Some thoughts on Interactive Documentaries

By Sam Billington

Do you ever find yourself buried in the everyday but, just for an instant, you look up to find what you feel you've been looking for? That’s what I experienced when a friend of mine sent me a link to an “interactive documentary” a few years back. Since then interactive documentaries are becoming ever more common place, as people realise the potential of marrying interactive web design with emotive, compelling content. I have always seen the way cultural institutions interpret their spaces and exhibitions as mini documentaries. Now I think it’s high time we work with an institution to take it to the next level and try delivering this formula in a mobile format.

Here is some background on interactive documentaries from Vice magazine a couple of years ago.

A couple of my personal favorites outside this article are:

  1. A hollow documentary is an interactive documentary and community participatory project that focuses on the lives of residents in McDowell County, West Virginia. Hollow combines personal portraits, interactive data, participatory mapping and user-generated content on an HTML5 website designed to address the issues stemming from stereotyping and population loss in rural America. Community members will take part in the filmmaking process by creating their own documentary portraits and balloon maps. Hollow strives to bring attention to issues in rural America, encourage trust among the community and become a place where users can share ideas for the future.
  2. 1-in-8-million is mainly a mix of great black and white imagery and emotive audio, with a simple but engaging user interface.
  3. Dadaab Stories is an evolving online documentary and ultimately a collaborative community media project. It is a place for refugees to share their stories with the world. It's an initiative of FilmAid, a humanitarian media organization that has been making, teaching and screening films in Dadaab since 2006. Dadaab Stories is nonlinear and multimedia. Stories are told through video, photography, poetry, music and journalism. Everyone in the Dadaab refugee camp has a story to tell, and this is the place to share these stories. Just like Dadaab itself, Dadaab Stories is always changing, and new content is added regularly.

Talking with my colleagues, here’s 3 top reasons why we think it could work really well in a mobile museum setting;

  1. The user controls the story path – in an exhibition setting everyone wants to be able to go at their own pace and explore the storylines, and this format allows you to do the same.
  2. New storytelling techniques – this approach is the perfect example of how non-linear storytelling can let you dive into some subjects in more depth while continuing to follow an overarching storyline, of which Pine Point from the National Film Board of Canada is a great example.
  3.  With touch interfaces and mobile devices could we make the experience even more intuitive and encourage new ways of bringing the wealth of media assets that cultural institutions have together in a more creative manner.

Personally, I think this could be an extremely exciting way of mobile digital storytelling and can’t wait for the brave few to step up…

- author