greater impact on our lives than the Internet. The film features conversations with more than thirty leading voices in the fields of data science, artificial intelligence, technology and digital medicine.

HFOBD SEATTLE invite FINAL 1.28-01