Taxonomic discussions in the educational context: key issues in relation to interactive documentary (I)


In this series of posts I will address the intense debate that was generated in two intensive lectures (4-hour each one) which I gave to the first line of interactive documentary specialization within the Master Degree of Creative Documentary at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (26 and 28 October, 2011). These two sessions would allow me, by extension, to address some of the taxonomic problems of this type of format par excellence and any ideas or suggestions to my questions raised by some students of a promotion that stands out as brilliant.

The Master Degree in Theory and Practice of Creative Documentary is an international reference master that has been taught for over fifteen years in Barcelona. Furthermore, is a pioneer program in Spain and Europe to develop a research and production in interactive documentary: students not only develop their linear documentary projects, but should also consider developing a prototype of interactive documentary, with external support in design and programming. This year, as a pilot, four projects will be presented to the jury. The idea is to expand the annual production. In this post which I published a few weeks ago you can find interesting links and more details about this Masters Degree.

Summary of the first session on interactive documentary

Session 1. October 26, 2011.

1. Introduction to the interactive documentary genre (documentary genre + interactive medium
+ interactive documentary)

2. Linear documentary, non-fiction interactive forms and the representation of reality

3. Current state of development of the interactive documentary

4. Proposed definition

5. The methods of navigation and interaction: key elements for the interactive documentary

6. Basic characteristics of the interactive documentary

7. Proposal for general taxonomy and classification of the interactive documentaries

8. Conclusion

Since I started training students and offering educational courses on the subject of the interactive documentary – since 2008 at the University of Vic, where each year we produce between 3 and 4 i-docs in our UvicLab, 2009-2011 in seminars at the “La Casa del Cine” and the current year at the “International Media Program” of the TAMK University of Tampere, Finland -, many questions and debates have been generated around several key issues about the nature of this genre.

The truth is that it hasn’t been easy to develop an interesting and attractive program, but the response received by students in relation to this genre has stunned the staff that is part of the Master Degree (coordinators and teachers). Moreover, as the students appreciated at the end of the second session, two theoretical sessions are insufficient to meet this genre in depth. My participation in this graduate program focuses on covering the theoretical part, help and offer advice on the development of prototypes and as a jury member of the commission that evaluates the projects in February and will decide which one will be produced with the partnership of companies (pitching Commission).

The first two hours of the first session were focused on setting the field explaining briefly the two key stories separately: the documentary genre and the interactive digital media. This introduction was key to place the student, because, although in relation to the documentary genre they are well prepared and teachers of the course are excellent, many find it a novelty the fact that the other half, the digital interactive medium, enters the equation. This introduction during the first hour did not generate many questions.



We begin in the second hour with the interactive documentary and the main question that came out was “why call it in such way?”. I asked them what came to their minds when I told them about the concept of interactive documentary, and they told me they were expectant but it would be good, before seeing what it was, to know why in the theoretical circles is commonly called as such. I then explained them that calling the genre such as webdocumentary, digital documentary or other names covers only some of the media or platforms that may contain an interactive documentary, but not the real definition as a whole and its complexity nowadays. Gaudenzi (2009) quotes in her research that we should take into account that the scope of the analysis is complex and quite dispersed, as many products are defined using different terminology: documentaries on new media, digital or web documentaries, interactive films, narrative databases, interactive explorations, virtual tours, digital essays, etc.

On one side, many questioned the two terms: on the one hand, why calling it “documentary” if fiction also comes into this field blurry in their borders – as the case of docu games, for instance – proposing the term “movie” or even “experience”; or, on the other, why including the interactive term, if from a closer look to the social sciences many of these projects are not interactive in any way, beyond the interface that allows communication between the system and the receiver (in terms of Human Computer Interaction).

Personally, I do not disagree to use the term “interactive documentary” to design the genre, overcoming possible earlier fears, when the genre was born as it was not considered as serious and experts were afraid to be confused with the “interactive mode” described by Nichols (1991, 1994 and 2001), which provocates or encourages the participant or interviewee during the interviews, etc. Nichols changed after this form by the name of “participatory”, but when I started my research I was afraid of this and decided to start by calling the genre as “interactive multimedia documentary“. The term multimedia is already well into disuse, so I continued my work only considering it as “interactive documentary”.

