Insights Into the “Interactive Documentary” Realm: An Introduction

I’m Paulina Tervo. I have been invited to write for the blog in the next few weeks around the topic of Interactive Documentary. Firstly, I would like to introduce myself and tell you a bit about my background. I work as a documentary filmmaker and interactive producer at Write This Down Productions. I was based in London until recently but in April 2012 I relocated to Istanbul with my husband and business partner Serdar Ferit (who I co-own Write This Down with). Not long after we arrived, we met Gokce Su Yogurtcuoglu, and got acquainted with MODE Istanbul and with Doc Next Network. Fast-forward 8 months and we are sharing an office and planning many interesting collaborations together. Su asked me to contribute to this blog, knowing that I am very passionate about this subject matter.

I was introduced to interactive documentaries in 2009 while I was a participant on EsoDoc. The idea of combining the power of the internet with documentary storytelling really excited me. I have always been more of a short documentary maker and I find that short stories can be very powerful. I wanted to experiment and see if I could take storytelling a step further and engage the audience in contributing to the story, giving them tools to make their own decisions about how they experience the story as well as build in ways in which they can get involved in making change.

As a result, in 2010 I started to develop a film idea into an interactive documentary (The Awra Amba Experience). Through this project, I have been exposed to a new world and learned a lot of things about gaming, web design, coding, interactivity and social media. Starting an interactive documentary project has been nothing less of enriching both professionally and personally. But more about my project later!

In this post, I want to briefly introduce interactive docs, including what’s currently going, and what some of the challenges are. Next week I will review a few of the web tools that are being developed for filmmakers wishing to make interactive documentaries. In my third and final post, I will go into the project I mention above in more detail.

In preparation for this post, I have been talking to my colleague Matthieu Lietart, from Not So Crazy! Productions in Belgium, whose book ‘Web Docs – A survival guide for online filmmakers’ is essential for anyone wishing to navigate their way around the web doc jungle. Matthieu says: “What is fascinating is that our audience can interact with our content and with one another creating communities or even social movements. The tools are there, so let’s see what we can produce to make social change happen!”

I highly recommend the book both as an entry point for beginners as well as a important reference tool to more seasoned media makers.

The genre of interactive documentary is very young. The first mention of it was in 2002 in France. It has since taken off particularly in France, where public institutions, such as the CNC award grants to interactive documentaries and where broadcasters and publishers including Arte, France 24 and lemonde.fr commission web documentaries.

Canada is another country where many innovative projects take flight. The National Film Board of Canada stands out as an early innovator in the genre, with projects such as Highrise, Waterlife and Bear 71 to their name.

In the UK, some broadcasters like Channel 4 and the BBC have been experimenting with interactive programming for a while, whilst organisations such as Power to the Pixel and Crossover have led the revolution on training and project development. Sheffield Doc Fest and the Pixel Market offer some of the best international pitching opportunities for interactive projects, attracting some of the biggest names in the industry. On the academic side, iDocs has been forging links between academia and practitioners, with their annual symposium in Bristol.

Over in America, technological innovation has emerged through organisations such as the Mozilla Foundation, who have for instance developed an open source web tool ‘Popcorn maker’, which I will review in my next post. On the funding front, Tribeca Film Institute is currently one of the only financiers of international interactive documentary productions (where no broadcast film is needed alongside the web component) through their annual New Media Fund.

On the festival circuit IDFA Doc Lab has been the pioneer of showcasing interactive documentaries ever since 2007. Next year, Tribeca Storyscapes begins a new transmedia program to showcase work that explores new forms of storytelling, highlighting innovation across a variety of platforms.

Workshops, labs and hackathons where filmmakers meet coders, web designers, game designers, app designers etc. are getting increasingly popular around the world. Labs and hackathons are great not only for networking but in fostering a culture of creative collaboration. If you are interested in this, I advise you to check out for example what POV and the Mozilla Foundation are doing: POV Hackathon and Living Docs.

There are many fantastic interactive projects out there and not enough space to mention them all. But here is a small selection of my favourites:

Out My Window by director Kat Cizek, NFB

The Johnny Cash Project by Chris Milk

At Home by the NFB

Gaza Sderot by Upian

We Feel Fine by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar

It is an exciting time to be a media maker. We have access to data and stories like never before. Yet, all of this presents a challenge for us. Suddenly, we are expected to take on a host of new roles. You can no longer just be a director but you have to constantly develop yourself to move with the times. You may also have to become a story architect, a web producer, and a community manager – all of these require a whole set of new skills.

Matthieu talks about another challenge filmmakers face:

“One of the biggest problems for many filmmakers is that there is no clear business model in the webdoc industry. Large experiments have so far only been possible thanks to help from film funds like the CNC in France or NFB in Canada, or broadcasters like Arte, France5 and VPRO. Yet, there are also many smaller webdocs that have been created using very innovative financial strategies. Today’s webdockers have to be open-minded and look for new partners and create new funding strategies. But remember that others made it and there are lessons to be learned from that…”

Some people say that web docs are a passing phase. Whatever the future may be, it is clear that the documentary genre is being reinvented. The internet offers us a chance to take the documentary out of its box and gives us new tools to tell stories. I think it’s time to put our egos aside, and put the user first. It’s time to open our minds to new kinds of collaboration across industries, and across continents. The revolution has started and there is no stopping it.

What to pay attention to when developing projects

1. Cross-over! Talk to and learn from people in other industries. It is important to forge partnerships and build a good team of experts in their respective fields.

2. Story is always the most important, technology should come second.

3. Use what the web has to offer and then you can create a truly interactive project – also think outside the box on how to engage the audience in offline events.

4. Find partnerships for distribution – link your story with existing stories, build relationships with online publishers and brands to get your story out there to a wide audience.

5. Small is beautiful – vast complex projects just confuse the audience. Sometimes it is the simplest projects that are most effective.

6. Put the user first – always think from a user’s perspective; how is their experience and what will they do when they first come to your site? Create different entry points to your story.

7. You will need to be multi-skilled and a great manager – you need to stay on top of the entire project all the time (this is not an easy task!)

8. Have fun! Experiment, try new things, don’t be afraid. Nobody has a formula as to what interactive documentaries are – be part of inventing it!

 

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