Interactive Docs for the Nonbelievers

A checklist of great interactive documentaries

CIA: Operation Ajax / courtesy Cognito Comics

Although few conventional doc film projects get funded these days without some sort of interactive component, there are still plenty of grumblings among doc folk as to what all the fuss is about. Where are the familiar narrative tropes and emotional arcs? Does anyone even watch, or, if you will, ‘interact’ with this stuff? Is this all a fad, and if so, when is it likely to pass?

These are all fair questions with complex answers. We humbly submit a single point: that the interactive doc is still a nascent form. Just as documentary cinema took decades to really come into its own, the interactive doc has just begun its journey. New forms of storytelling are emerging from one year to the next. Some are more likely to stand the test of time than others. Genres and subgenres are taking root and beginning to flourish. You can certainly debate the success of the interactive doc so far, but its enormous creative potential is undeniable.

Not convinced? Here are a few strong pieces that may change your mind.

courtesy Elaine McMillion Sheldon

1. Hollow
Creator: Elaine McMillion (U.S., 2013)

“An interactive documentary and community participatory project that examines the future of rural America through the eyes and voices of those living in McDowell County, West Virginia.”

Hollow presents a broad and nuanced portrayal of McDowell County, a region which has lost almost 80 per cent of its population since 1950. Videos, photos, infographics and text immerse users in the stories of some 30 residents, from coal miners and retirees to community workers and artists. While a fundamentally linear experience, users engage with the content of its six chapters on their own terms, choosing which people and topics they want to spend more time with. The beauty of Hollow’s interface lies both in its accessibility and elegance, with the user experience driven by the simple act of scrolling down at one’s chosen speed as new elements enter and exit the screen.

Hollow grew out of McMillion’s thesis work at Emerson College in Boston and, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, received a substantial grant from the Tribeca Film Institute New Media Fund. In keeping with the ambitious social-action agenda envisioned by McMillion, a West Virginia native, Hollow is rich in participatory elements, including photos and video produced by many of the project’s participants. The potential for sustained community-building is further facilitated by an active “Community Updates” section designed to foster ongoing engagement with events in McDowell County from both within and without.

Site: hollowdocumentary.com

In a Similar Vein: The Last Hunt (Alexi Hobbs/NFB, 2014); The Ghosts in Our Machine – Interactive (The Goggles, 2013)

courtesy Étienne Chaillou and Mathias Théry

2. Love Your Neighbour

Creators: Étienne Chaillou & Mathias Théry (France, 2012)

“How do you picture your European neighbours? This is what we asked to nationals from the 28 EU countries. Stereotypes? Truths? Fantasies? It’s for you to see.”

Unassuming and straightforward, this lighthearted project quietly preposterous, often hilarious, but always revealing notions that Europeans have about their neighbours. Each of the 28 videos invites an interview subject to imagine what a fictional neighbour would be like—e.g., a Portuguese man imagines a Polish woman—the tones of which vary wildly from the absurd and comical to the more realistic and grounded. Each video uses photos to situate the subject in their own environ before an artist begins to paint over the image, gradually transforming the speaker and their surroundings into those of their imagined ‘neighbour’. With an interface that is both fun and addictive, users are propelled forward as they choose which videos to watch by matching puzzle-piece heads of the drawings with the original photos of the interview subject/imaginer. This simple device makes for a highly accessible experience, with the potential to reach audiences beyond the highly tech-savvy.

Produced by the French division of the Franco-German broadcaster ARTE— quite possibly the world’s most prolific producer of interactive docs— Love Your Neighbour is an excellent example of nonlinear storytelling at its most flexible; the experience is valuable and ‘complete’ whether you watch one video, all of them or anything in between.

Site: loveyourneighbour.arte.tv

In a Similar Vein: Immigration Nation (SBS Australia/Chocolate Liberation Front, 2010)

courtesy Catbird Productions

3. Burgundy Jazz

Creator: David Eng (Canada, 2013)

“A multi-platform web documentary about Montreal’s incredible contribution to jazz through the legendary black musicians of [the] Little Burgundy [neighbourhood].”

Burgundy Jazz tells the story of Little Burgundy using rich archival material, a fantastic soundtrack and interviews with musicians who were part of the scene, as well as family members, locals and historians. The project is built around 14 core “capsules,” essentially mini-docs between three and five minutes long that offer compact and satisfying narratives with supplementary photos, videos and audio. Each capsule covers a different topic, from the history of a venue like Rockhead’s Paradise to the story of jazz great and Montreal native Oscar Peterson. An “Essential Albums” feature lets users buy relevant music, including the Burgundy Jazz soundtrack, directly from iTunes.

Produced by CBC Music and Catbird Productions, the project has two additional cross-platform elements: an eBook that invites users to “relive a bygone golden age” by exploring artefacts from Montreal’s jazz era, and a free geo-locative iPhone app that offers four historic walking tours in Little Burgundy accompanied by rich soundscapes, interviews and music.

Site: music.cbc.ca/#/Burgundy-Jazz

In a Similar Vein: Clouds Over Cuba (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/The Martin Agency/Tool, 2012)

courtesy Cognito Comics

4. CIA: Operation Ajax

Creators: Daniel Burwen & Cognito Comics (U.S., 2012)

“Learn about the incredible true history of the CIA plot to stage a coup of Iran’s government. See Eisenhower, Churchill, the Dulles brothers, Mossadegh, and the Shah in a whole new light.”

CIA: Operation Ajax is a beautifully illustrated and scored interactive graphic novel that tells the story of the 1953 CIA-backed coup in Iran. In collaboration with journalist and author Stephen Kinzer (All the Shah’s Men), Cognito Comics has produced an innovative hybrid: interactive graphic novel meets documentary archive, wrapped together in glitch-free iOS apps for the iPad and iPhone. Although certain characters and story points are dramatized, the plot faithfully traces the major historical players and events leading up to and surrounding the coup. Perhaps Operation Ajax’s own coup lies in its incorporation of a substantial collection of archival materials, which help to ground the compelling drama of the narrative. In addition to newsreel footage, users virtually sift through photos and recently declassified internal CIA documents by way of an elegant interface that takes full advantage of the tactile nature of the touchscreen. With the interactive graphic novel already making major inroads in the fiction realm, Operation Ajax is surely a harbinger of a whole generation of engaging and imaginative syncretic doc projects to come.

Site: cognitocomics.com/operationajax

In a Similar Vein: The Wagner Files (gebrueder beetz, 2013); The Loxleys and the War of 1812 (NFB, 2012)

If you just can’t get enough interactive docs, you’ll find an excellent selection on page 35 of POV’s Spring 2015 issue and also at the ever-expanding MIT Open Documentary Lab’s docubase, including curated lists from Katerina Cizek and other interactive luminaries.

Thinking of making your own interactive documentary? The authors share their 4 picks for the best tools to help get you started.

A documentary filmmaker, cinematographer and editor, Robinder Uppal holds an MFA in Documentary Media from Ryerson University and has made documentary films in India, Central America and Canada. His current work in documentary and interactive storytelling builds on a lifelong interest in issues of diversity and multiculturalism.

Originally from Calgary, Marc Serpa Francoeur studied screenwriting, language, and creative non-fiction in Vancouver. After several years in Nicaragua, he returned to Canada to complete an MFA in Documentary Media with a focus on interactive storytelling. His current work includes projects in Portugal, Latin America and Canada.

View all articles by Robinder Uppal, Marc Serpa Francoeur »