New Dimensions in Testimony Wins Two Awards at Sheffield Doc Fest

Wed, 06/15/2016 - 8:33am
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A Closer Look: New Dimensions in Testimony

USC Shoah Foundation, writer Robin Migdol sits down with Kia Hays project manager of New Dimensions in Testimony.

USC Shoah Foundation received two top honors Tuesday at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, the third-largest documentary festival in the world.

The Institute took the audience and jury prizes in the Alternate Realities Interactive categories for its New Dimensions in Testimony (NDT) project, an innovative marriage of technologies and testimony that allows people to have a “virtual conversation” with Holocaust survivors about their life experiences.

NDT uses groundbreaking natural language software that allows audiences to interact with the recorded image of a Holocaust survivor, who responds in real time, powered by complex algorithms providing realistic conversation. It was launched with the technological expertise from the USC Institute for Creative Technology.

This was the first time the project was shown outside the United States.

Attending the ceremony in Northern England were USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith, Project Manager Kia Hays and concept creator Heather Maio.

In a moment of levity during the ceremony, a tiny robot announced the winning entry.

Smith and Maio accept the audience award. Courtesy Sheffield Doc Fest Smith and Maio accept the audience award. Courtesy Sheffield Doc Fest
Smith thanked the organizers, as well as Pinchas Gutter, the survivor who worked with the Institute for years to develop the project, and who enthralled visitors with his harrowing life story, as well as his message of hope and resilience. Appearing in a special room, his image was projected on an 80-inch screen, making him seem almost real. Many viewers cried during the experience.

“Thank you for the privilege of being able to share some of the memories of Pinchas Gutter,” Smith said at the award ceremony. “(Gutter) will be here for generations to share his memory.”

Smith also thanked supporters from the UK – the Pears Foundation and the Leon Greenman Trust of London, both of which helped fund the project.

Gutter himself, along with his wife, Dorothy, spent several days at the festival, which ran from June 10-15. When Smith introduced him during a talk about NDT, he received an extended ovation from the hundreds of people in the audience.

It was a busy week for the team. Smith spoke at several panels, while Hays and Maio explained to the people “speaking” to the virtual Gutter how the technology works. Sometimes tentative at first, attendees were often hesitant to interact with the project. But after a minute or two, they realized how easy and engaging it was. Many people stayed in the room for more than an hour to ask question after question, while others came back two or three times.

To date, 12 survivors have been filmed for New Dimensions in Testimony, including Pinchas Gutter, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Eva Kor, Sam Harris and Eva Schloss. Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, which partners with the program, was the first institution to pilot New Dimensions in Testimony in spring 2015, enabling museum visitors and students to have a virtual conversation with Gutter with guidance from a museum docent. NDT was recently installed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.