Idea or technique? Interesting topics and technological simplicity: Honkytonk projects as case studies (II)

Case studies: “Journey to the End of the Coal”, “The Big Issue” and “The Challenge”


Honkytonk Films is a new media production company based in Paris, France. Founded in 2007 by Arnaud Dressen and Benoit de Vilmorin, the company develops, produces and distributes multimedia documentaries on all platforms (TV, Internet and mobile) worldwide. Since 2008, the webdocumentaries  made by the company are: Journey to the End of Coal (Samuel Bollendorff and Abel Ségrétin, 2008), The Big Issue (Samuel Bollendorff and Olivia Colo, 2009), The Challenge  (Laetitia Moreau, 2009), iROCK (Lionel Brouet, 2010) and Rapporteur de crise (Samuel Bollendorff and Olivia Colo, 2011) by  with & The company is also dedicated to developing Klynt, a software for interactive editing. Klynt is an application dedicated to new media content producers. It was developed to create interactive rich media stories on Internet. It includes an interactive media editor (text, photo, vidéos, audio and flash), a flash video player (ready to be embedded on any web page) and a web hosting solution.

We find quite interesting remarks about some of the projects that Honkytonk produce precisely because their products are not technically marvelous, but the ideas (including exploitation of the miners in the average communist-capitalist country as China, the explosion of the phenomenon of obesity in the world and in France or the problems of deforestation in the Amazon) are simple, effective and successful. Let’s make a general overview and take a short look into these three specific proposals.


Rapporteur de crise

Since the global financial breakdown, the EU has to tackle the consequences of a crisis that is far from over and that puts the political and social cohesion of Member States and the currency union at risk. Faced with this emergency, what can MEPs do to reverse the trend? This web documentary is an insight into the European parliament, behind closed doors. From Brussels to Strasbourg, from informal meetings to plenary sessions, we follow MEP Pervenche Berès, rapporteur of the 
special committee on the financial, economic and social crisis. Her goal: to reach a compromise between the different political groups all the while finding a sustainable recovery plan. During these days, we accompany her and try to understand the work of European deputies. We share their reactions as well as the negotiations in “off camera” moments right up to the plenary vote of the final report. This interactive documentary invites the audience to think about the existing political power of the European parliament and its role in the construction of a social and stable European democracy. (Honkytonk online, 2012)



iRock is an interactive journey around the backstage of one of the biggest rock festivals in Europe.  A webdocumentary shot on location at Eurockéennes in Belfort, France. In all there are 18 journeys, one for each of the artists, ranging from the talented French rapper Oxmo Puccino to the masked metalheads Slipknot, and from the godfather of trip hop Tricky to the pop phenomenon Kanye West. You can watch all these and more in behind-the-scenes clips: a radio or TV interview, a chance encounter in the artists’ tent, and the final pre-show preparations. After each short segment, you have the choice of staying with the current artist or jumping to the next one. Although the storylines all end the moment the artists take the stage, there is no lack of music along the way, as many of the musicians indulge in impromptu jam sessions. Each journey ends at an information page on the artist, where you can watch clips of the performance. (Honkytonk online, 2012)


The Big Issue

The Big Issue is an interactive online documentary focusing on research by the World Health Organisation into the causes of the sharp increase in obesity worldwide. The organisation’s estimates suggest that 2.3 million people will be obese in 2015. In 2015, 2.3 billion human beings will be overweight and 937 million will be obese if nothing is done. The figures are shocking and the increase appears to be unstoppable. The project looks at the simple and powerful question of why human beings are getting so fat from various perspectives of documentary representation and browsing.

During an investigation that takes place on both sides of the Atlantic, The Big Issue invites users to consider the many factors in the obesity epidemic while questioning our modern lifestyle, and trying to ascertain the responsibility of the food and agriculture industry and the public authorities. In short, this unique journey will make the interactors acquire special skills while inviting them to play the role of a journalist, while at the same time making them responsible for the measures that need to be taken for this international epidemic to be halted as soon as possible. The user begins browsing on a personal journey on the causes of the explosive increase in obesity in modern society. The project uses the same approach as its predecessor, Journey to the End of the Coal: just as in a classic interactive game, the user chooses their own route using the film clips available and numerous interviews. Those wishing to complete the story at the end of their journey can also choose from any of the 10 interviews individually. Directed by the award-winning photographer and cameraman Samuel Bollendorff and Olivia Colo, The Big Issue is a documentary project for an online audience.

