Reflections on Firestorm: Guest post from Mary Mitchell

The following is a guest post from Mary Mitchell with her thoughts on the Guardian’s interactive documentary, Firestorm.

The Guardian’s second foray into interactive documentary, ‘Firestorm’, is a beautifully crafted piece of immersive storytelling.

Centered on photographs taken by The Holmes Family family fleeing a Tasmanian bushfire, the project crafts interviews, photographs, text and a breathtaking soundtrack into a linear structure. The narrative is structured into chapters, leading to the crescendo of the fire then falling back upon reflection using poignant pauses. And of course, the beauty of this new form that journalists are now engaging with is that the viewer dictates the pace.

Those that want to read about the history of Australia’s bush fires and how indigenous communities co-existed with their flammable landscape can do so, while those who want to reflect upon the moment a family found themselves clinging breathlessly onto a jetty can choose to stay a while, accompanied by a beautiful nature-inspired soundtrack.

It’s impressive. Which is exactly the impact the Guardian editorial team wanted after a long hunt for a story to rival the success of the NYT’s Snow Fall. As an added bonus dwell time on Firestorm has averaged 17 minutes – over three times longer than that spent on an average video on the Guardian site.

At Hacks/Hackers London, Jon Henley, the writer behind the project, which also features a 15,000 word E-Book, was asked “You were there, and you looked the family in the eyes. Which of the three formats best-served the Holmes family in telling their story?”

According to Martin Belam, Jon’s answer was noncommittal, telling an anecdote about booking a ramshackle holiday villa with the caveat “its not better, its not worse, its just different”.

With all the buzz about new mediums, technologies, and the evolving landscape for digital storytelling, it is all too easy to design interactive experiences thinking only of the end user. Growing UI and UX expertise and fast-changing technology can easily eclipse the issue raised in the question to the Firestorm writer;

How do these storytelling technologies best serve those whose stories we are telling?

I can’t comment on the specifics of the Holmes Family, but the implications of this question in other contexts such as the developing world require further thought by those commissioning new projects.

In the hunt for the best story and the latest way to tell it, it’s important that the best interests of those whose very lives are the story being told are also considered.

‘Firestorm’ can be watched here.

 The Guardian’s multimedia special projects editor  Francesca Panetta will be discussing Firestorm at i-Docs 2014, check out our full programme here.

Mary Mitchell has worked at the intersection of digital media and the nonprofit sector for the past six years. Her PhD research and practice at Royal Holloway University focuses on film and web projects that use participatory methodology to create interactive narratives for social transformation. She is co-supervised by Mandy Rose, of the DCRC and Contributing Editor of i-Docs.

Find out more at or follow her on Twitter @mary_mitch