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

Summary of the second session on interactive documentary

Session 2. October 28, 2011

1. History of the interactive documentary genre through its stages and representative examples

2. Sampling and analysis of examples (student interaction). Modalities detection.

3. Pattern of production for the interactive documentary

4. Proposed use of interactive documentaries in the field of education and teaching

5. Case studies developed in the multimedia specialty from the University of Vic (UVic, 2008-2011)


The second day’s session began with comments from many students. I could realise that these two days the students had been thinking a lot on the subject. In this second session I focused on providing an overview of the history of the genre and most representative examples to illustrate it, and explain the pattern of production for the interactive documentary that I developed for my students at the University of Vic. Finally, I link this to the expanded possibilities that offer the genre in the field of education and teaching (teaching material and transmission of knowledge).

Another issue in relation to call it in a certain way was that some students were more radical and stated that they consider that the interactive documentary was not actually a genre in itself but rather a set of “multimedia presentations” or “new media” or even as “animated or computer graphics”. In fact, I believe that both uploading a documentary in separate parts or watching it with an interface with a graphic metaphor continues to be a system based on hypertext nodes and camouflaged links, i.e. another way to arrange the elements in space. From this point of view, everything is, no doubt, multimedia presentations.

To distinguish typical examples of the genre, then, it would be required to identify the defining characteristics that describe it (another nuclear question). We reached a consensus with the students that a key feature to locate examples within the field – an idea provided by the course coordinator, Carmen Viveros – is the fact that there should be a strong sense of narrative, which should be transmitted to the viewer since the beginning, and the final result would be that they don’t miss on the intention to continue looking and choosing paths. This proposed text, speech or interactive narrative is essential to consider within the genre, and by extension, the choice of the theme and visual treatment are too. From my point of view, the choice and success of the issue is a key factor, along with a good strategy to attract and maintain users’ attention. Therefore, we began to see two nuclear points to consider interactive documentary projects such as: the chosen documentary theme (which should escape from the essay and report form) and the strategy focused on user experience (UX), which includes terms such as usability, user-centered design (UCD), optimization, etc.

Gaza Sderot (2009), France-Germany, Israel, Palestina (English)

This is the case of the interactive documentary “Gaza-Sderot” (Upian-Arte, 2009), because when I showed them and analyzed it, the students and lecturers considered it automatically as an interactive documentary: the issue related to the theme is strong and attracts documentary cases – war, conflict, ethnicity, religion, etc. -. And there are two key factors that greatly increase more from the point of view of interactive digital media: the interface immerses us in the right environment and the user experience is very elaborate. It is an interesting piece that meets the objectives imposed by the interactive medium: it must be always justified why a film is likely to be interactive, in other words, which is the added value that establishes the difference from a traditional linear form.

Becoming Human (2000), US (English)

360 Degrees (2001), US (English)

Before coming to Gaza Sderot, we analyzed some pieces that I consider interesting and always show in my courses, as Becoming Human (2000), 360 Degrees (2001), BCNova (2003), Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica (2006 ), Guernica, pintura de guerra (2007), Journey to the End of the Coal (2009), The Big Issue (2009), The Iron Curtain Diaries 1989-2009 (2009), The Jazz Loft Project (2010) and Metamental- i-Doc (2011). While some of these projects may be considered or not as i-docs, the fact is that each of them offers insights regarding their analysis which contrast with the rest. They are also online examples of the time of the consolidation of gender, which are even more valuable for that. It must be said that only Big Issue, Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica and Metamental-i-Doc attract enough students to consider them as actual i-docs. I finished the analytic part showing two projects produced by the NFB: Capturing reality (2009) and GDP (2009), and these projects were also accepted as part of the genre by the students and teachers present at this session.

Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica (2006), US (English)

Guernika, pintura de guerra (2007), Spain (Catalan)

After giving students an overview of the current state of development of the genre, we dedicated a portion of the third hour to discuss the exhibition and distribution patterns of these projects, or the fact of consuming with specific conditions. Asking what they prefer, whether watching a linear documentary on television or a interactive documentary in the computer and Internet, they assured that if they had to choose at home at night to see a program after a hard workday, they would choose not to do anything from the point of view of taking decisions and choose the easy option: watching a documentary on TV.

The Big Issue (2009), France (English)

 The Iron Curtain Diaries 1989-2009 (2009), Italy (English)

Sitting down and standing in front of a computer screen is uncomfortable and these are factors that haven’t helped the emergence and consolidation of the interactive documentary films and interactive genders in general at all. Instead, the students find themselves attracted to navigate and interact through their mobile devices (iPhone, iPad or Android) during breaks while waiting in some places. They prefer the visibility of the screen of an iPad than a third-generation mobile. And that, as explained in the conclusions of my research work, is a key factor that has prevented the emergence of this form until recent years.