Figure 1. Introduction to the project

 Figure 2. The initial scene is like a traditional and linear reading of a book

We started the research in Seine-Saint Denis, a place with a high rate of obese population. Once again, we will move linearly from this still image to a video of the operation of an obese patient and from there, the structure becomes no longer linear and gives mostly two options for the interactor to choose.

Figure 3. Doctor interviewed discussing the results of the operation to an obese patient


Figure 4. Hypertextual Menu with the different sequences that compose the i-doc (hypertext navigation mode)


Journey to the End of Coal

Meanwhile, in what is virtually a copy of the The Big Issue project in terms of structure and organisation, integration of browsing and content, and types of representation, browsing and interaction, Journey to the End of Coal tells the story of a sacrifice – the daily sacrifice by millions of coal miners in China who risk their lives and destroy their lands to satisfy the interests of their own country for economic growth. Based on the choose your own adventure principle, the interactive documentary tells the story of millions of Chinese coal miners who are risking their lives to satisfy their country’s appetite for economic growth. This interactive documentary takes us on a journey of discovery to the mines of China’s Shanxi Valley. Directed by the journalists Samuel Bollendorff and Abel Segretin, and developed by 31 Septembre and Honkytonk Films, this web documentary accomplishes true harmony by mixing ambient photos, video interviews, and an enticing soundtrack.

The omnipresence of the images and sounds comes from the fact that Samuel Bollendorff travelled as a reporter to these coal mines, bringing along his traditional Leica camera, as well as a digital camera as backup, and which eventually served to shoot the videos. Abel Segretin, Radio France International’s correspondent in Beijing, accompanied Bollendorff and brought along his own radio reporter equipment. The confluence of these different media produced a particular sensation, that of a miner’s life in another century -frozen in time. The lightweight nature of their equipment was well suited to the difficult, even clandestine, working conditions. Having completed the reporting, converting the different images into Flash media requires a long post-production period spanning several months, possible in large part to a 20,000-euro CNC grant. “Our guiding principle was to put ourselves in the shoes of someone in their twenties who is tired of traditional television,” explains Bollendorff Samuel, “someone who does little to no reading, and gets most of their information online.” The interactor, at the beginning of the story, cannot choose between different possible modes of navigation and interaction: must start at the beginning forced (as in the development of any narrative genre, which tells a story in parts). As in the first study case, we can see how the initial narrative principle is inflexible, but the knot and development are chosen by the interactor. (Sunnysideofthedoc online, 2012)

The journey begins in Datong, which is located just a couple hours away West from Beijing. The audience travels from there all around the region and visit its major coal mines, from the “best” state-owned complex to the worst private coal plants. In and around the coal mines, the interactor get the story first hand from the mingong, the rural migrants traveling their country looking for work. At their own pace and will, the public meet them and learn more about how they live in this valley of death and pollution, sometimes even literally bumping into them as they leave their home for their night shift, in the frozen winter of Northern China. Ultimately, they might discover China forbidden mines in which happen most of the accidents. (Honkytonk online, 2012)


Figure 5. Introduction to the project


Figure 6. Visual example of the space that we will visit. As shown, the narrative process continues, to this point, unchanged, as in reading or linear viewing, and invites the viewer to move forward to discover more.


Starting with the “real trip” with an “official tour” where the knot of the story starts, and questioned, which “may mean a prepared trip in China” and what they are going to show us.

Figure 7. We met, at the end of the story, with the person responsible for receiving the press and institutional visits.


Figure 8. Interviewing a coal miner


Figure 9. Map of the región (spatial navigation mode)

The Challenge

 The Challenge  is an environmental global media adventure. It is combination of two films made for two mediums which complement one another showing different aspects of the same story, while describing the same initiative: a television documentary (HD, 52’) that follows the struggle of an Ecuadorian manufacturer and a diplomat who are ready to give up the petrol found on their lands, in order to protect biodiversity; and a web documentary project produced in the style of «choose your own adventure books», inviting users to take on the role of an independent journalist who sets off for the Amazon in search of information and witnesses on the ecological disaster provoked by the American oil company Texaco. (Honkytonk online, 2012)

At first, the webdocumentary was not part of the channel’s mandate. The producers’ motivation was to attract an audience for the television documentary, an objective which they achieved. In the end, The Challenge is a work that stands on its own, but is complementary in substance and form to the television documentary. While remaining as accurate as possible and respecting the role-playing structure imposed by the producers, the webdocumentary allows the internaut real involvement by placing him at the heart of the story.  For Laetitia Moreau (2011), the interactive documentary is an exciting new experience where both the technical and the journalist and audiovisual profiles are equally necessary, confirming her words our theory of equivalence between “thematic” and “technique”:

“When the word “web-doc” is pronounced, we sometimes have the impression that we’re entering a fourth dimension. It’s not true. It’s a different approach. Just as exhilarating, because it allows us to try new types of writing, which revolutionize the form. For example, the usual hierarchy of a linear production no longer makes sense, it’s necessary to invent a new one. It’s an incentive to reconsider everything, a tremendous subject for reflection and creation. So it’s vital not to leave this domain to the programmers or webmasters, no matter how smart they are. The journalists and documentary filmmakers must invest in it so that their knowledge, their power of observation becomes part of it.” (Documentary Network, 2011:21)


Figure 10. Introduction


Figure 11. The same initial linear structure of The Big Issue and Journey to the end of coal

Figure 12. The map is our guide and gives us information through our journey

Figure 13,  Inside a taxi in Quito, Ecuador


We agree with Galloway (2007:336) when he attributes much of the failure of the interactive film to the high expectations of the audience which are unfulfilled due to technical limitations and incomplete aspirations. He adds that for the interactive documentary to be successful, the audience needs to achieve a better convergence between the concepts of “interactive” and “film” (concepts related to digital literacy and the digital native – entailing a new batch of young experts on new technologies – as suggested by Piscitelli – 2009 – and Berenguer – 2004 – in their respective studies).

Non-linear narrative (comparable for an author to the loss of discursive control) could be considered as a problem in the world of the traditional documentary, but in this new genre it is considered a great opportunity. This type of narrative means that audiovisual projects can be given elements that complement and enrich them, providing numerous added values for the viewer’s overall experience, so that it is more varied, complete and immersive. It is the documentary film director’s job to find the midpoint at which the meaning can be maximized and the audience becomes more committed, and it is at this midpoint that the documentary film and interactive media can coexist.

Athough the topics and issues of Honkytonk’s interactive documentaries are quite interesting, the internauts who really participate are few in number compared to the mass of people attracted to a given project. The passive observers who only watch what is offered remain the majority, while the active participants can be counted in the tens. Is it possible to develop in spectators a real willingness to participate, a spontaneous desire to interact? That is the challenge in creating successful cross media projects which require the public’s involvement to access the work’s content. There are so many questions to be solved, which can only be answered through needed experimentation with these new creative models. At base, “this is a technological evolution of the cinema machine which has the mission to tell stories”. (Documentary Network, 2011:21)


Arnau Gifreu Castells

FCB – Universitat Ramón Llull

FEC – Universitat de Vic



Berenguer, X. (2004), “Una dècada d’interactius”. Temes de Disseny, 21, pàg 30-35.

iRock (2011), France (english). Lionel Brouet .Honkytonk Films with with

Journey to the End of the Coal (2008), France (english). Samuel Bollendorff and Abel Ségrétin. Honkytonk Films.

Observatoire Du Documental, Documentary Network (2011), Documentary and New Digital Platforms: An Ecosystem in Transition.

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

Rapporteur de crise (2011), France (english). Samuel Bollendorff and Olivia Colo. Honkytonk Films with &

The Big Issue (2009), France (english). Samuel Bollendorff and Olivia Colo. Honkytonk Films. CNC New Media. Canon France. France 5.

The challenge (2009), France (english).  Laëtitia Moreau, Matthieu Belghiti and Arnaud Dressen. Honkytonk Films.

“The Web Documentary: A format that has come into its own, an economic model to develop”. SunnySideoftheDoc. Newsletter 1. Accessed Jan 6th 2012.


Other posts related:

1. Interesting ideas on i-docs

2. The docu-game. Towards the immersive mode

3. Interactivity technologies, key factor for the interactive documentary

4. The evolution of the Internet, key factor for the interactive documentary

5. The evolution of the Internet, key factor for the interactive documentary (II)

6. The interactive documentary during the evolution of the Internet: giving examples of the different phases. Assumptions about the technological future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. “Flows of the visible: the expansion of the documentary”, interesting masterclass by Professor Dr. Josep Maria Català (UAB)

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

16. Significant differences between the two models. New roles on the interactive documentary (II)

17. Why Canada? Story of an amazing experience (I)

18. The i-docs’ “evolution”, in just 10 points ( + Sandra Gaudenzi)

19. Non-fiction games structure: a successful formula for the interactive documentary

20. Idea or technique? Interesting topics and technological simplicity: Honkytonk projects as case studies (I)

21. Basic distinction between representation, navigation and interaction modes. Interactive documentary modalities (I)