Women’s Liberation March, London, 1979. Source: Tony Hall

Over the past few years we’ve seen the emergence of online interactive documentaries, a documentary subgenre that straddles documentary practice and interactive design. These webdocs are now attracting the interest of European authors, festivals, producers and television networks. In late May, the DocsBarcelona documentary festival organised a conference dedicated exclusively on these types of works, focusing on projects interested in bringing about social change. These new interactive documentary narratives set up situations involving citizen collaboration and participation, which can become new strategies for social empowerment.

Alma, a Tale of Violence is the story of a killer: Alma, a 26-year-old woman who was a member of one of Guatemala’s most brutal gangs. If you saw this documentary online or on your tablet, you would have been able to choose between watching the protagonist’s confession to the camera, or the animated images that she talks about. Alma is an interactive documentary in which what you do affects the way the story unfolds.

A webdoc is a documentary that is narrated through a digital interface with which the viewer is required to interact physically in order to move the story forward. Sandra Gaudenzi, a leading academic in this field, uses the term “i-docs” to refer to “any project that attempts to document reality by means of interactive digital media.” The term “webdoc” refers to the creation of interactive documentaries designed specifically for the web.

A booming sector

Webdocs are a hot topic because the number of online productions is growing all the time, and high-quality projects have started to win awards in major international film and documentary festivals over the past three years. Webdocs aren’t a new concept or format (there are excellent earlier projects in web documentary or CD-ROM formats), but they are part of a new context that is generating a lot of interest.

The number of new initiatives that have sprung up in Barcelona over the past few years confirms that there is a great deal of interest in these types of productions. One of the many local activities and spaces that aim to promote webdocs in the city is DocsBarcelona. Since 2012, this international documentary festival has included a section called InterDocsBarcelona exclusively dedicated to interactive documentaries, with a strong programme of presentations and lectures .

This year’s conference was held in the CCCB Theatre and its guest speakers included leading international figures from the sector, such as Mandy Rose, director of the Digital Cultures Research Centre in Bristol and former head of the New Media Department at the BBC, and Remko Vlaanderen from Submarine Channel, the acclaimed Dutch production company dedicated to new digital narratives.

Participatory webdocs

One of the most hotly debated issues right now revolves around the real impact of webdocs on audiences and on their participation. And it’s no small matter because we’re not just talking about “click metrics” but also about emotional and social impact. Webdocs can be a great tool for bringing us the first-person accounts of people who are experiencing social conflicts around the world. The protagonists themselves can collaboratively construct their own discourse and share their direct experiences through audiovisual media.

A pioneering project involving participation in documentary practice was the program Challenge For Change: Activist Documentary by the National Film Board of Canada. In 1967, a team was sent to Fogo Island (Newfoundland, Canada) to document the Inuit community’s complaints about being forced out of the area. The reporters decided to allow members of the community to direct short documentaries themselves, a gesture that was highly innovative at the time and added an authentic perspective to the content of the reports and the project.

Communication for Development has been a recurring concept for non-government organisations over the last twenty years. It refers to the use of information technologies and communication media as tools for mediation, participation and generation of change in social conflicts. Could webdocs be a new mediating tool for change?

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Up until now, the active participation of viewers and protagonists has mainly taken place through participatory modules in which users can post comments or add content to the project. A clear example is A Short History of the Highrise, which includes a section of photographs uploaded by readers. This work by Katerina Cizek explores the history and development of high rise apartment blocks and the communities that live in them. It was co-produced by the New York Times and the National Film Board of Canada and became a benchmark project, winning the new Interactive Documentaries category at World Press Photo.

The participation of digital audiences is a source of never-ending debate that opens up innumerable possibilities for the design of interactive projects. It also entails a shift from the figure of the author to that of the designer of “narrative windows”, tools and frames through which viewers can participate by expressing themselves or adding content to the narrative. But what do we mean by participation? In response to this question, Henry Jenkins recently made some interesting comments in the International Journal of Communication (quoted by Mandy Rose at the InterDocs conference at the CCCB): “I object to calling it participation if the people involved have no sense of themselves as belonging to something bigger than the individual. For me, participation starts at that moment when we see ourselves as part of a group that is seeking to achieve some shared goals through collective effort.

This idea of belonging to “something bigger” is explored by QuestionBridge, a multiplatform project that aims to create a space for dialogue and expression for the African American community. In this webdoc, viewers can submit questions about what they think defines black identity, or record a video of themselves answering some of the questions. It is a project designed for the community that it addresses.

