A Future for Documentary?

As we move closer to REACT’s Future Documentary theme, REACT Producer Matt explores some of the emerging spaces for the documentary form.

There’s no doubt that how we connect with stories is changing. Within the context of a networked culture, regular programmed services are being disrupted and new approaches are opening up. Audiences are playing a more participatory role in shaping their own viewing experience, with collaborative authorship, interactive tools and multiple platforms all blurring the boundaries between producer and audience: right now there are more people logged on to Facebook than even existed in the world 200 years ago, which I find a really startling statistic. TV is the number #1 talked about subject on Twitter, and TV programmes are recording higher hit rates on their websites than the main presentations themselves.

So given that eye and ears are shifting away from the television and familiar top-down broadcast models, how can we engage audiences with these new behaviours and expectations? In what form could a future documentary take shape? Where are the synergies between the old broadcast models and the new possibilities and audience expectations?

Filmmakers and producers have always dared to invent new ways to share compelling stories and engage new audiences, so it seems only fitting that in the field of documentary filmmaking we’re seeing these excursions and experiments take place. Documentary films can now move across the surface of the screen and creep into our viewing spaces via our second and third screen devices like tablet computers or mobile phones. Within these new spaces we’re seeing factual experiences that move away from a single screen and instead enable multiple viewpoints and narratives.

So what are these new explorations? What are people doing at the intersections of documentary and digital?

To explore these questions, I thought it might be useful to outline some of the commonalities between the new and unexpected forms of digital documentary storytelling.

Interactive content

We can start with Interactive Documentary. iDocs present stories in non-linear forms that combine photos, film, animation and data. One of our Future Documentary advisors, Sandra Gaudenzi, has written extensively on interactivedocumentary.net about these new ways of documenting reality. What I find most compelling about this work is how, as a viewer, you are presented with stories spatialised in a way in which you can create a personalised experience. The Highrise project by Kat Cizek, for example, explores lives in high-rise tower blocks around the world. Using 360 degree photography, the project allows you explore the space of the high-rise by choosing where and when you want the 49 different stories to begin and end. By sharing the stories of their inhabitants and communities in a novel way, the piece makes spaces that often appear austere or unwelcoming, human.

Screenshot from Highrise

Screenshot from Highrise

The National Film Board of Canada has also pioneered work in web-based documentary. Bear 71 places you in an isometric contoured world of symbols and map icons. The participant experiences a sense of the hostile and dangerous world of the wild bear, as the user is tracked and tagged across a virtual environment.

Other projects use Internet browsers and single screen devices as a window into a new space. Alexandre Brachet’s iPad app Alma, is an incredibly poignant confession from a former Guatemalan female gang member who describes various brutal scenarios while looking you directly in the eye. You are able to reposition your perspective on the recounting of these stories by sliding through reconstructions above, below, left and right whilst the main character stays in the centre of the frame.

Citizen journalism?

Participatory and activist filmmakers show how social networks can be a cheap and ubiquitous form of journalism that can empower communities. Projects like 18 Days in Egypt, for example, use mobile phone footage taken from the Egyptian Revolution to develop a broadcast channel, where affected communities tell their story of the Arab Spring in their own way. Not only was the content crowd-sourced, but the production was also funded using Kickstarter.

Screenshot from 18DaysinEgypt

Screenshot from #18DaysinEgypt

These new forms of participation enable a greater investment in the story. Public service broadcasters like Channel 4 are investing in what they see as an evolution, not revolution, in their TV programming. We’re seeing the rise of the ‘logged in’ documentary where viewers can participate by uploading content to interactive websites. Foxes Live, for instance, was the biggest UK census of urban foxes in 2012 and saw more hits to the Channel 4 website than the Big Brother eviction aired on Channel 5 that same evening.

Make your own stories

Journalism in the age of data has seen a move towards data visualisation as a method of storytelling. Both ‘Big Data’ sets and social media traces of individuals are becoming a rich vein of information and stories as a new generation of web browsers and tools is changing the game for online visualization and interactive graphics.

As more stories are told through the browser, simple authoring tools like Mozilla’s Popcorn maker and Zeega, allow users to ‘remake the internet’ by remixing and sharing web video. By using the web browser to combine video and audio content and pull in data from other online sources, these new tools allow viewers to interact and remain captivated allowing anyone to make full screen ‘app-like’ experiences without any additional programming.

What next?

These are just a few of the areas into which documentary is tipping. There are still many questions that remain unanswered: How can we create a common language among people with different expertise - the storytellers and technologists, community activists and content experts…? As documentaries move across screens and slip off them, from single author to many, and from one-hour duration to minutes, days and years, how can we find suitable business models, distribution channels and presentation formats? How can makers, academics, critics and funders develop this enquiry together?

At REACT we’re not pretending that we know the answers to these questions. Instead, we’re asking you to come along with us on a journey to explore what the future of the documentary could, might or should be. We’re looking for curious minds, compelling stories and brilliant ideas that we can help you to develop in new and unexpected ways.

Find out more about the REACT Future Documentary theme, funding and forthcoming call for ideas here.

Screenshots of various documentary works

Front page image from Highrise, an Emmy-winning, multi-year, many-media, collaborative documentary experiment at the National Film Board of Canada.