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One Step Forward : An embedded history of digital and interactive documentary
by Sara Diamond

Linear Precursors
Toward the final decades of the last century, the documentary as a creative form opened itself to radical investigation. Documentary "truth" was under assault by many forces of criticism who challenged all media images. Critics suggested that all media, even journalism, represented editorial opinion and a constructed language. Historians and sociologists proposed that interpretations of histories and experiences needed to be constantly reassessed, with an understanding that ideology was always at play in the interpretation of the "real".

In 1987, filmmaker Gary Kibbins and I wrote an essay entitled Total Recall - History, Memory and New Documentary. We noted the ways that the Sony Porta-pak heralded the emergence of a radical documentary practice from the liberal film traditions of the National Film Board (ie, the Challenge for Change series inside the NFB), in an independent community and outside the purview of television. Video allowed low cost production, and therefore production for a community of interest itself. Content, not structure, was the locus of critical intervention. We said, "When documentary emerged again in the 1960s it was perceived as a radical force... Information from a radical perspective was perceived as a pivotal force with which to change social consciousness." We catalogued a number of video documentary strategies that were precursors to interactivity: Advocacy tapes tried to invoke action, much like the "tactical" media of today, while personal testimonies and vérité tapes tried to construct an alternate history "by clearing a space for individuals and groups to speak". These tapes required intensive communication between author and subject. Independent documentaries like these also tore apart the seamless forms of television.

Vérité in the 1960s began as a means of crushing the distance between audience and subject, and then became a way of providing large scale sweeping coverage of subject matter. In documentary, the radical moments of the 1970s included giving the camera to the subject of the story, gleaning testimonials from the marginalized, and presenting these as evidence of oppression inverted into the power of shared experience.

The holistic view of the 1970s shattered in the 1980s. Personal ideologies appeared and were experienced in a far more fragmented way than in the past. Socially-instrumental documentary blended social realism and experimentation. Documentarians began to deploy subjective perspective, blend fantasy and fiction, and still provide analysis.

Documentary once again became a place for the vision of the director to express itself: The use of fiction within documentary - particularly re-enactments - had already been present since the incredible Spanish Earth of the 1930s (a documentary about the Spanish Civil War). Documentary practice had also included "essayist" approaches, with filmmakers making passionate arguments, often using voiceover narration. The most important development in the 1970s saw makers turn to autobiography as a means of reenacting and speaking about documentary subject matter.

Media makers - drawing from Bertolt Brecht's "alienation effects", or Godard's "jump cuts" - interrupted their documentaries to make certain that audiences understood that they were watching a media representation, not a truth. A new generation of documentary makers - such as Zacharias Kunuk, Richard Fung, Isaac Julien, Mary Kelly, Stuart Marshall, and Cornelia Wyngaarden - combined fiction with interruption strategies within their practice. Documentary became subjective and the line between fiction and reality became thin. Documentary was about attitude - in a myriad of forms.

These innovations occurred at a time when documentary production had entered the mainstream media, and was at times rife with formulae. But within the debates of the radical documentary community, even vérité works - seemingly free of editorial bias in their construction (ie, "pure flow") - were regarded as being in fact highly constructed, simply hiding the decision-making process of the maker. Others asked whether the critical documentary, with its reliance on narrative and spectacle, evoked passivity on the part of its viewership. A new criticism emerged - one which saw authenticity as an interaction between audience and subject - and so Kibbins and I wrote that "any critique necessarily requires an analysis of the concrete conditions of audience and reception conditions."

Interactive Predecessors
Discussions on the documentary form peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and thus occurred at the critical moment when interactive documentary became possible through the emergence of cd-roms. Interactive documentaries provided the means to organize large databases of documentary material through hypertext navigation, providing the potential to convey story depth, background research, interviews with additional subjects, multiple perspectives on a discussion, maps, diagrams, graphs and visual ancillary materials. Complex subjects could be developed in-depth.

Notable examples of cd-rom documentaries included Cyber Karachi and Total Amazon. The Voyager Company, led by Bob and Eileen Stein, was perhaps the foremost English language producer of high quality documentary cd-roms. Working with Bob Stein, talented designer Peter Girardi created works such as The Complete MAUS, Painters Painting, the Poetry in Motion series, and The Beat Generation. In 1995, Voyager developed The Invisible Universe, and then Sacred and Secular. The first included a tour of the solar system complete with music, documentary explication, and workshops on the electromagnetic spectrum. Sacred and Secular was a photo series by Marilyn Bridges - the photos appeared on screen accompanied by commentary. These early cd-roms were predecessors to later broadband documentary projects like Commanding Heights and Homeless (described below). Interactive educational documentary was taking form.

Participatory Dialogues
Early cd-roms were platform experiences delivered via individual computers, which meant that distribution remained a challenge, and contributions from participants were not yet part of interactive documentary expression. But the explosion of the World Wide Web in 1995 changed the documentary medium in fundamental ways, making it possible not only to deliver interactive content online, but also to evoke large-scale participation in the creation of documentaries, and in database collection. More than anything, the effects were temporal. Documentary changed from being a retrospective consideration of events and experiences into an ongoing serial or live practice - a role previously reserved for journalism. The network enabled real time, experiential documentary to evolve.

