Patricia Aufderheide is University Professor in the School of Communication at American University and founder-director of the Center for Media and Social Impact. She is the author of, among other works, Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press) and co-author with Peter Jaszi of Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright (University of Chicago Press).
Energy, Economy and Culture
Can interactive docs bring social issues alive differently and in ways that more directly make connections for users between their own lives and perspectives and the challenges? Several interactive documentaries take us inside energy production and show us the human and physical terms of producing electricity. They give us, among other things, new ways to find out what connects with people in talking about big complex issues—climate change, energy choices, the terms of work, the terms of development.
The challenge of all these works is providing an experience that is not only rich but engaging enough to drive users to tell others. They all are trying to tell stories while connecting with users expecting a non-linear format and significant choice. Some are more focused on walking users through to a conclusion; none are focused on specific actions.
Each of the projects below is an experiment that in some way pushes forward the field. Much works, some doesn’t, and they’re all more project than exemplar of a trend. I’ve shared my reactions to all of them and will be curious about what yours are.
"Coal: A Love Story" uses data-driven interactive graphics and short films to explore American energy consumption.
part of a University of North Carolina ongoing student-journalism project on energy, is the most ambitious and also perhaps the most elegant of these projects. Its navigation design allows both interaction and an understanding at any one point of the big picture of the project. Using a simple infographic-style web interface with options to click, it offers an exploration of conflicts around coal from differing perspectives, enriched with information. These perspectives are structured around the question of why we love coal when it’s so destructive of so much else we love. It puts what’s at stake for the user early on--how much coal do you use? Included as you continue are video portraits, stories, interactive graphics, the viewpoints of stakeholders around coal. Ranchers, coal miners, ex-coal miners, Coal Queen pageant contestants, environmental activists. It’s easy to switch between quiz, graphic and video, return, go forward, and you can easily control where you are in the video. The project is carefully balanced to address not only the costs of coal but the reasons why people support it, and even those who want to change energy options struggle with the problem. We’re all in love with coal, the project shows us, in ways that let us come to that conclusion ourselves.
Interactive documentary "Journey to the End of Coal" puts its audience in the perspective of an investigator looking into the deaths of Chinese coal miners.
By Samuel Bollendorff and Abel Ségrétin for Paris-based HonkyTonk Films, this project is about the human costs of coal mining in China. It banks on mystery to draw you into a journey-style adventure, by providing a forking tree of options to a viewer who is positioned as an investigative journalist. It uses convenient, short video clips and stills, which provoke new questions. It also deliberately frustrates the explorer in ways that real-life investigations are frustrated by Chinese authorities. It provides poignant glimpses into dangerous, sometimes lethal working conditions, grimly polluted environments, and dismal living conditions. If you want to replicate the experience of trying to find out what the terms of coal mining in China are, this is a good place to do it. If you want to find out what the terms of coal mining in China are as investigative journalists who had experiences like this found, this may be less effective than more linear storytelling.
Interactive documentary "Black Gold Boom" explores North Dakota’s oil boom through the changing geography and the lives of its people.
Black Gold Boom takes the viewer with maker Todd Melby in a public media-funded project (through AIR’s Localore). You join him for a tour of North Dakota’s oil drilling camps, with photos, vignettes and selfies to enrich the experience. It explores the practical terms of existence--what gear should you bring? How should women protect themselves in a rough male culture? What does the housing look like? It shows the attractions as well as the downsides of working in the oil boom. The navigation is pretty linear, and you may be searching at times for an advance or fast-forward option, if you stay within the interactive documentary rather than shopping for stories, another option available on the website. Since it sticks with the close-up view, you don’t get a chance to ask bigger questions. And it’s not easy to get a sense of how big or small the experience is. But this does create a multi-faceted and sometimes provocative portrait of a moment.
Drawing on video game storytelling, "The Hole Story" puts audience members in the position of a mining entrepreneur.
Done through the National Film Board of Canada by a team led by Frédéric Dubois, The Hole Story accompanies a feature-length film that argues that Canadian coal policy allows mining companies to benefit without returning sufficiently to Canada, and at a high environmental and social price. It’s a game, in which you can be a mining company. The game allows relatively few options, and it is not always clear what should be the next step. Further, the game involves few satisfactions. The mining company seems destined to win (as it seems to in real life), and it’s just a question of how much. If you want to play a game, this is unsatisfying. If you want to know the terms of mining, the “Learn More” option on the site gives it to you quickly, efficiently and with nice graphics.
In the interactive documentary "Hollow," filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon collaborates with the residents of McDowell County, West Virginia to tell the story of population decline in the rural United States.
Elaine McMillion's project looks at McDowell County, a coal mining county and one of the poorest counties in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation. It is a sprawling love letter to an area, featuring voices and faces of people in the area. Issues include mining and mining history, development (tourism?), drugs, crime (related to drugs), history, music, and the land. You can link to updates, offering blog posts from the region. It offers a timeline, video vignettes, and information. It counters many stereotypes of West Virginia, by showcasing the complexity in one place. Technically, it’s fussy: It favors audio and visual beauty, but at a cost. Its navigation can be awkward and glitch. You can shop for a lot of information, and hear a lot of opinions at this interactive documentary, but you won’t have an integrated experience, or an interactivity that encourages you to engage rather than consume. This is a rich treasure trove of material organized topically, awaiting reshaping into story; but users must bring their own motivation.
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