The emergence of multimedia interactivity in documentary filmmaking leads us to, once again ask, “What makes a documentary a documentary?” Many people I know gave up on this question a long time ago, settling for the unsatisfyinganswer, “You know it when you see it.”
Questions of ontological principles aside, one of the best purposes for a dividing line between documentary and journalism, or between documentary and fiction, seems to be managing audience expectations. Most of my favorite documentaries, and documentarians — Errol Morris, Chris Marker, Werner Herzog, to name a few — have diligently worked to blur the line between genres. But, even for genre-bending work, the documentary label is useful. One knows to expect something of the “real” world with “real” people in a movie — just like it might be helpful to know whether you’re going to watch a horror film or a slapstick comedy..
Beyond categorization for marketing purposes, a definition of “documentary” can be useful in framing a filmmaker’s artistic practice. John Grierson’s original definition of the documentary as a “creative treatment of actuality” is as useful as any. When we talk about a “treatment of actuality” in traditional documentary film, we’re talking about capturing and editing images and sound of actual people, places, and things.
While most people would agree on this point, the “creative” bit of Grierson’s definition is the hang up. An example are the arguments inspired by the dramatizations in Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line; the creative process in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing; the openly political motivations of filmmakers such as Michael Moore. People spend a lot of time trying to critique a documentary film they don’t like or disagree with by trying to deny that film’s very existence as authentic documentary. By saying that a film isn’t a documentary, one can, somehow, negate its merits altogether. However, as soon as you accept documentary as an interpretive art form, a critique of a film’s merit on whether it is or is not a documentary quickly fades. Instead, one is left with a critique of whether the film and its arguments are sound or not — a much more interesting question.
Grierson’s definition holds up with new forms of interactive documentary at the most fundamental level: interactive documentary, at its core, aims to be a creative treatment of actuality. However, when we talk about what “creative” means, what “treatment” means, what “actuality” means, interactive documentary operates in some very different ways than traditional documentary. Because of these shifts, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s a documentary and what isn’t, not because of the question of authenticity vs. creative manipulation, but instead, because the language of storytelling is so new.
There are a few, primary ways in which interactive media is evolving the documentary form: capturing media, interpreting media, and experiencing media.
The heart of filmmaking is the moving image. There are many aspects of this in documentary, but because of the documentarian’s interest in “actuality,” they all involve the act of observing reality and capturing it in those moving images. Among the many means by which a documentarian might use to capture and depict reality are through the use of statistics and data. The familiar depiction of data in documentary usually involves people showing charts and or other visualizations, and discussing them (Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, for example).
When one presents data on a computer, it’s a bit like looking at a film through the viewfinder of a camera. Instead of looking at content as something fixed, content that one consumes, one looks at content as something one can shape and manipulate, presenting media on a device, which is not just meant for the passive delivery of content, but for the active manipulation of information. This suggests a whole new mode of documentary, which is based on data visualization rather than images.
Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar’s We Feel Fine and Pitch Interactive’s Out of Sight, Out of Mind are good examples of this. These films depict reality by transforming raw information into a media experience, allowing the audience to investigate different facets of that media through an interface. Instead of a camera, they use data capture to create the raw materials for their experiences.
We Feel Fine searches blog entries for sentences that begin with the words “I feel,” and, “I am feeling,” and identifies the feeling the author has expressed (e.g., happy, sad, lonely, etc.). Those expressions of human emotions are then recorded in a database, which Harris and Kamvar use to generate various interpretive visualizations, in which colorful bubbles that represent individual feelings bounce about on screen like a sea of rainbow-colored fireflies. The behavior of each particle is determined by the emotion it represents. The viewer can than filter and sort the feelings to find patterns and insights.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind uses data about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan — the date, location, deaths (including civilians and children), and information about the target — to tell the story of this ongoing clandestine military operation. The visualization also aggregates articles in the news about drones in general, to provide context for the larger trend of their use in these situations.
