Documentary's Digital Transformation

In the last decade something remarkable has happened to documentary film-making: participation and interactivity.

As we near the end of REACT, we wanted to take the time to share some stories from members of our network. Fourth in our series is a piece by Mandy Rose, Director of the Digital Cultures Research Centre at UWE Bristol. 

In the last decade something remarkable has happened to documentary film-making: participation and interactivity. A growing body of work has emerged which reinvents documentary filmmaking – transforming it from something you watch to an experience you take part in. For the documentary project of reflecting and critiquing our shared world, these are significant developments.

Accessed on laptop, tablet or mobile phone, a generation of interactive documentaries (i-docs) bring the audience up close with the worlds they depict, and give tangible form to the curiosity, thoughts and feelings that those worlds provoke.

An i-doc can invite the user to choose between options or to navigate a path through content. They can get involved in debate by adding or adapting media, and changing the shape of the work with their participation. In recent projects, the user can even find that the very experience they are having has been personalised to powerful effect.

One of the first works to signal these transformations was We Feel Fine, a web project created in 2006 by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar that’s still live and evolving today. Harris had become interested in the traces of self-expression that people were leaving behind them on social media. For We Feel Fine, he and Kamvar sampled blogs across the Internet at five minute intervals for words and phrases related to feelings, and visualised their findings as a series of thematic chapters in what they called an “almanac of human emotion”.

We Feel Fine didn’t look like any documentary we had seen before. The work had no beginning, middle or end. There was no film or video footage, no essayistic argument, no spoken commentary. Yet Harris and Kamvar’s work provided a fitting 21st Century response to everyday life, captured not on film but in fragmentary statements and photos on blogs.

While We Feel Fine suggested how non-human factors would become players in documentary storytelling, the other major theme in i-docs is their encouragement of public participation and face-to-face interaction. Landmark projects of this kind include 18 Days in Egypt (2011) - a re-contextualisation of social media produced within the Egyptian revolution by those who were there, and Question Bridge (2013), a dialogue between African American men about class, racism, and social responsibility, which takes place online and in community meetings.

But perhaps the defining work in the i-docs field to date is the multi-facetted, multi-award winning exploration of vertical living, Highrise (2010). Directed by Kat Cizek, the project is a collaboration with town planners, academics, online participants, and highrise residents.

Now documentary is not just a genre which informs citizens but gets people involved as citizens

In the last couple of years developments in the i-docs field have been intense. Boundaries are blurring between documentary and games and between documentary and journalism, with The NY Times, the Guardian, and Al-Jazeera investing in interactive work.

Perhaps the most startling recent development has been the rapid take-up of emerging Virtual Reality (VR) platforms for non-fiction. The vivid, 360° sense of presence offered by VR has drawn considerable creative and commissioning interest. The UN, for example, have commissioned two VR pieces - Clouds over Sidra (2014) about life in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, and Waves of Grace (2015) about the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. These invest in the platform’s power to cut through the media noise in a bid to make an impact with donors and decision makers.    

While the VR maker asks the user to cut themselves off by wearing a screen within a headset, other documentarists are exploring the storytelling potential of unobtrusive creative technologies.  In Door into the Dark – by May Abdalla and Amy Rose of Anagram – you enter a pitch black room and find your way guided only by a rope. The story unfolds via an audio track, triggered by sensors which detect your location. Rose and Abdalla describe this work as an experiential documentary. Winner of this year’s prestigious Tribeca Storyscapes prize, the work anticipates a growing trend for documentary storytelling to escape the screen altogether and turn up in unexpected places.

Documentary’s digital transformation isn’t over yet. It may have only just begun. 


This piece originally appeared in our REACT Newspaper. If you want to find out more about this kind of work, then you might be interested in attending i-Docs, a three-day symposium (2 - 4 March 2016) dedicated to the rapidly evolving field of interactive documentary. Bringing together a brilliant international mix of thinkers, makers and designers from academia and industry, the symposium includes presentations, panels, workshops and UK premieres by award-winning practitioners. Convened by Judith Aston, Mandy Rose and Sandra Gaudenzi, it is supported by the Digital Cultures Research Centre and UWE Bristol.