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Evolving Interactive Documentary (critique)

Written as part of The Documentary class.

When you look around our current society, your vision will be washed by seas of technology, particularly of the handheld motif. Cellphones, laptops, handheld gaming systems, iPods, iPads, iEverythings – our general population has become glued to the all-powerful screen. The Internet is the main source of information exchange on a variety of levels including both external and internal social communication. We receive our news from the Internet as well as our interactions with people whether they be people who are familiar or are total strangers. We are looking less to print media or radio in order to satisfy our needs for information about the world. Because of this, our attention spans have greatly diminished. While there has been scientific research completed about this claim, we really do not need a person in a lab coat and tortoise shell glasses to tell us about this epidemic. Have a conversation with someone who owns an iPhone, or try to read every single word of an article online without clicking onto a new article or skimming down to the next paragraph in search of a more exciting sight word. It’s difficult. For others, it is near impossible. This is not a generalization of our public society. Rather it is pointing out that a fair majority in this day and age have a technology abuse problem that has thus curtailed their ability to concentrate on one thing for long periods of time.

This attention span deficit has also affected documentary film and has aided the growth of a new subgenre of documentary: interactive documentary. Like how it sounds, interactive documentary is a form of documentation that takes a post-modern approach to engaging the audience and pulling them into the information that is disclosed in the documentary. The interaction between the viewer and the piece creates a different, more interpersonal relationship that has not been found in typical documentary film before. The use of audience participation has put a twist on this film medium that has not had the ability to become a reality until this Age of Internet. Interaction to hold the interest of the audience seems like more than a stylistic choice to express authorship; it seems as if the interactivity is necessary in order to keep people watching a documentary since the average attention span has diminished. In this paper, I will explore this claim, but first I will discuss the definition of documentary to propel my definition of interactive documentary. I will then apply these findings into a case study of the documentary Bear 71, and will conclude with a few questions I wish to further research and explore as this fledgling field of interactive documentary gains more ground in the future.

Documentary film in a basic sense has to do with just what its name suggests: documenting. Generally, this revolves around a nonfiction event, object, person, or place that is then looked at with the intention of teaching the audience about this respective subject. The stylistic methods that the director chooses to utilize in the retelling of this nonfiction subject is a personal choice, meant to convey the director’s direction for the film. In addition, the film is still meant to inform, or document. Bill Nichols’ definition of documentary offered in Introduction to Documentary is the basis for this paper’s definition as well as my personal documentary study:

Documentary films speak about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves to us as themselves in stories that convey a plausible pre-proposal about, or perspective on, the lives, situations, and events portrayed. The distinct point of view of the filmmaker shapes this story into a way of seeing the historical world directly rather than into a fictional allegory (14).

The documentary gives a glimpse of another (perhaps personally alien) perspective of something you either are or are not aware of. The documentation is a learning device that informs and guides the education process thanks to the content of the film and the director’s style. Nichols also continues on to comment that documentary is an ever-mutating field where things change, paving the way for the introduction of defining interactive documentary (15). Sandra Gaudenzi acts as our bridge from traditional documentary to interactive documentary with a quick explanation of their main difference. She writes, “A linear documentary that has been shot with digital technology, and that is distributed on the Web, is a digital documentary but not an interactive one. In other words, in an interactive documentary the user physically ‘do something’ with/to the artefact” (“The Living Documentary” 11).

The click of a mouse, the press of a spacebar, or the scroll on a trackpad all start the physical relationship between a viewer and an interactive documentary. Since the elastic confines of standard linear documentary allow a vast realm of representational possibility in terms of production and storytelling, it is understandable that interactive documentary stretches those confines to a new, undeterminable limit. Adrian Miles even suggests that this is exactly what interactive documentary revolves around: uncertainty (67). The relationship between the virtual reality and the actuality create the uncertainty that helps shape interactive documentary, or “i-doc.” Miles subsequently states, “The virtual is the set of all possible futures that are available for something at a given instant, while the actual are those that actually come to be. The virtual and the actual are each real, though only those that are realized become actual” (71). This then creates the personal interactive experience that a viewer has when experiencing an interactive documentary. Arnau Gifreu Castells, a specialist on virtual reality interactivity, further explains his definition proposal of interactive documentary:

For their part, the interactive media, virtual worlds and videogames have started to redefine documentary experiences outside the traditional film context. We could say that these experiences are documentary, in the sense that they provide information and knowledge about real-life subjects and individuals. Although, unlike traditional documentaries, these allow the users to enjoy a unique experience, as well as offering options and control of the documentary itself (2).

