On the loss of control over the narrative. New roles on the interactive documentary (I)

January 8, 2012

Research, Taxonomies


The intrinsic nature of the conventional documentary has experienced major changes since the advent of this new type of documentary, as a result of today’s new technological landscape. Based on Nichols’ argument (1991) regarding a possible definition, we specifically analyses three trends in depth:

-       The author can no longer set out to create a unique, closed and subjective narrative program, and must assume to some extent that he will lose control of his work, and as such the new situation often works against his interests. In short, he no longer depends on himself to convey a particular narrative program.

-       The construction of the discursive narrative and order involve a linear and sequential pattern in a new scenario characterized by the multi-deployment of approaches, nodes and outcomes. The text of the work shifts from a closed to an open structure. The end result of the documentary (what it says) and the discursive order (how it says it) can end up taking a very different form to the contents of the script of the work in its early stages.

-       The interactor becomes a broadcaster and contributor of content created by the author: the new genre and resulting new modes of navigation and interaction include generative features for the user. These new parameters allow the interactor to become part of the system, and even change it, as if it were a living and changing system (the interactor becomes a co-creator of the work). In the new format, the classic viewer (now an interactor, participant and contributor), assumes connotations associated with an author and to a certain extent becomes the creator of their own personal documentary, as they take control of the navigation (of the order of the discourse) and use the great power that interaction grants (the defining feature that distinguishes digital media, thanks to its interface and the ability to relate to others).

The biggest difference (and conflict) between the objectives and goals of traditional documentary film and the interactive one lies on ​​responsibility and control over the narrative discourse. Inssok Choi (2009:44) points out in his article Interactive documentary: A production model for multimedia narrative nonfiction, the fact that the film exists to make the documentary film director tell a story. That is, the director is the author, which means he is responsible for context and foundation prospects through the narrative. In essence, the role of the filmmaker is to create meaning from reality. The interactive documentary, however, as it allows users to take control of the narrative of history, threatens the role of documentary as an author and, therefore, its ability to create meaning (Galloway, 2007:335).

For example, instead of editing a linear movie, a director may decide to create a database of video clips and interviews, through which an interactor can navigate using a graphical user interface (GUI) and allows the user to go deeper into issues of interest to create a very personal documentary experience. This example, one possibility among a wide range, is disturbing to some producers, because the dynamics of loss of control is diametrically opposed on their goals as filmmakers, that is a story based on their experience of life as subjective.

The film is used to indicate a traditional perspective (director), but the interactive documentary has the potential to give them a plenty. In summary, adding interactivity, in some cases but not always, could represent losing control over the meaning of the film, and, for many filmmakers, it is simply not their goal. For some traditional filmmakers, the authorship is an inherent goal of the traditional documentary and, therefore, presents resistance to the consolidation of media and interactive way to build the speech. But that does not mean at all that the filmmakers do not use the network as a platform. Instead, the documentaries are finding this platform for distribution at a time when the industry is oversaturated because of strong competition between companies and between documentary producers.

However, there are several technical and bureaucratic problems relating to the integration of Internet and the documentary. As part of the bureaucracy, the filmmakers often sacrifice the ability to project films in the festivals, if they have any online, and are forced to decide between going to the festival circuit or allow the lucrative film display online. But this condition on the rights of exhibition ever occurs to a lesser degree. Sometimes the two situations occur simultaneously and gender coexist online and offline.

The Internet, in the case of traditional documentary, is usually a last resort for the distribution of films, and this ends up happening when the films are not selected for the festival circuit. Moreover, in the technical aspect, the main problem is that this limited use of the Internet is a means to stand in an interactive platform, ie, a project is placed online, but the chances of interaction remain low. Moreover, the computer screen does not have the characteristics of receiving and displaying their own film and television in high definition (Britain, 2009:6).


 Schematic graph showing change variables in the three roles described



It should be noted that this proposal is being reviewed in order to be presented as part of the theoretical framework on interactive documentary study, which may be subject to changes in the future (PhD defense:“The interactive documentary as a new audiovisual genre. Approach to proposed definition and taxonomy and analysis model for the evaluation, design and production”, UPF 2007-2012).