At the InterDocs conference in Barcelona, Mandy Rose questioned the effects that documentaries can have on the situations that they document, and criticised the fact that, for now, interactive documentaries are often designed without taking into account the community that is depicted in them. “We are not designing products with their interests (the community’s) in mind,” she said.

Webdocs for change

Can webdocs improve or help to bring about significant change in the lives of their protagonists? As we know, this is a question that often comes up in the world of documentary, but it may become even more important in regard to digital documentaries. We say this because we think that some digital technologies available to the creators of webdocs can set up much more participatory dialogues with their protagonists and help to spread their message throughout the world. But also and particularly because these digital “platforms” can become tools for communication, action and coordination of strategies that communities can adopt as their own. And this is where transformation can happen, where change is possible.

These are the ideas that drive the team behind the Quipu-Project, a project that aims to give voice to the women who suffered forced sterilisation in a campaign that Alberto Fujimori implemented in some indigenous communities in Peru. The creators of this webdoc gave mobile phones (there is no 3G coverage in those areas) to the protagonists so that they could record, listen to and share their stories, and make them accessible to everybody on the web.

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0Responsables is another example. Many Spaniards will be familiar with the television programme Salvados presented by Jordi Évole, and the special episode that looked into the grey areas of the judicial inquiry into a major subway accident in Valencia in 2006. Well, this programme inspired a web documentary on the same subject produced by the victim’s association. In this webdoc we can listen to a commission in with citizens are invited to give their own accounts, and provide important information that was vetoed in the judicial inquiry. The social impact of the special episode of Salvados, along with the lobbying of the webdoc and the press, has forced the courts to reopen the case.

Another project that seeks social change is The Invisible Picture Show, which uses recordings of phone calls made by undocumented children who are being held in migrant detention centres, putting the spotlight on a situation that is rarely shown in the mainstream media. During the webdoc, the viewer is encouraged to participate by uploading videos to show their support, or by contacting the association that is trying to put an end to the legality of this practice.

Webdocs as a tool for empowerment

During the InterDocs conference, one of the creators of the project Quipu (which was presented in beta stage) explained that the team is exploring the possibility of allowing the community to use the platform to give visibility to other demands. This would be a turning point in the field of interactive documentary, because the project would then also become a tool for social empowerment. It would also be a turning point for documentary practice, because unlike traditional documentary makers who are used to moving in and out of the reality that they document in a specific, often short, period of time, the digital platform would involve an ongoing dialogue with the protagonists and also with the viewers.

Webdocs could become a useful tool for dissemination, and help to put local conflicts that are often overlooked on the global map. Citizen collaboration and participation strategies on the net, structured around the narrative thread of a real story, are starting to become a reality that institutions should listen to and support.

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  • Clàudia Prat said:

    18 Jul 2014

    Hey Carles! Yo también confio que los documentales transforamdos “a la web” sean útiles a su misma narración ;D
    Pregunta, ¿por qué acabas tu artículo llamando al apoyo institucional?
    Clàu xx

  • Carles Sora said:

    22 Jul 2014

    Hola Clàudia,

    Tens raó que la referència que faig a les institucions locals no és prou explícita, així que aprofito aquest espai per desenvolupar-ho una mica.

    Qualsevol que estigui mínimament interessat pels webdocs haurà vist com França, Alemanya, Anglaterra, EEUU i Canadà fa anys que hi dedica diners i visibilitat. L’ajuda institucional ve de les cadenes públiques que hi dediquen diners en les coproduccions, i també dels fons de finançament del cinema que han vist clar que aquest format ha nascut, possiblement, per quedar-se. Però la nostra realitat és una mica més lenta. Si mirem la guia de finançament de projectes transmèdia i interactius editada per Media Antena Catalunya del 2012 no hi trobarem cap institució estatal que hi posi diners. (http://www.europacreativamedia.cat/rcs_auth/convocatories/guiatransmediafr_cat.pdf)

    Els últims dos anys hi ha hagut moviments significatius com el laboratori de la RTVE (http://lab.rtve.es/) que ha dut a terme diversos experiments interactius amb continguts de la casa i alguna producció adhoc per webdoc. La creació del primer concurs de Projectes Transmèdia organitzat pel Mercat Audiovisual de Catalunya i Guionistes Associats de Catalunya. O la incorporació en el DocsBarcelona d’una secció dedicada al webdoc. Moviments significatius i necessaris però insuficients si tenim present la quantitat de ganes i gent que hi ha interessada, així com productores i altres agents del documental i l’audiovisual que veuen aquest espai de creació com una possibilitat de mercat.

