The talented user (users as documentary agents)

The purpose of this post is to nudge discussion on the role of the user in interactive documentaries (i-docs), and specifically to consider what capabilities we might want those users to have. I shall refer to those capabilities as their ‘talents’.

And I’ll begin with a suggestion that the key distinction to be made between interactive and non-interactive documentary is the extent to which meaning is reactivated (and perhaps renegotiated) at the point of use.

Of course, in an i-doc users are offered some capacity to select and explore, or participate in the documentary, so experiencing the work in a less pre-determined manner than might be true of non-interactive documentary. Users then have the potential to feel as though the meaning gained from the work is a result of their effort in experiencing it. In some circumstances our users may feel that they have the ability to change the work. (By the way, I wonder if we – ie makers and appreciators of i-docs – want this because we think it might be analogous to enacting change in the ‘real events’ represented in the documentary? This might be something for another post…)

So far so conventional – these are essentially ideas related to long-established thinking about interactivity (for example, Aarseth’s idea of the ergodic, or work path in interactive media).

But I also arrive at this distinction after considering definitions of documentary and interactivity from Stella Bruzzi and Chris Crawford.

Bruzzi writes of documentary as ‘… a perpetual negotiation between the real event and its representation.’ (2006, p13)

For interactivity, I like the definition proposed by Chris Crawford: ‘A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks, and speaks.’ (2005, p29).

These two definitions are not so very different, I think. But Bruzzi’s notion of documentary as representation that is open to negotiation suggests there should be some mechanism for the users (or subjects) to cause changes through their negotiation. This is where interactive documentary in its varied forms comes good, providing that potential – probably more so than with non-interactive forms.

And linked to these, Sandra Gaudenzi writes in her draft PhD thesis of ‘levels of openness’ as providing a means of identifying more or less interactive documentaries.

The key question here is, therefore, if meaning is to be reactivated at the point of use, what capacity is it that the user needs to make the best of this enhanced openness? And what should the maker of an i-doc do to best support the user?

I will propose a few suggestions here, but you may have better ideas.

First, my key thought is that the user of interactive documentary needs certain ‘talents’. I derive this idea from Ken Jacobs, artist filmmaker, who commented in relation to the use of found footage in his Perfect Film (1986): ‘Is all garbage like this, only waiting for the talented viewer?’ (Jacobs et al, 1989, p44). Jacobs elaborates on this as follows (with the quote taken from

‘I wish more stuff was available in its raw state, as primary source material for anyone to consider, and to leave for others in just that way, the evidence uncontaminated by compulsive proprietary misapplied artistry, “editing”, the purposeful “pointing things out” that cuts a road straight and narrow through the cine-jungle; we barrel through thinking we’re going somewhere and miss it all. Better to just be pointed to the territory, to put in time exploring, roughing it, on our own. For the straight scoop we need the whole scoop, or no less than the clues entire and without rearrangement. O, for a Museum of Found Footage, or cable channel, library, a shit-museum of telling discards accessible to all talented viewers/auditors. A wilderness haven salvaged from Entertainment.’

Richly put. And elaborating on this, I suggest that in found footage films the talented viewer (by which Jacobs really means the filmmaker):

  • delimits source material
  • is an editor (not a director)
  • fosters polysemy (multiple meanings)

Jacobs’ notion of the filmmaker here is really a problematised author (in a Barthesian sense), not the originator of all footage used in the work, but the compiler or curator of pre-existing materials.

By the way, the above functions can very well be true also of the maker of an i-doc, especially in the sense of giving users the chance to ‘rough it’ on their own.

And so, perhaps in interactive documentary the talented user:

  • comprehends extent of the work
  • is a reactivator / negotiator
  • is able to engage in dynamic semiosis

To clarify that term ‘dynamic semiosis’: I’m thinking of meaning making as a process, through dialogue, negotiation, testing, exploration, openness to change. Meaning here derives from a heuristic process.

Similarly, James Peterson (1992) develops a guide for viewers of found footage films. These talented viewers:

  • reconcile unity & disunity in source materials
  • seek organising structures
  • recognise polysemy

Whereas in an i-doc the talented user:

  • reconciles fragments into which such work may be divided
  • is a detective, decrypter, pattern maker…
  • is able to engage in provisional semiosis

Provisional semiosis? Each navigation of the work traces one / some of the possible meanings as a result of choices and juxtapositions. There is a suggestion in this of Bakhtinian double-voiced discourse.

The act of making meaning from an i-doc is therefore informed by the ability to uncover a complex network of references, by being able to recognise competing interpretations and inflections, echoes of other forms and practices. Of course this is true of much contemporary cultural production, but I think in an i-doc this is especially to the fore. Take, for example, the very overt use of game-like structure in many i-docs (eg Journey to the End of Coal, or a number of Blast Theory projects). Or the pervasive metaphor of the archive in so many other works. Or the user being offered the mythical role of investigative journalist that is also commonplace.

So I am proposing that Jacobs’ and Peterson’s ideas offer suggestions on found footage films that can be applied well to i-docs (but perhaps most specifically to those of the database variety).

There is – of course – also the other potential for the user’s talents: to add material to the i-doc, to contribute. If the user can contribute, then essentially the added capacity is to supplement the (actual or implied) database, but probably not to reduce it. Their talents are therefore an extension of the above. The question here is: do they need those talents to comprehend the work before they can add to it? Or can the act of contributing – knowingly or not – be the means by which they gain that understanding (and so acquire their talented status)?

But to conclude:

I’ve taken ideas about the experiences of makers and viewers of found footage films to provide a potentially useful framework for thinking about the possibilities and risks for the user in interactive documentary.

These supposed talents of the users need some thought: what precisely are they?

And do these talents precede the works we make, or must we hope that users will trouble themselves with the dedicated practice necessary to become able – talented – users of i-docs?

Connected with that is what might be a more pressing question: if we offer documentary that is open for change, how can we encourage our users to bother to get involved? Surely we do want their active engagement to arouse an interest in change in the ‘real event’?

Do we, in fact, need a guide for users of i-docs, just as James Peterson aimed to provide a guide for viewers of found footage films? A guide that will give them the chance to develop their talents?



Aarseth, E. (1997), Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, John Hopkins University Press

Bruzzi, S. (2006), New Documentary (2nd Ed.), London & New York: Routledge (e-book edition)

Crawford, C. (2005), On Interactive Storytelling, New Riders

Gaudenzi, S. – draft PhD thesis available at:

Jacobs, K. et al (1989), Films That Tell Time: A Ken Jacobs Retrospective, Astoria NY: American Museum of the Moving Image

Peterson, J., Making Sense of Found Footage, in Hausheer, C. & Settele, C. (1992) Found Footage Film, Luzern: Viper (pp.55-75)


This is a contribution by Peter Dukes, University of Westminster