For day two of ARGFest-o-Con in Toronto last month, attendees were treated to a “sneak peek” of The Institute, a film by Spencer McCall about Nonchalance’s popular San Francisco ARG, The Jejune Institute.
The film focused on the player experience of Jejune and the effect that it had on those who followed its path through the streets of San Francisco and Oakland. Nonchalance presented a case study at ARGFest in 2009, but little of the content from that early phase of the game made it into the film. Most of those elements, which were posted in public places, had been taken down by the time McCall began shooting, first as a video producer hired by Nonchalance and then for the film itself.
“It’d be generous to say that we did an ‘uneven’ job of documenting the things that we created,” said Sara Thacher, who was lead producer on Jejune for most of it’s run. “Video was especially thin on the ground. Because Spencer’s project got rolling after the main parts of the experience closed, he had to rely on our archives and the archives of the participants.”
Later events are more fully documented in the film, including the controversial day-long seminar that concluded the game. The film also documents a rally to protest the game’s apparent villain, Octavio S. Coleman, Esq., a trip through the game’s installation at The Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, and one game mission that culminated with a player dancing in front of a payphone with bigfoot. The presentation also includes footage that was part of the game, with no markers to denote when the film moves between fact and fiction.
In a post-screening interview at the conference, McCall said he took inspiration from Banksy’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary widely known for blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Making a film of this kind without falling into the category of “mockumentary” is no small challenge, and with a room full of transmedia creators and some Jejune Institute players, ARGFest was a more demanding audience than most.
“My impression is that if you had not played Jejune or if you had little to no idea about what the Jejune Institute was about, this documentary would not do much to enlighten you,” said hmrpita, a Jejune player who has attended both of the film’s screenings to date. (It was shown once before, at a test screening in San Francisco.)
Much of the confusion arises from the fact that, in addition to video of live events and content direct from the game, the film includes at least one in-character interview, and several others in which players and people behind the scenes at Nonchalance seem to present certain aspects of the game as more pervasive than they actually were.
“Directly after a screening of the film, I talked to a few people who had not played any of the games of Nonchalance, and they were left confused by the entire middle section of the movie,” she said.
Ultimately, in the effort to preserve the Jejune Institute, McCall’s will likely be the loudest voice – but the players who participated in the experience during more than two years of live play will still have their memories.
“I loved the game. I wish more people COULD experience it,” said Ariock, another Jejune player. “But thinking about it, I don’t think it’s possible to capture the magic and wonder of the actual Jejune Institute experience in a movie.”