Choose Your Own Documentary

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Choose Your Own Adventure cover

I grew up reading Choose Your Own Adventure books. They were fun: You read along for a few pages and then you came to a choice about the narrative’s direction. Your choice determined where your adventure went next. In some cases, you went in a whole new direction, and in other cases, you met your demise, which really just meant another opportunity to try again.

A similar idea of an interactive medium also appeared digitally with the text-based role-playing games. In these games, you interacted with the scenario entirely through typing commands and getting feedback. For example, if you typed, “Go east,” the system might reply, “An ogre blocks the path.” Since that ogre most likely is not Shrek, your next step might be, “Attack ogre.” And so on.

Of course, now, interactivity has expanded significantly with digital technologies and broadband access. One of the most innovative projects is the National Film Board of Canada’s Bear 71. The documentary operates on two levels: the story and the exploration. The story includes some of the usual features of a motion-picture documentary with voiceover narration, moving images, and still images. A short video introduces us to Bear 71 and the bear’s story, and the voiceover narration provides an audio link and explanation for the environmental changes and challenges facing the grizzly bears, including people, development, traffic, and pollution. The narration also offers information about the natural world, with insights about the forest and the animals within it and even brief vignettes about both.

The exploration component brings users into the forest as “Human ######,” stamped with your own picture if you allow it. In this mode, you navigate through a map to follow different tagged animals and learn more about them through video and on-screen text. Even as the narration ends, the map remains for users to explore at their leisure.

Bear 71, an interactive documentary

The National Film Board of Canada’s Bear 71

Bear 71 brings together both linear and non-linear storytelling into one experience, but those experiences operate independently of each other. In other words, the documentary portion unfolds no matter your clicks in the exploration portion.

But what about bringing those two options together, so that how the linear portion unfolds depends on your decisions?

A possibility for how this integration might look appears in an interactive music video from Andy Grammer titled, “Keep Your Head Up.” Most music videos are not known for their depths of storytelling — and Grammer’s video is no exception here — but they still possess a loose scenario or scaffold on which to build a series of events. The basic scenario in this video finds Grammer hanging posters for his rooftop concert in an alley as he makes his way through the hotel to the roof for that concert.

As the events unfold, different options appear on the screen, requesting you choose one to determine the next course of events. In Grammer’s video, options include mundane decisions such as which floor to take the elevator to and which color T-shirt to wear. Other decisions involve the story characters specifically, such as an encounter between movers or bikers. If you fail to choose an option, the video continues anyway. In the end, though, these options allow multiple permutations for the video’s unfolding.

Could this kind of integration of scenario and interaction offer a new way to experience reality, or, better, realities?

Reality in itself is not linear, though the ways in which we experience it are linear. We use time, narrative, and other concepts to make sense of that reality, to flatten it into some form of accessible understanding, but ultimately our experiences remain just that — our own.

Motion-picture and other forms of documentary offer an opportunity to learn about others’ realities, but they still render that reality into a linear format and situate it within a specific framework for understanding.

But realities come from multiple, simultaneous perspectives. I wonder, then, if these kinds of interactive technologies can offer the opportunities to allow users to experience (and not just witness or watch) multiple viewpoints within one scenario. Those multiple viewpoints can take into account not only personal differences (as our histories so strongly inform our presents), but also situational ones, such as roles and physical locations. Those partaking of the experiences then might get the opportunity to “step into someone’s shoes,” as it were, and see how events unfold from the options presented.

Occupy Wall Street Protest

Occupy Wall Street Protest on September 29, 2011 (Photo by Flickr user kapkap)

So how might this type of interaction look within a documentary context? A current example I can think of is an Occupy protest within a larger city. Occupiers have taken a piece of public land, such as a park, and claimed it for themselves. City officials, including the mayor’s office, want the police to evict them from the land on whatever legal grounds necessary. A confrontation occurs, and events play out however they do — with or without arrests, with or without protest, with or without violence.

Multiple perspectives occur within this scenario: the Occupiers, the police officers, the mayor, the newspaper journalist, the television anchor and camera crew, even bystanders. Each of those individuals face options that affect outcomes, and sometimes outcomes occur no matter the choices made.