Recommended citation:

Gifreu, Arnau (2010), El documental multimèdia interactiu. Per un proposta de model d’anàlisi. [Treball de recerca]. Departament de Comunicació. Universitat Pompeu Fabra, pp 143-146.

Gifreu, Arnau (2010). The interactive multimedia documentary. A proposed model of analysis. [Research Pre PhD]. Department of Communication. Universitat Pompeu Fabra, pp 142-145.


Arnau Gifreu Castells

Researcher, Professor and Producer

Universitat Ramón Llull / Universitat de Vic



Britain, C. (2009), Raising Reality to the Mythic on the Web: The Future of Interactive Documentary Film. North Carolina: Elon University.
Choi, I. (2009), “Interactive documentary: A production model for nonfiction multimedia narratives”. Intelligent Technologies for Interactive Entertainment. Berlin: Springer, pàgs 44‐55.

Galloway, D.; M calpine, K. B.; Harris, P. (2007), “From Michael Moore to JFK Reloaded: Towards a working model of interactive documentary”. Journal of Media Practice, 8(3), 325‐339.

Nichols, B. (1991), La representación de la realidad: Cuestiones y Conceptos sobre el Documental. 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.


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 I-Docs.org:


-   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)

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

-  Differences between linear and interactive documentaries. Featuring the interactive documentary (I)

-  Basic characteristics of the interactive documentary. Featuring the interactive documentary (II)


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14 Responses to “On the loss of control over the narrative. New roles on the interactive documentary (I)”

  1. Florent Maurin Says:

    Thanks for this very interesting article.
    My opinion on the subject is that there isn’t a real “loss” of control over the narrative, but rather that authors/idoc designers have to adapt and find new ways to tell stories and engage users.
    They once relied almost entirely on video/sound editing to build their story and be understood, they now have to master new skills such as non-linear writing, “game design” (or “experience design”) and interactive rhetoric to be understood by the audience.
    I made a prezi on this topic :
    Those are exciting times for documentary authors !
    Florent Maurin.

    • Arnau Gifreu Says:

      Hi Florent,

      thanks for your response and participation in the debate. I found very interesting the presentation that you teach in your course (Prezi): I think is a great work that could help to establish a coherent taxonomic proposal. As you know, define and characterize a gender is not an easy task, so I appreciate very much the discussion.

      It is clear that the authors of i-docs have to adapt to a non-linear storytelling and engage the interactor, and that leads them to increased capacities and communication skills -factor that I will address in the second part of this series – , and I also agree that the non-linear text, the strategy of playing – games – and interactive rhetoric play a major role as key success factors in the implementation of that kind of narrative (these aspects are fundamental parts of my model of analysis that I will defend in my doctoral thesis).

      But, with respect to the loss of control: it is evident that the author proposes a topic and follow a storyline as in the traditional way, but imagine in the interactive case: if instead of a linear story the author decides to create a main story and between 5/10 sub-stories, no longer controls the order of user navigation given freedom and control to the users. It is not the same to see a story with an order of specific sequences and replay the same story with the order of sequences changed. If the author wanted to control the whole course from the beginning to the end of the story, the author would have to calculate the meaning of the text and the message in all possible combinations of viewing and/or navigation, and the perception of each system users should also be taken into account. In the final analysis, we would have an equation with too many variables involved and plenty of possible histories and meanings.

      If we add the generation capacity by the user (generative interaction and physical experienced modes) – such as in the example “18 days in Egypt”, where the authors propose the subject and the interface, but the message and narrative discourse is built by the interactor with their contributions through social networks, it would not be difficult in this case – also if there is a severe filter by the author -, to monitor and control the flow of the narrative? Although there is a topic that limits the scope, everyone is able to express what they think and the order of the contents received is imposed by the system (date of publication).

      In short, this is one of the key issues in this genre and interactive media in general, so we should keep on thinking and reflecting on it.

      Arnau Gifreu

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