Mass media in general has opened itself to participatory dialogue in recent years: the Internet is valued more for its potential in terms of two-way communication than as a vehicle for top-down documentary expression, and has allowed content to move across platforms, thereby affecting documentary realizations. Reality television (a depoliticized version of tactical media and vérité) has built itself on a sense of immediacy created as viewers watch the docu-drama unfold. Viewers vote online to affect the conditions of the subjects they watch (like an inverted form of realist forum theatre). Reality TV shows such as Big Brother, Survivor, and Smart Hearts (www.the-loop.com/smarthearts) - a far more socially-engaged look at relationships - provide both spectacle and vicarious identification with daily life or extreme challenge. There have also been radical reworkings, such as /broadcast/ (www.somewhere.org.uk/broadcast) by Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie.

Deep Databases
Media-intensive databases have allowed a link to form between interactive documentary and passionate points of view. Examples include the Sonic Memorial Project (www.sonicmemorial.org/sonic/public/index.html) - a sound-based investigation of the history (pre and post 9/11) of the World Trade Center. Another eloquent project (also by Picture Projects, the creators of Sonic Memorial) is 360 Degrees (www.360degrees.org), a Web site about the US criminal justice system. The site elucidates legal issues, rights issues, prisoners' narratives, and information about specific communities within the prison population, while acknowledging multiple audiences - including the prison population itself. Without the depth of its database, and its layered approach with many inroads to navigation, this Web site would not have succeeded.

Rich media convergent projects have also become possible. For example, Mad Mundo (www.articlez.fr/english/madmundo/madmundo.asp), created by the Paris-based Article Z electronic media agency, creates live television and Web confrontations wherein ordinary citizens ask for justice in unfair situations. Mad Mundo works with the initiator of the story, bringing in professional journalists as well as volunteer advocates who then provoke the perpetuators of injustice to speak with them directly on television. Ongoing Web diaries, debates, and postings then accumulate as the confrontations unfold. The immediacy of Web delivery and audience response ideally suits such serial forms. The Web takes over where live broadcasts left off - indeed, many broadcasters will no longer invest in this kind of real time coverage, with its potential liabilities.

Perhaps the pinnacle of interactive documentary is represented by PBS' Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy (www.pbs.org/wgbh/commandingheights/lo/index.html). Its purpose: to promote understanding of globalization; its history and debates. Structured according to historic storylines, key events, countries, people and ideas - and accompanied by a rich glossary, discussion groups, educators' guides, and research backgrounders and resource links - it exemplifies the value of applying an interactive approach to deep subject matter. Created by (among many, many others) Boston-based WGBH producer Harold Cutler, the online interactive accompanies a television series produced and directed by William Cran. The broadband version of the Web site segments the elegantly-produced television series into manageable Web chunks, creating an interactive that works wholly on the level of the Internet. This project reinforces how important it is for public broadcasters to push the boundaries of documentary new media.

Emotional Arcs
Eliciting emotional expression and identification within a new media format can be challenging. New media forms level data and information, creating the opportunity to build associations or pathways through this data. Constructing narrative arcs or arguments within such a database of content can require an unnatural control over a dynamic medium. On the other hand, the skillful weaving or layering of a sheer volume of information, and the evocative use of sound or images, can cause empathy - even sorrow or grief - to rise to the surface of the digital archive.

This was certainly true of Re: Vietnam - Stories Since the War (www.pbs.org/pov/stories/vietnam/about.html), a successful PBS initiative (also created by Picture Projects) that gathered together personal stories and dialogues about Vietnam's legacy. Through the use of testimonials, interactive documentary forms can combine the expressions of victims with those of other persons indirectly touched by events. Documentary-makers have often been responsible for the collective memories of their societies, and this tradition continues here via a new set of tools used to construct virtual monuments. Other successful examples of this include the aforementioned Sonic Memorial Project, as well as Survivors of the Shoah (initiated by Steven Spielberg's Visual History Foundation to videotape and preserve the testimonies of Holocaust survivors; see www.vhf.org), and Homeless (a site for and about homeless people in Australia, Japan, and Indonesia; see www.abc.net.au/homeless).

These convergent media projects use archival and database strategies to build emotional engagement and dialogue within and beyond large communities. Homeless was conceived by Australian documentary director Trevor Graham, who decided to investigate homelessness by telling intensely-personal stories backed up by documents and supporting evidence that would be "just a click away". Graham and his partners subsequently took the project global, seeking to uncover the differences between homelessness in Sydney, Jakarta, and Tokyo. Exploring individual life histories while underlining the social and economic factors behind homelessness, they mixed "the ethics and approaches of observational, fly-on-the-wall documentary" to tell the stories of homeless people in each city. This project is sympathetic to those it represents, providing them with a means of expression through the vérité form, with a focus on reaching a larger Web-viewing audience.