The Jazz Loft Project (2010), US (English)

Metamentaldoc Multimedia (2010), Spain (Spanish)

From a sociological perspective, related to the habits of the individual or user of the application, I personally believe that the failure of the interactive documentary format to achieve good results as a genre has less to do with the technological limitations that the medium requires, but instead with a trend related to consumption and its individuals. The mental (and physical) effort that the interactor is subjected to in a documentary application is much greater than in traditional viewing. To put it in easy terms, it is much more effort to sit in front of a computer screen and make the effort to navigate, find out how the system works and have to make decisions, than to sit in front of a television screen and be able to manipulate content in a simple and linear way. The key factor is that we are culturally accustomed to the latter option, and it is very difficult to change habits of reception. These specific habits, related to leisure and entertainment, are mentally understood as times of relaxation – moments during which the individual, after a long day’s work and many hours of concentration, will be unwilling to continue thinking and making decisions, or to concentrate on a task that requires him to continue to do what he has spent the last eight hours or the last eight days doing.

Capturing Reality: The Art of the Documentary (2009), Canada (English and French)

But we should think, as I commented in one previous post on technology: “The interactive documentary during the evolution of the Internet: giving examples of the different phases. Technological Assumptions about the Future”, what will happen when the digital natives grow up and can choose to see the kind of experience on the same TV and sitting on the couch? As we know, the next generation of Indigo children will consider the logic of the hypertext as natural human association and the fact that the linear consumption and/or exhibition is a thing of the distant past. These receivers, to which the parameters proposed by Alejandro Piscitelli (2009) as regards his concept of digital natives can be applied, make up a new audience with two attributes that characterize and define it: it is educated in interaction and educated in front of computer screens rather than the television. According to Berenguer (1998), interactive narratives can excite a new audience, in the same way as a traditional narrative does. This happens because of a “digitally native” generational change, a development of technologies and an interactive culture, i.e. a culture of works of communication with the computer as a medium. Another important question to debate, isn’t it?

GDP: Measuring the Human Side of the Canadian
Economic Crisis
(2009),  Canada (English and French)

Summing up the lecture, I must say that they were skeptical, confused and quite involved in the dynamics of the session, as I wanted. We had challenged their vision about the documentary genre, and that’s great! Don’t forget that non-linear narrative (comparable for an author to the loss of control over the discourse) is seen as a problem in the world of traditional documentaries. Whitelaw (2002:1) explains it as follows: ‘New media forms pose a fundamental challenge to the principle of narrative coherence, which is at the core of traditional documentary. If we explode and open the structure, how can we be sure that the story is being conveyed?’

Let’s think about it!  And since we started this debate in Spain, I encourage you to continue with it across borders!


Arnau Gifreu Castells

Researcher, Professor and Producer

Universitat Ramón Llull / Universitat de Vic



Piscitelli, A. (2009), Nativos Digitales. Dieta cognitiva, inteligencia colectiva y arquitecturas de la participación. Buenos Aires: Santillana Ediciones.

Whitelaw, M. (2002), “Playing Games with Reality: Only Fish Shall Visit and interactive documentary”. Catalog essay for Halfeti: Only Fish Shall Visit, by Brogan Bunt. Exhibited at Artspace, Sydney, 19 September – 12 October 2002.


Online References (Projects)

BCNova (2003), Spain (Spanish). Cordula Daus and Anita Serrano. Universitat Pompeu Fabra; Barcelona.

Becoming Human (2000), United States (English). Institute of Human Origins (Arizona State University): Tempe (AZ).

Capturing Reality: The Art of the Documentary (2009), Canada (English and French). NFB (National Film Board of Canada); Montréal.

Gaza Sderot (2009), France-Germany, Israel, Palestina (English). (France); Alma Films/Trabelsi Productions (Israel). Cooperation with The Sapir College, Ramattan Studios, Bo Travail and Upian. París.

GDP: Measuring the Human Side of the Canadian Economic Crisis (2009,  Canada (English and French).. NFB (National Film Board of Canada); Spacing Montreal; Turbulent. Montréal.

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

Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica (2006), United States (English). Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; Bluecadet Interactive. Washington.

Journey to the End of the Coal (2009), France (English). Honkytonk Films. París.

Metamentaldoc Multimedia (2010), Spain (Spanish). [Final Degree Project] Facultat d’Empresa i Comunicació. Comunicació Audiovisual. Universitat de Vic.

The Big Issue (2009), France (English) Honkytonk Films. AWith the support of the CNC New Media and Canon France. Coproduction with France 5 and Paris.

The Iron Curtain Diaries 1989-2009 (2009), Italy (English). PeaceReporter; On/Off; BeccoGiallo; Prospekt Photography. Milano.

The Jazz Loft Project (2010), United States (English). Center for Documentary Studies (Duke University); Center for Creative Photography (University of Arizona);The Splinter Group. Duke, Arizona.

360 Degrees (2001), United States (English). Picture Projects; NewYork.


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)

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