    La majoria d’accions han estat impulsades per professionals i acadèmics interessats en aquest espai de creació que a títol personal han organitzat tallers, hackatons o trobades sobre webdocs. Si totes aquestes voluntats fossin empentades per les institucions (públiques o privades) dedicant recursos i voluntats als nous formats audiovisuals crec que podríem assolir, amb la distància que ens pertoqui, certes quotes internacionals. Tinc la sensació que part d’aquesta tensió està centrada en els productes d’entreteniment, especialment els videojocs. És evident que són dos sectors que no es poden comparar, però això no treu que la ficció i la no ficció interactiva pugui veure’s també com un nou espai d’innovació en formats i tecnologies digitals així com un nou mercat, de la mateixa manera que es veu a fora.

  • Hector Milla said:

    23 Jul 2014

    Carles Sora ha resumido muy bien la situación actual del WebDoc, o en general de las narrativas interactivas, a nivel local. Hay, en Barcelona o en España, ganas de producir WebDocs pero no hay inversión institucional como ha ocurrido en particular en Francia y en Canadá, que por eso lideran este sector del audiovisual. Los pocos WebDocs producidos provienen de la universidad y son más bien iniciativas educacionales. Pero están apareciendo iniciativas profesionales como es el caso de Barret Films, o de A Navalla Suiza, o de mi productora Mondrian Lab. Y varias productoras audiovisuales están creando líneas de desarrollo de negocio en la interactividad. Así como startups que entran al negocio del software interactivo como es el caso de The Mad Viseo http://www.themadvideo.com/

    Destaco aquí, en Barcelona, la iniciativa privada de Guy Spriggs, con Ramillas http://ramillas.wordpress.com/, que ha creado un fondo de inversión en este tipo de narrativas; y el evento reciente Storycode BCN http://www.meetup.com/StoryCode-Barcelona/events/190763812/, que ha tratado de este tema presentando algunos proyectos locales e internacionales.

    Como emprendedor y productor audiovisual estoy dedicado al cien por cien a este tipo de narrativas, y actualmente, como Mondrian Lab, estamos produciendo un WebDoc sobre la luz en Barcelona para el 2015. Pienso que es hora de pensar globalmente, quizás podamos co-producir con studios y productoras más afianzadas en el mundo. Los dos ejes financieros son desde luego ARTE en Europa, y el NFB en Canadá. ¿Porqué no recurrir a ellos? ¿Porqué no buscar aliados en otros países y co-producir?.

    Pero sería formidable, que en España donde hay un alto consumo de contenidos y mucha creatividad, podamos contar con fondos especialmente dedicados a la investigación, a la experimentación, a la innovación audiovisual. Si no me equivoco la industria del cine en Canadá invierte un 33% de sus recursos a las narrativas interactivas. No pido tanto compromiso, pero si sería importante que hayan fondos dedicados a incentivar la innovación en el audiovisual, un porcentaje decente. Más si el audiovisual está sometido a un cambio necesario para que se adapte a un consumo que ha cambiado radicalmente. Los usuarios quieren historias, calidad, ubicuidad de los contenidos, multipantalla, narrativas no lineales, experiencias transmedias, escenarios nuevos con lenguajes nuevos. De hecho, en el audiovisual, ya hay , nuevas profesiones en marcha, como por ejemplo el Story Architect, el Lead Author, o el Experience Designer…

    Creo que es momento de crear mercado, de incentivar la iniciativa privada hacia las narrativas interactivas y transmedias, además de comprometer a las instituciones públicas a que inviertan en esta fase inicial de innovación acelerada en el que estamos.

  • Eva Domínguez said:

    24 Jul 2014

    Gràcies, Carles, per aquesta interessant reflexió. Com que a mi el que més m’agrada és fer i fer-me preguntes, plantejo: Si hi hagués suport institucional al webdoc o les narratives interactives de no ficció, quins haurien de ser els criteris per donar el finançament? Han de ser només criteris de tema o també s’han d’incloure criteris d’innovació formal i ús de les tecnologies? Com ponderar uns més que d’altres? Una abraçada i bon estiu a tothom.

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