When Circa 1948 appeared at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2014, it was clear this was not your mother’s film noir. Set in Vancouver in the years following World War II, it doesn’t have a plot. No human figures appear. You don’t need to go to a theater to see it. Each viewing of the film is different from every other, sometimes radically so. It’s entirely digital. In fact, it isn’t a film at all. Circa 1948 an iOS application, produced by the photographer (and Vancouver native) Stan Douglas in conjunction with Loc Dao, the Executive Producer and Creative Technologist of the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio. This “immersive art app” is now being featured in EXPO CHICAGO’s 2015 EXPO VIDEO program curated by Alfredo Cramerotti and is freely available to anyone with access to Apple’s App Store and a spare 1.28 GB on their iPhone or iPad.
Circa 1948 plays with the kinds of self-directed storytelling that only digital platforms can provide. Your character is a kind of disembodied spirit, wandering the streets of Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley (a hardscrabble immigrant community) and exploring the semi-derelict rooms of the Hotel Vancouver, used in 1948 as a temporary shelter for returning World War II veterans. Positioning the work as a film (especially in the context of a venue as prestigious as the Tribeca Film Festival) was a wise move on its creators' parts, but the piece is pure video game: you’re placed in an unfamiliar digital setting and tasked with finding certain semi-hidden objects, and left to piece together the story on your own. The collect-them-all counter tracking the number of stories you’ve uncovered only adds to the effect.
Circa 1948’s settings, meticulously recreated from archival photographs and maps using the digital modeling program Maya, are curiously empty; activating various glowing objects (a wheelbarrow, a cup of tea, et cetera) triggers dialogues between ghostly apparitions about the concerns of this postwar community. Radios broadcast the news of the day, providing the historical background that helps to place these innocuous conversations in the proper context. There’s no linear plot here—rather, users are responsible for making sense of the conversations they eavesdrop on.
In one vignette, a woman trying to glean information about her husband finds herself trapped in the decidedly analog hell of telephone operators and phonebooks, a clever wink at the information-sharing technologies that allow Circa 1948 to exist as such. In another, a Chinese brothel owner and a neighbor argue over the ethics of abortion, contraceptives, and sex work itself—conversations just as salient now as they surely were in 1948. Many of the conversations hint at a brewing conflict and collusion between organized crime (led by the mysterious Buddy White) and the city government—your ethereal avatar hears the tale from both sides.
It’s here that Circa 1948 really struts its stuff. The interface combines storytelling, geography, and above all a sense of exploration, making it as immersive (if not as action-packed) as the best video games. What's more, the lonesome streets and dark, gritty tone throughout create a cinematic and slightly creepy atmosphere that adds to the snippets of intersecting stories. The app could easily have been a didactic history lesson, a digital version of “living museums” like Old Sturbridge Village, but Douglas and his collaborators have made something else—film noir for the digital age, eerily devoid of the genre's hardened detectives and femmes fatales.