New Directions in Narrative: review of webdocs

This post is an ongoing review of webdocs that I come across for my research. I found this 2015 article Web Documentaries … What Are They? by Philipp Barth a really useful place to start.

Barth provides a great list of interactive documentaries and below is a summary of some of them. What I find the most interesting from this article is that web docos start off around 2005 with quite simple interactivity, they evolve to a high level of interactivity with docos such as Bear 71. Interestingly when Barth wrote this article in 2012 he commented:

‘…many of the successful web documentaries have a relatively high degree of linear narration and don’t offer the viewer too many interactive possibilities. It is still a matter of contention whether interactivity is useful or not…’

For me, now in 2015, I find this the most interesting question. How much interactivity do we want? How much do we need? Where are the key points of value in delivering documentary content interactively?

The first web documentary I’m looking at is Thanatorama made in 2008 by a French based company Upian.

The documentary starts with the quote ‘You died today. Are you interested in what comes next?’

The documentary allows the viewer to check out what might happen to them after they have died. It’s a journey through the funeral industry.

Image from Thanatorama

The design is simple and allows us to choose a chapter and return easily to the home page. There is not a guided linear path. Each chapter is narrated (in French) and accompanied by still images. Other than choosing which chapters to view the documentary is not highly interactive. Users can’t influence the order or outcome of the contents. There isn’t a high degree of input except for a comments (condolences) page. I don’t feel like this detracts from the work. This is an informative work that allows you to experience different elements of what happens to us after we die and I think it works really well. One thing to note, the journey is narrated as if I have died so the narration is directed to me in the first person as though it’s my death and funeral. In the last chapter on Cremation, there is no voice over, only text. The silence allowing for contemplation. In a sense this is quite a simple web doc but it still relies heavily on design to make it work.

The next one is Gaza Sderot: also made in 2008 captures the experiences of people living on the Israeli Gaza border. Interactive elements are the ability to comment, share and engage in a newsletter.

Image from Gaza Sderot

The content was shot on the border towns of Gaza in Palestine and Sderot in Israel. Two videos were shot per day from 26 October 2008 to 23 December 2008. There are 40 episodes and 80 videos. There are a number of navigation choices: time, faces, maps and topics. Each of these allow us to enter the content from a different angle. Time shows us the daily videos from each side of the border chronologically. Faces allows us to scan images of all the contributors. Hovering over an image reveals their videos and we can select from these. Maps provides a map of key places and houses and topics allows us to access content via broad topic areas. A scan of the topics page is telling. The most populated topics from Gaza are: shortage, borders and siege and from Sderot they are Kassan rockets, family and optimism. This is a complex web documentary that graphically depicts the different lives of those on each side of this contested border.

Move to 2012 and the National Film Board of Canada’s Bear 71 directed by Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes. The documentary tells the story from a first person narrative of a bear tagged in the Banff National Park. The user can move around the park and look at what’s going on in the park with fixed cameras. We can move to any camera across the park but the narrative itself is linear. And it is a very fictional and constructed narrative presented from one bear’s point of view that assumes a knowledge beyond the experience of being a the bear. It’s an engaging narrative and in a way is more a work of fiction than a documentary. The narrative is based on information from the park cameras and is broken into 11 chapters that we can dip in and out of. However the doco works best when experienced as a linear story as it ends in the death of Bear 71 on the train tracks, witnessed by a fixed camera as she charges the train defending her cubs (we don’t see this image).

Image from Bear 71

It’s a moving and powerful end. And its purpose is to point out how life has changed for the bears in this park where doing what comes naturally is now a dangerous and life-threatening act. The message is that for the bears to survive they do what doesn’t come naturally, they must find a way to adapt to their ever-changing environment impacted more and more by human activity.

A more recent example is the 2012 web documentary Alma: a tale of violence by Miquel Dewever-Plana and Isabelle Fougère.

Image from Alma
Image from Alma: a tale of violence

The core of this work is a 40 minute interview to camera by a woman named Alma who talks of what it took to join, survive and attempt to leave a gang in Guatemala City. A simple swipe up gives viewers access to still images and artworks and a soundtrack that illustrate the environment Alma is describing. Her voice continues when we’re in this mode. I actually really like this level of minimal interactivity. The story is linear and we aren’t offered any options to view chapters or move around in the story. And it is definitely a linear narrative moving from Alma committing murder to get into the gang and nearly being murdered herself at the end. As a paraplegic survivor she is looking back on her actions and telling them with great honesty and pain. We can choose to watch Alma or cut away to still images (like a B roll on a non-interactive documentary). The work is multi-platform with versions of the story available in an app, books and a film.

I find watching through these works that I tend towards the view that less is probably better than more in terms of the question ‘how much interactivity’. But perhaps it’s actually more the idea of ensuring that the content suits the mode of delivery. Is this a story that will work with lots of input from the public? Is it a story that affords being delivered in chunks that can be viewed independently and manipulated by users? Or is it a story that works best if delivered with a level of interactivity that maintains the narrative experience but enhances it by allowing viewers to see different aspects of that narrative (as in Alma).


Barth, P. 2015, Web Documentaries … What Are They?, DW Akademie:


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