As data collection intensifies with the continual generation of data online and the inter-connectivity of our experiences, the documentarian no longer has to deliberately choose to film a subject in order to capture its reality; instead, she or he can, conceivably, turn to raw data as the source material from which a documentary can be shaped. And, for some subjects, the generation of data doesn’t end when a piece is created. It continues to grow and evolve for years after its creation. In other words, interactive documentaries that visualize data on an ongoing basis don’t have a fixed or final state.
Are these documentaries? You could argue that by Grierson’s definition they are. However, their claim as documentaries is dependent on meeting the creative component of Grierson’s definition — without subjective, aesthetic interpretation, data cannot transcend its raw form.
Interactive documentaries that are built upon data visualization as a key piece of media face the challenge of being understood as documentary because of some of the inherent obstacles that data visualization has in terms of working as a storytelling device. If data visualization can behave as a sort of documentary, what is the storytelling onus put upon these pieces?
Not all documentary is narrative, but it’s easy to see those works on a continuum with more story-based experiences by virtue of being time-based, cinema’s singular attribute as an art form. Data visualization — particularly in terms of its print-based graphic design heritage — often points toward or describes stories, but seldom immerses the audience in a story, mostly because one usually doesn’t experience data visualizations over time. Minard’s visualization of Napoleon’s March to Russia is the canonical example of a story told through data visualization. However, when we look at his famous poster, we don’t experience its information in time. We might take several minutes to look at it and read it, but its information isn’t deliberately meted out over time for dramatic effect. It’s just a single image.
The absence of time as a creative tool in most data visualizations — or, the absence of manipulation of the audience’s experience of time – keeps most data visualizations from behaving as storytelling tools in the familiar sense. Once time is introduced as a mechanism, the familiar constructs of story can be employed: characters, conflict, etc. One of the many attributes that makes Bear 71 remarkable is its blending of data and storytelling, using its data collection not as an output, but as a mechanism to inspire, structure and stitch together other media. It’s the engine behind the story.
One could argue that much of interactive documentary is really just a new editorial process. Instead of editing together raw footage in a linear fashion, the interactive documentarian adds a layer of navigation which allows the viewer to construct and interpret the story on his or her own. Alexandre Brachet’s Gaza/Sderdot is the archetypal example of this approach. The footage could have been made into a straightforward linear narrative, but the navigation itself empowers a different type of experience and personal interpretation.
Jonathan Harris’s I Love Your Work and Isabelle Fougère & Miquel Dewever-Plana’s Alma are other similar examples. In interactive documentary, the viewer is the editor, and the design of the navigation is a critical component of the creative treatment of reality. In the strongest work, how the user can navigate says something distinct about the subject. In Gaza/Sderdot, the navigation visualizes the wall separating its subjects, as well as the idea of simultaneous, yet divided, experiences that the piece seeks to illuminate.
These interfaces aren’t invisible as they might be in the way one watches a traditional movie. When we sit in a theater, or on our couch in the living room, the “interface” for watching that content is nearly transparent. Modes of exhibition vary in scale and quality, but at their essence, they’re exactly the same — a glowing rectangle in which moving images are seen. No instructions necessary.
Introducing interactivity into documentary requires introducing a new mediating element into the experience. There are two primary types of interactivity: The first is interactivity in which the interaction is designed to say something specific about the subject, or the filmmaker’s interpretation of that subject. The interactivity transforms how the audience interprets what they see and understands the piece’s themes.
For instance, in Jonathan Harris’s I Love Your Work, which is a documentary about a group of young women making feminist, lesbian pornography in New York, the interface makes you hunt and peck through a dense tapestry of imagery, making you simultaneously aware of your sensitivity to which bits are pornographic and which are mundane, and also aware of the way in which our lives are constructed by a series of mostly forgettable moments in which moments of eros are wedged.
The second type of interactivity has less of a formal, interpretive purpose, and is instead used to blend different types of media together that couldn’t be combined without an interface. In this type of interactivity, the interaction is often used to give the user some choice about branches of a storyline to explore in depth, or to pace their experience. The “scrollytelling” experience, for instance, in Snowfall, which uses video, maps and other multimedia elements to enhance text-based journalism, is an example. The interface itself says nothing about the themes of the piece, that of grief, fear, thrill-seeking, wilderness, man-versus-nature. Instead it provides a framework that allows users to explore the different perspectives that comprise the story in a self-directed fashion.