A key contribution in this field has been made by the dean of the Communication College at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, who is also the academic director of this master degree, Josep Maria Català, a recognized and renowned theoretician of the documentary genre. Català prefers to use the term “expanded documentary”, because in some ways the genre expands from the linear audiovisual genre to other formats, media and platforms, with all the consequent restructuring of the logic of production and realization that this profound change entails. Personally, I find this contribution interesting, as it is somewhat true that the genre expands and takes on new forms, like changing skins and moving to find its best channel to express. By expanding to other forms, in a sense could be considered also as a living organism which continually mutates to continue to offer added value. Here I leave this discussion for now … but obviously it will come again soon because the debate is not closed in any way (because, if in more than one hundred years the great theorists have not agreed on how to efine the documentary film, how can we pretend to define a genre as complex as his ourselves in the short term?).

If, in any case, ver time, we accept to use the expression “interactive documentary”, I propose the followingconsiderations in this regard:

Documentary: It is obvious that all interactive documentaries aim to document and represent reality in a particular way and there is therefore an apparent documentary purpose. In this respect, we are faced with the same interests as in traditional audiovisual documentaries. Taking the proposal in the first chapter of my research as a second precondition (the document must aim to represent reality in order to document a situation in a specific way), the term documentary places the genre in the category of non-fiction film.

Interactive: We call it interactive because the resulting navigation and interaction takes place using an intermediary that we call an interface, which is a crucial aspect that links navigation and content (entertainment and learning) and a key concept in understanding that the interactor plays an important role in the communication process.

Although other words might work well, such as “digital”, “hypermedia” and “web”, the fact of the matter is that all these concepts do not cover the genre; the term “digital” is too imprecise, since most audiovisual processes today involve digital parameters; meanwhile, calling it “hypermedia” suggests networks of interconnected hypertextual information, meaning that it is not very accurate; finally, the term “web” means a type of product that can only be found on the Internet, and this does not apply in this case, as this genre can also be found in other media. Interactive documentaries can be made for other media, such as offline media (as in the examples cited by Ribas in his research, 2000) or the case of Guernika, pintura de guerra (2007), which could be viewed on television, on mobile devices or on the Internet. The use
of various different media to convey information is a feature that clearly distinguishes this type of production from those related to conventional audiovisual documentaries, which only use sound and images. This is therefore a type of documentary format that simultaneously uses the various means at its disposal (multimedia).

It also uses different media for distribution and exhibition. A second possible generic approach is the nomenclature of interactive documentary applications, since we believe that the term also fully defines the properties and attributes of the genre studied.

Arnau Gifreu Castells

Researcher, Professor and Producer

Universitat Ramón Llull / Universitat de Vic



Gaudenzi, S. (2009), Digital interactive documentary: from representing reality to co-creating reality [draft PhD Thesis]. Londres: University of London. Centre for Cultural Studies (CCS) of Goldsmiths.
Nichols, B. (1991), Representing Reality: issues and concepts in
. Barcelona: Paidós.
— (1994), Blurred Boundaries. Question of meaning in contemporary culture. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
— (2001), Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Ribas, J. I. (2000), Caracterització dels interactius multimèdia de difusió cultural. Aproximació a un tractament específic, els “assaigs interactius” [research work], Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Communication Faculty.


Online Projects

Guernika, pintura de guerra (2007), Spain (Catalan). CCRTV Interactiva (Corporació Catalana de Ràdio i Televisió Interactiva); Haiku Mèdia. Barcelona.


Other interesting posts

For more information on the conceptual and methodological framework in relation to the interactive documentary, you can read my previous posts published on

–   Where we come from. Introduction and initial ingredients to build a correct taxonomic proposal

–  Research questions and compared methodology to establish a taxonomic study of the interactive documentary

–  Compared methodology to establish a taxonomic study of the interactive documentary (II)