Further into his proposal, Gifreu Castells emphasizes the line i-docs have to draw when catering to the entertainment aspect without sacrificing the informational, or educational, aspect of the documentary. The addition of user control creates the added pressure of making the interaction pleasurable enough to propel the user forward and further into the documentary while making sure the information is presented in a way that is memorable. In an interview between Kate Nash and Ingrid Kopp, the Director of Digital Initiatives of the Tribeca Film Institute, Kopp makes a noteworthy point about the role of the participant when she mentions that people do get rather excited to be “truly involved” in projects to the point where it can be a transformative experience, although “one thing [she has] noticed is a real tendency to overestimate the desire to click.” She continues, “When you’re asking people to click you’re asking them to do work and you’ve really got to think about what you’re asking of them” (126, emphasis added). A major characteristic of interactive documentary is thus the requirement for the viewer to do some work to gain access to the information of the documentary. The force the audience exudes is not forgotten and can have an impact on how they interpret the i-doc. Another interpretation of the definition of interactive documentary has to do with its utilization of multimedia platforms. Nonny de la Peña states, “Video and audio captured from the physical world are used to reinforce the concept that participants are experiencing a nonfiction story” (2). The combination of mediums tied in with viewer interaction is what creates this new platform for sharing nonfiction documentation in creative and appealing ways that are engaging and allow for audience participation.

One of the most researched features of interactive documentary is the participatory culture nestled in its seams. The role of the viewer has developed into something that is much more than a pair of eyes and ears, and a brain to watch a documentary. The audience has been given a load of responsibility during the production phase due to the participation culture of interactive documentary. The ways people are asked to participate are through sharing personal stories or information to add to a collective, to promote/share through social media, and by actively participating in the online documentary experience. Collaboration is championed and used as a communal force to draw together a community of people in this virtual world around the i-doc. Each of the authors I read during my research of this metamorphic field touched on the participatory role of the audience. One who is rather passionate about the participatory culture is Jon Dovey, who exclaimed in his article "Documentary Ecosystems: Collaboration and Exploitation,"

It is clear that the digital documentary, in its online form, exists within a pattern of connectivity, interactivity and relationality. Documentary materials constitute dynamic, mobile, generative experiences as much as they become definitive texts. They can be linked to, liked, forwarded, promoted, posted; they can be re-cut and remade; they can be made from many contributions from all around the world; they can be interacted with in a variety of ways; they can be spatialized and localized; tagged, searched and navigated. The online documentary is contingent, mutable, dynamic: its meanings generated through the user’s interactions with it but also by its own algorithmic interactions with its machinic environment. (14, emphasis added).

Since the interactive documentary is handled by thousands of people when it is developing, it grows to posses the “fluid form that is not achievable in a linear documentary” (Gaudenzi, “Strategies” 130). The people who shape the i-doc all play a part in making it what it actually is. Kate Nash further explains that these people are not just spectators anymore but in fact producers who are invited if not compelled to contribute parts of themselves into the practices that create a community through the collaborative production (“Clicking” 50). The i-doc that they have created together is relational, “that is that it is an artefact that demands agency and active participation of some sort from more than one actant and therefore it does not exist as an independent entity – as it is always putting several entities in relation with each other” (Dovey 15). In traditional documentary there is a call to action on the audience that pushes them to go out and do something after watching the film. In interactive documentary, this works a little differently where people are first called to act to participate in the collaboration and then are called again to action by sharing, liking, posting, contributing etc; “Click here to start your journey, React! Add your comment, upload a photo, add your story, explore the 360-degree simulation, what will you do?” (Nash, “Clicking” 50).

To put the characteristics discussed above into practice, I would like to look at the web-documentary Bear 71, created by Leanne Alison and Jeremy Mendez in 2012 for the National Film Board of Canada. This 20-minute documentary experience is an award-winning politically-charged piece that brings light to the relationship between humans and the environment, as well as human technology. Shown through the story of a grizzly bear that was tagged and surveyed for the entirety of her life, the viewer is taken on a journey that shows the effects human population growth has on natural environments and wildlife. The footage used for this documentary was accumulated over thousands of hours at Banff National Park, shot by remote trail cameras. The interactive documentary immediately opens with the text: “This is a 20:00 interactive documentary; navigate with your keyboard; use your webcam; navigate with your mouse; turn up your audio.” This is followed by: “There aren’t a lot of ways for a grizzly bear to die. At least, that’s the way it was in the wild” ("NFB/interactive"). This first address makes it known that the viewer is supposed to interact with the website to experience the documentary. The main story focuses on Bear 71, a three-year old bear that was tagged and monitored thereafter. She is introduced by a short clip with a voiceover performed by Mia Kirshner. Once you are inside, you have the option to click on different icons on the skeleton-like grid map and see different clips and images with text that explain different parts of the environment and the animals that live in it. You, the viewer, are also included in the topographic map marked as Human 16964. Throughout the i-doc, the story unfolds about Bear 71 and ends with the unfortunate death of the bear at a railroad track, displaying the main thesis of human activity affecting wildlife negatively. The participatory aspect of Bear 71 falls into the realm of using your personal interaction to fall into the story that is being told. Your interactions with the keyboard, mouse, screen, and speakers make you participate in the drama that is created in Banff, or even any other wildlife park that is losing territory to human activity. The mix of simulation and actual footage creates a very relatable feeling in the viewer that is pushed further by the emotional attachment to Bear 71. The personal involvement gives viewers of this documentary personal agency and a will to act after having experienced Bear 71 (Nash, “Clicking” 63). Though this has been a rather simplified perspective on the dense i-doc Bear 71, this provides an idea as to how the interactivity of this documentary creates a close bond between viewers and the subjects of the documentary, the wildlife and Bear 71. The involvement of the audience through the emotional narrative storyline as well as the interactive map that virtually puts you in Banff are platforms that guide you into a deeper connection with the action and create a more personal call to action since you (virtually) experience firsthand the degradation of wildlife habitat.