So a documentary that incorporates the interactive component within the narrative component might allow audiences to experience the events from the point of view of a police officer, a protestor, or even a mayor. Within each role, the audience gets to choose from a limited set of options that those people actually faced in those moments. Those options then would be interdependent on other choices made by other people in different roles, though events still might happen even if no choice is made.

In some ways this situation might sound like a video game or, more specifically, a reality-based role-playing game. But a game offers a series of outcomes toward a specific goal, while reality in itself lacks that direction and focus. This kind of documentary could offer a more fluid experience without a set goal or resolution in mind.

The amount of legwork involved in this kind of documentary product seems overwhelming. It would require identifying the key players, conducting in-depth interviews, and researching other available sources. It would require developing composites of the different people, and it would require charting multiple unfoldings of events and determining causalities along the way. An ideal candidate for this kind of documentary would be one that brings together not one but a series of similar events, such as the Occupy protests and clashes from across the country, into creating this interactive documentary.

Of course, rendering that reality offers a number of other questions, such as what form (animation or filmed images?), what medium (sound, still image, motion image?), and what combination of information and techniques. A key component of this kind of interactive documentary might be embedding traditional interviews within the narrative to show people explaining what decisions they faced and why they chose as they did. Or it might be including archival materials such as newspaper stories or even arrest reports.

In some ways this approach remains similar to current approaches to documentary, which do try to bring together multiple perspectives toward an end goal. In this interactive kind of production, though, much more depth needs to go into getting information, understanding experiences, and seeing outcomes. Further, current approaches to documentary render the final outcome within a linear model. This kind of production would require both horizontal and vertical considerations of time, with multiple trajectories intersecting at different points. A form for the text still would have to exist, though much looser so that the audience could determine it more so than the makers would. This structure might make it harder to get a unified message across, but I see its potential to increase people’s understandings of experiential depths more so than current formats do.

I pose all this in hypothetical, though with the technologies so close if not already here, maybe something similar to what I suggest here is already out there. If so, it would be interesting to see what that experiential reality looks like and if it actually does allow the representation of reality to become interactions with realities.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.
  • http://twitter.com/msgeek93 Michelle Hass

    New Wave OGs Devo did this too with their “What We Do” video. http://www.wired.com/underwire/2011/04/devo-what-we-do-video/ I would love to find a way of adding interactivity into the doc I’m in pre-production on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.vantaylor David Van Taylor

    yes, a great film. and why the heck shouldn’t we call it a documentary?

  • Linguist

    No documentary can relate a person’s entire history, nor should it. “Being Elmo” accomplished what it was set out to accomplish, as far as I can tell: Tell us the story of Kevin Clash’s journey to becoming the puppeteer of one of the most successful Muppets of all time. It wasn’t a tell-all of Kevin’s life or allegations thereof. Whatever may or may not be true of Clash’s private life takes nothing away from his professional career or the validity of “Being Elmo.”

    As far as the comment below regarding the “enigma” of how an introvert could so keenly communicate about love – Seriously? Being an introvert has exactly nothing to do with being able to love and/or communicate about love.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.vantaylor David Van Taylor

    I haven’t seen “Being Elmo” (sorry!). But it is certainly true that any film can’t and shouldn’t do everything on a topic, whether it’s a portrait or not.
    Otherwise your film will have no, shall we say, point of view.

    I wonder whether the filmmakers of “Being Elmo” knew anything about his aspect of Clash’s life, and chose not to include it, or whether they just didn’t know. Either is perfectly legitimate and understandable in my view.

    Of course sometimes the failure to confront a certain aspect of a story can seem at the time and in retrospect to be a missed opportunity–to tell a more interesting and deeper story. Though I *loved* Man on Wire, I was left with the feeling that they wanted to gloss as lightly as possible over what a self-centered jerk Phillipe Pettit could be; his betrayal of his comrades at the last gave a glimpse into a deeper portrait, but was quickly left behind in what seemed an attempt to have a more uplifting ending.

    I guess I’m saying that there’s no blanket rules here. I’m glad Tom you’ve raised the question, but it has no simple answer …