Micro Movies, Serial Formats, Embedded Eyes
Digital media production is increasingly insinuated into all aspects of the documentary production chain, and new formats both entice makers and destabilize existing practice.

Some new linear and interactive documentary forms are predicated on the ongoing rise of mobile technologies. The "micro movie" phenomenon is presently sweeping digital media, especially in Europe, Korea and Japan, with the potential of new delivery platforms either already present or looming in the immediate future. Targets for distribution include cell phones, videophones, PDAs, and portable game platforms, while content created for these devices is also typically suited for billboard displays, the Web, and television. Short format "micro documentaries" (usually from fifteen seconds to three minutes long) have the potential to bridge all of these platforms. Still, mobile media production faces distribution challenges (generally requiring a subscription economy and either licensing or platform support). Meanwhile, mobile devices also require new strategies of presentation to accommodate smaller screens and viewers on the move. "Microdocs" are therefore challenged to provide new and coherent expressions for the form. Finland's POEM (a resource centre for film, TV, and new media; see www.poem.fi), and that country's Tampere Film Festival (www.tamperefilmfestival.fi/2003/eng/Index2.html), have become two important sites where the microdoc is being invented, commissioned, and critically evaluated.

The micro documentary can be delivered as a single experience, or as a series of sequential, cumulative experiences. This possibility provides an ongoing journalistic or documentary context wherein coverage can be constantly expanded and updated. Short "serial documentaries" on current issues can therefore emerge over time, creating eager viewers and attracting them to a particular media environment.

On the documentation side, the capacity to capture and deliver media using mobile devices (as seen during the recent Iraq war) means that intensive coverage can now be gathered in the field by documentary producers as well as journalists. In fact, "embedded" strategies can be as valuable to documentary producers as to war journalists. Digital cameras permit lightweight, intimate shooting, while mobile devices are ubiquitous and nearly invisible: as text, audio, and video recording devices (many cell phones now carry cameras) they extend the range of the small format digital camera even more. Mobiles have thus become important tools for the production of low cost, participant-driven, real-time events coverage, revealing unfolding global issues (ecological crises, political confrontations, wars) from the inside as never before. This kind of spontaneous news-gathering at points of conflict has been seen most of all in the tactical media movement (see below).

Tactical Webs
The tactical media movement was foreshadowed in earlier radical documentary movements, such as Paper Tiger Television with its cable access for marginalized groups. During the heady days of sweeping social change in the 60s and 70s, activists noted that the distribution of information was equal to the distribution of wealth, and that access to media production was necessary in order to change society. This led to the creation of community cable stations, artist and activist centres, and lobbies for airtime and broadcast real estate. In the USA, Canada, and the UK, early video activists like Paper Tiger made remarkable inroads, establishing cable access for alternate voices. Independent makers attempted to invert the top-down qualities of television on structural and aesthetic grounds.

Echoes of these previous waves are today being expressed via the exchange capabilities of the Web. Present tactical Web-activist notables include the remarkable Witness initiative (created by Gillian Caldwell, Sam Gregory, Peter Gabriel, and others; see http://www.witness.org), which provides video cameras and other documentary technology to people struggling for human rights all over the world. Big Noise Films (www.bignoisefilms.com) is a group dedicated to documenting the vision of the antiglobalization movement. See also the Universal Rights Network (http://www.universalrights.net/), the Guerrilla News Network (http://www.GuerrillaNews.com), Free Speech TV (www.freespeech.org), The Independent Media Centre (www.indymedia.org), and Undercurrents (www.undercurrents.org). All of these initiatives are committed to generating and distributing alternative documentary and journalism.

Games and Experiments
Has the interactive documentary begun to address the various questions documentary makers and audiences were posing three decades ago? Certainly, some experimental interactives are combining associative and fictional strategies to unfold personal stories and social issues in the interactive format. For example, Melinda Rackham's Carrier (www.subtle.net/carrier) is an experimental Web space and documentary world that investigates the fear, desires, and imagery of Hepatitis B infection. Meanwhile, other media makers are combining game strategies with documentary formats to provide a critique of social issues: Global Arcade (www.globalarcade.org/home.html) offers arcade games that educate players about globalization issues, while game designers like Select Parks (www.selectparks.net/) are working with documentary content to create play experiences that combine documentary realism with fiction and agency on the part of audiences. And many other experimental Web artists - among them Mongrel (www.mongrelx.org), Mary Flanagan (www.maryflanagan.com), and Potatoland.org (www.potatoland.org) - have lately combined documentary and news with technology design, subjectivity, and interpretation.

In conclusion, there is not one single documentary interactive form that presently addresses all of the questions about subjective engagement, real world activism and analysis, and collective brilliance that documentary analysis has put forward. But there are certainly methodologies, technologies, techniques, and approaches evolving that move us toward a rich, engaged, and challenging documentary moment.

Sara Diamond is Editor-in-Chief of HorizonZero.

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