detdom project

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Interactive documentary

These notes aim to outline some ideas on the development and practices of interactive documentary, with a tentative categorisation of modes of practice. The links and sources sections below can be used to explore the topic further.

Modes of practice
Future documentary
Links to projects and resources


The two key terms to be defined are 'Interactive' and 'Documentary'.


- NOT non-linear... Aarseth...

- Key terms:

- Aarseth (Peacock): ergodic: tmesis: uni-/multicursal; intriguee / intrigant

- Murray: agency / immersion / transformation; encyclopaedic;

- Manovich: database cinema (hyperfilm - Nelson); spatial / temporal montage

- Jenkins: Convergence

Documentary: Nichols categories...


Modes of practice

In this brief overview I am not attempting to present a fully theorised position, something that others are actively engaged in developing.

Sandra Gaudenzi is a key researcher in the field, currently completing her PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. She takes Nichols' modes of documentary as a starting point for thinking about interactive documentary. She then uses the following terms to categorise the modes of interactive documentary - Conversational; Hitchhiking (or Hypertext); Participative; Experiential. She also categorises the works on her PhD blog by form of presentation under the headings: CD-ROM; collaborative; docu-game; DVD; Installation; live gallery event; locative; real time experience; Web. [...]

The principle by which interactive documentary is categorised might be from the perspectives of the maker, the user or the subject. Gaudenzi generally presents a user perspective - broadly how you use them and where you find them.

A maker's perspective might include the following modes of practice:

The Simple Web-Distribution Documentary: essentially a substitute for the televisual documentary, interactive only in the sense that it displays through a web browser. Example: ??

The Archive / Database Explorer Type 1: a database of material can be traversed by the user, but without a designed interface beyond what might be termed a conventional web site structure. Example: Orlando Figes' research website

The Archive / Database Explorer Type 2: as above, but with a designed interface, perhaps using more elaborate authoring software such as Flash, with the likely inclusion of more visual navigation methods. Example: The Whale Hunt

The Sequencer Interactive Documentary: material can be chosen from predefined sets to create a sequence, but the user does not get to experience or explore the full set of material available to the project. This might be through one point of choosing at the start, or through several choices throughout playback. Example of the former: Hackney Girl (where the programming creates the sequence, you can initiate the process again to get a new shuffle of the film, but can't control it). And of the latter: many of the Korsakow System productions

The Contributory Interactive Documentary: the form would be a depository, with materials added by users to a database. Another term might be to call this a wikimentary, with the right connotations of a predefined template of a system to which content could be added, interlinked etc. Example: Open Source Cinema

Note: Where is the subject (ie of the documentary) in this discussion? The perspective of the subject is not so well considered... In the case of human subjects, is their point of view theorised or considered? Are they more likely to be enabled as authors in the case of interactive documentary? Perhaps this is exactly what is represented by the many personal video-blogs on YouTube etc?

A case study:

Honkytonk Film's web documentary Journey to the End of Coal (2008) is a hybrid of Nichols' participatory (and perhaps performative) mode of documentary with what Aarseth (1997, pp.112-4) called an intrigant / intriguee relationship - the user as an actor with adduced agency (to use a term from Janet Murray). The user enacts an investigation in a manner reminiscent of text games such as Zork, or (as the makers state in relation to some of their other productions) as choose-your-own-adventure books. You might be given the option when seeing a man by a lake:

- Go towards him and engage in conversation.
- Continue on towards the valley.

Or be permitted by the makers to ask one of two predetermined questions of the character:

- I'm looking for a mine where an accident recently occurred. Could you help me find it?
- The water is very black around here, isn't it?

However the diversions from the essentially unicursal path (as if a maze with only one winding route) through the work are relatively slight. In some cases indeed the interactivity is illusory, no doubt a consequence of the intractability of 'reality' to the documentarian - by contrast with the fiction-maker's greater level of control over action and mise-en-scene. The result of the limited interaction and game-like structure is to diminish any sense of the unmediated access to reality. This work is therefore characterised by a slight aura of fiction, but is otherwise participatory documentary with the offered role of intriguee largely used as a device to promote immersion. This is of course the evolving response of an older form to the changed environment for media in the hypermediated online world. It might also be the extension of Nichol's performative mode towards the user's ability to play at being the performing documentarian.

Note: The immersiveness of this work is greatly enhanced by atmospheric sound design - a breach in the codes of reality that may be more acceptable in online documentary.