Participating in Media
An interactive element changes the media experience. However, our relationship with the screen as a kind of portal into a constructed but distant reality is not necessarily changed by the interactivity, in and of itself. Despite the control and choice that interactivity can provide, we’re not necessarily implicated into the actuality that’s being portrayed. In other words, it’s not our actuality.
Interactivity presents an opportunity for the audience to play a participatory role in the making of a piece through its interaction. For instance, there are two music videos, which on the surface might not appear to be documentary at all, but evolve into documentary through virtue of a viewer’s interactions. In Vincent Morriset’s Just a Reflektor, made for the band Arcade Fire, the viewer uses his or her mobile phone as a means of controlling the image on their computer screen; one then can insert images of oneself into the piece. In Chris Milk’s The Johnny Cash Project, participants create their own hand-drawn interpretations of different images within a music video of the late country music icon to create a “crowd sourced” video that stitches together people’s paintings to visualize the collective experience.
An element in both of these pieces is the audience’s reaction to the constructed media. The reality being documented and interpreted is in the act of watching the video and listening to the music creating the potential for a new subject for the documentarian: its own audience. Since the audience is no longer passive, the filmmaker is able to implicate us subjects, as well as our relationship with the technology being used making it somewhat akin to theatrical techniques of breaking the fourth wall. In the case of Just a Reflektor, the subject is also our relationship to the technology used to watch and experience media. The piece, quite literally, reflects and then fractures our relationship with the technology that we use to listen to music and watch videos.
Why Does Interactivity Matter?
If we’re going to think about how documentary is evolving through interaction and new technology, certainly it’s just as important to ask, “Why?” There are a few ways to answer that. An interest in new technologies can be seen as part of the role the artist plays in investigating these new technologies to see what they’re capable of. We could sum up by saying that filmmakers should be interested in interactivity simply for the sake of curiosity.
But, beyond curiosity, the medium of film benefits from interactivity as a way to extend the filmmaker’s creative voice. Interactivity presents new formal opportunities to tell stories. It presents new aesthetic potential. It presents new ways to connect with audiences. It provides new opportunities to creatively interpret and reflect reality.
For interactivity to thrive and grow as an extension of a documentary filmmaking practice, the filmmaker must also consider the ways in which interaction itself can contribute to the creative treatment of actuality. In the same way that the stylistic and formal elements of traditional cinema — camera movement, framing, montage, sound mixing, music – presents creative opportunities based on the unique material capabilities of those stylistic and formal elements, so does interactivity. While the stylistic and formal elements of traditional cinema deliver a fairly uniform experience, with interactivity, the creative interpretation of reality also includes the choices of the audience itself, presenting a vast realm of new creative potential.
I Love Your Work, 2013
THIN BLUE LINE
Directed by Errol Morris,
USA, 1988, 103 minutes
THE ACT OF KILLING
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Co-directed by Anonymous, Christine Cynn
Denmark, Norway, UK, 2012, 115/159 minutes
AN INCONVIENT TRUTH
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
USA, 2006, 100 minutes
WE FEEL FINE
Directed by Jonathan Harris, Sep Kamvar
OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND
Created by Wesley Grubbs, Nicholas Yahnke
With Pitch Interactive, 2013
Directed by Leanne Allison, Jeremy Mendes
Directed by Alexandre Brachet
With Arte France, 2008
I LOVE YOUR WORK
Directed by Jonathan Harris, 2013
ALMA A TALE OF VIOLENCE
Directed by Miquel Dewever-Plana, Isabelle Fougére
Directed by John Branch
With New York Times, 2012
JUST A REFLEKTOR
Directed by Vincent Morisset
With Aaron Koblin, 2013
THE JOHNNY CASH PROJECT
Directed by Chris Milk
With Aaron Koblin, 2010