Written by: Alessio Casella
The concept of ‘documentary film’ is extremely dynamic and possesses elastic boundaries. Sybil DelGaudio notes that throughout film history, the term itself has in fact “undergone continual scrutiny and re-consideration” (1997, p. 189). With this in mind, it seems natural that this particular area of film practice could not be immune to the shifts caused by new media.
Interactive documentaries perfectly lend themselves to discuss the flexibility of the term, and allow us to observe the role of media convergence in documentary theory, as well as concepts of interactivity, agency and gamification.
What makes us recognise a documentary as ‘interactive’ is mainly its hypertextual structure (Miles, 2014) and the nature of its engagement with the viewer. Generally, we can define ‘interactive’ “any documentary that uses interactivity as a core part of its delivery mechanism” (Galloway et al., cited in Aston and Gaudenzi, 2012, p. 126); thus, asking viewers to actively take decisions in order for the ‘narrative’ to proceed. Through this approach, “the viewer is positioned within the artefact itself, [that demands] him, or her, to play an active role in the negotiation of the ‘reality’ being conveyed” (Aston and Gaudenzi, 2012, p. 126).
Furthermore, interactive documentaries also show a substantial degree of convergence and gamification. We can notice this by looking at a relevant example: Pirate Fishing: An Interactive Investigation, produced by Al Jazeera in 2014. This “film” (if we can still define it so) works as a web platform converging text, UI, and journalistic video clips.
The viewer is invited to impersonate a “junior researcher” investigating illegal fishing in Sierra Leone. By implementing processes of gamification (e.g., stages, “investigation points”, badges) within the structure of an interactive documentary, the viewer then also becomes a ‘player’.
As we mentioned in the introduction of this post, documentary has been showing a high degree of adaptation, encompassing new technologies and media as they became available. We have seen that concepts of interactivity and gamification in documentary film have started being approached, with excellent results. With the development of VR, the next logical step only seems to be the implementation of these potentialities within an immersive virtual environment.
Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness (2016). Available from http://www.notesonblindness.co.uk/vr/ on Samsung Gear, iOS, Android [Accessed 22 March 2017].
Pirate Fishing: An Interactive Investigation (2014). Available from http://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2014/piratefishingdoc/ [Accessed 22 March 2017].
Aston, J. and Gaudenzi, S. (2012). Interactive documentary: setting the field. Studies in Documentary Film, 6 (2), 125-139.
Bonino, F. (2011). Is interactivity in interactive documentaries exploited at its full potential? Interactive Documentary. Available from http://www.interactivedocumentary.net/wp-content/2011/09/final_dissertation_Filippo-Bonino.pdf [Accessed 22 March 2017].
DelGaudio, S. (1997). If truth be told, can ‘toons tell it? Documentary and animation. Film History, 9 (2), 189-199.
Directors Notes (2016). A Guide to Interactive Documentary: Structure, Tools & Narrative. Available from http://directorsnotes.com/2016/08/08/interactive-documentary-guide/ [Accessed 22 March 2017].
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.
Miles, A. (2014). Interactive Documentaries and Affective Ecologies. In: Nash, K., Hight, C. and Summerhayes C. (eds.) New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 67-82.