Interactive documentary is still a murky field that is on its way of being cleared out in the next few years. Like standard documentary, there will never be one clear-cut exact definition of interactive documentary. Basic features like audience participation, physical interaction or work between the audience and creators, documenting a real-life happening in the world, and teaching the audience multiple facets of the documented, are what constitute the basis of interactive documentary. The main establishing feature between a standard film documentary and an interactive documentary is the necessity of the viewer to use physical interaction with the computer and website in order to experience the documentary. Clicking on different parts of the website creates a Choose Your Own Adventure aspect that traditional film documentaries can not offer. There is a heightened sense of self within interactive documentaries because of the forced participation. In different i-docs there are various options you can utilize that will create a different experience each and every time you go through the website. This interaction between user and documentary is essential to categorizing it as an interactive documentary.

There are questions that arise, though, when analyzing interactive documentary in relation to other works similar in nature, such as video games based on nonfiction events or choose-your-own-adventure RPGs. Mainly, I become transfixed upon categorizing (some) interactive documentaries as interactive art pieces instead of documents. Technically, the piece could be documenting something in a non-traditional way, but then again this same piece could be equally strong, if not stronger, if it was shared to the world as an art experience. The fine line between artwork and stylized documentation is something that has yet to be delineated. The artistic aspects of the documentary are areas that could easily be argued as director authorship, however they also could be argued as experimental and intentional art movements. The visual images have an intentional purpose since they were made by a person, but sometimes they can be extremely confusing. The interactive platform has the potential to detract from a really great linear documentary. The lack of user-friendly websites could be the determinant in propelling an i-doc to greatness or letting it get lost in the vast abyss that is the Internet.

As Nichols states in his book Introduction to Documentary, documentary is a changing medium (15). From the beginning of my studies to now, I have witnessed a plethora of documentaries that all have multifaceted productions and constructions compared to each other, but all have the same intention of documenting the subject and informing the audience. There is potential for interactive documentary to adopt a more coiffed definition and execution that will further influence the elasticity of the term ‘documentary.’ This era of widespread screen hypnosis has (perhaps inadvertently) asked for documentary to take on this moldable form as we have become more technology-centered people. Whether the characteristic of interaction was birthed as an artistic aspect of documentary or as a tool for survival against the diminished attention span, this field has adequate room for growth as well as alteration.

Works Cited

Dovey, Jon. "Documentary Ecosystems: Collaboration and Exploitation." New Documentary Ecologies (2014): 11-32. Print.

Gaudenzi, Sandra. "The Living Documentary: From Representing Reality to Co-creating Reality in Digital Interactive Documentary." Thesis. Goldsmiths College (University of London), n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.

Gaudenzi, Sandra. "Strategies of Participation: The Who, What, and When of Collaborative Documentaries." New Documentary Ecologies (2014): 129-48. Print.

Gifreu Castells, Arnau. "The Interactive Documentary. Definition Proposal and Basic Features of the New Emerging Genre." Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <>

Miles, Adrian. "Interactive Documentary and Affective Ecologies." New Documentary Ecologies (2014): 67-82. Print.

Nash, Kate. "Clicking on the World: Documentary Representation and Interactivity." New Documentary Ecologies (2014): 51-66. Print.

Nash, Kate. "An Interview with Ingrid Kopp, Director of Digital Initiatives Tribeca Film Institute." New Documentary Ecologies (2014): 124-128. Print.

"NFB/interactive." Bear 71. Web. 18 Dec. 2015. <>.

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Second ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010. Print.

de la Peña, Nonny. "Physical World News in Virtual Spaces." Media Fields Journal (2011). Web. 18 Dec. 2015.

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