Manovich outlines some related ideas:

(Manovich, 2008, pp.55-56) - hyperfilm

(Manovich, 2008, pp.97-99) - documentary-like works

And how can our project be categorised? The various sub-works here (Detdom 1, 2, 3...) each have their own interface and structural logic. In Nichols' terms, I would loosely categorise Detdom 1 as both participatory and reflexive (it aims to expose aspects of the editing and selection process), Detdom 2 as performative, with elements of the participatory, and Detdom 3 as broadly participatory. In addition they all depend on a database of material which is made apparent to the user in various ways. In Gaudenzi's terms they are all probably variants of her hypertext / hitchhiking mode, although I feel that this does not entirely encapsulate our attempt to explore the interface as metaphor for the relationships between content and roles (of user and maker, predominantly). Hence, using my own tentative suggestions above, these are all Explorer Type 2 interactive documentaries.


Future documentary

Discuss the shifting modes of broadcast, and the modes of production / distribution...

Integrate the positions of 'cross-platform storytellers' such as Sean Coleman and Andrew McCaldon. Opportunities and risks.



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

Bolter, J. D. & Grusin, R. (2000), Remediation, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Bruzzi, Stella (2000), New Documentary: A Critical Introduction, London: Routledge

Galloway, D. et al (2007), From Michael Moore to JFK Reloaded: Towards a working model of interactive documentary, Journal of Media Practice 8 (3): 325-340

Gaudenzi, S. (2009), Interactive Documentary: towards an aesthetic of the multiple [online]. Unpublished draft PhD thesis (chapter 1). Available from: [accessed 11.11.09]

Jenkins, H. (2006), Convergence culture : where old and new media collide, New York: New York University Press

Manovich, L. (2002), The Language of New Media, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Manovich, L. (2005), Soft Cinema, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Manovich, L. (2008), Software Takes Command [online]. Available from: [accessed 15.12.08]

Murray, J.H. (1997), Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Nichols, B. (1991) Representing Reality, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Nichols, B. (2002), Introduction to Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Peacock, A. (2001/5), Towards an Aesthetic of the Interactive (CADE Remix) [online]. Available from: [accessed 11.11.09]

Ryan, M. (2001), Narrative as Virtual Reality, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

Wardrip-Fruin, N. & Harrigan, P. (2004), First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Whitelaw, M. (2002), Playing Games with Reality: Only Fish Shall Visit and Interactive Documentary [online]. Available from: [accessed 18.02.09]


Links to projects and resources

Note: Dates of projects are not given below as most are ongoing.

Arthus-Bertrand, Y., 6 Billion Others.
Available at:
Documentary-portraiture project of global scope, with over 5000 individual testimonies.

Coleman, S. (with McCaldon, A.), Cross-platform productions.
Available at:
And at:

Cornyn, A. and Johnson, S. (Picture Projects), 360 Degrees.
Available at:
Perspectives on the US criminal justice system.

Dressen, A. and de Vilmorin, B., Honkytonk Films.
Available at:
French new media production company specialising in internet documentaries.

Figes, O., Project Archive.
Available at:
Author of several histories of Russia and Russian culture, with the site featuring the archive, interview and research material collected for his book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (London: Allen Lane / Penguin, 2007).

Finlay, J., Home Maker.
Available at:
A web documentary presentation of the home-making experiences of seven elderly British and Japanese subjects. The work has also been shown on other forms, including as gallery installation.

Flitman, I. Hackney Girl.
Available at:
A generated sequence from a database of clips, described as "a video diary about moving from London to Istanbul in 2002".

Gaudenzi, S., Blog and Archive (in support her PhD thesis at Goldsmiths, University of London).
Available at:
This includes draft chapters from her PhD thesis (see the Sources section above). The archive includes descriptions of a number of other interactive documentaries (plus links to those which are web-based).

Gaylor, B., Open Source Cinema.
Available at:
A number of 'open source' (ie collaborative) documentaries, including Rip! A Remix Manifesto.

Harris, J., The Whale Hunt.
Available at:
'An experiment in human storytelling', documenting a whale hunt with the Inupiat people of Alaska.

Harris, J. et al, Sputnik Observatory.
Available at:
Tagged archive of interviews with contemporary scientists, artists philosophers etc

James, W. and Aston, J., Voices from the Blue Nile.
Available at:
A 'portrait, in imagery and sound, of a refugee community'.

Kelly, C. et al., Oxford Russian Life History Archive.
Available at:
The Project Director is Catriona Kelly, author of Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

Simões, N., Rehearsing Reality.
Available at:
A project using the Korsakow system of Florian Thalhofer, decribed as a 'Docufragmentary'.

Thalhofer, F., Korsakow System.
Available at:
Established and well-developed platform for database filmmaking, with many example projects.

Upian, various projects.
Available at:
A French new media production company who have produced several 'webdocumentaries' in collaboration with ARTE TV.

Utekhin, I. et al., Kommunalka.
Available at:
Extensive database documentary project on 'Communal Living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life'.

The Wa-Kow! Collective, Tulsita.
Available at:
'Tulsita', a collective project that explores the 'cultural, ethical and aesthetic experiences [of] living in Tulsa'.



Peter Dukes

Date of revision: 25.05.2010