How interactive documentaries reveal layers of place
When we travel to a new place, we take everything in. We observe, we taste, we smell, and we listen.
As a native of West Virginia, and now resident of Boston, I always look forward to traveling back “home” to reconnect with the place. Those lush, tree-covered Appalachian Mountains embrace visitors as they travel the winding roads that lead to interesting places with unique histories and welcoming faces. In the morning, we watch the fog slowly rise out of the valleys and listen to the crickets sing their evening song in the fields. And while West Virginia is a place filled with interesting sights and sounds, it’s a place many will never visit.
For my latest documentary, I chose to bring that place alive online — specifically, McDowell County, WV — to allow users to explore and learn from the sounds, sights, and experiences of locals. McDowell is located in the coalfields and is representative of many boom-and-bust communities throughout small-town America. Since 1950, the county has lost nearly 80,000 residents, but those who stay have much to share with the world.
When deciding how to tell the story of McDowell, I decided it should be non-linear, online, interactive, and participatory. I wanted many voices to be accessible to anyone in the world, I wanted an experience that could grow over time, and I wanted to provide the user a sense of exploration. Thanks to the dedicated work of a talented team, we were able to reveal more layers of the place’s history, present, and future through this interactive form.
Most linear documentaries tend to have a clear, three-plot structure that takes us through the exposition, conflict, and resolution. This is the “audience experience” for many films. It’s a passive experience where one consumes, rather than controls, the narrative. The editor creates juxtaposition and determines how a person should react at a certain moment. But with a non-linear, interactive documentary, you give up that level of control. You allow your users to find their own path and have a unique experience each time they visit. By providing the freedom to explore and a chance to participate, you are giving users an active role and a chance to visit a new place.
The first interactive documentary that made me feel like I was “there” was Welcome to Pine Point. I found myself immersed in the collage of sound, photos, and video. The project put me there. And because it put me there, I was connected. I could feel, hear, and see the place and understand the complexity of the town’s history.
The use of sound in Welcome to Pine Point had a great impact on our decisions for Hollow. Our sound designer, Billy Wirasnik, was able to take my recordings and create a sense of place, mood, and atmosphere throughout the chapters. Sound in Hollow is central for revealing a layer of McDowell and is necessary for storytelling and foreshadowing events on the site.
Following the launch of Hollow, I went to McDowell to hold a screening. I went to hollowdocumentary.com and the forest-and-birds soundscape I heard through my speakers was identical to the sound out my window. It was an exciting moment to see how “real” sound makes a place online. This not to say sound is not a driving force in linear films, but rather that when a user explores an environment and new sounds are triggered by their actions, they are engaged, curious, and can get a better sense of place.
Interactive documentaries allow you to provide more storylines and access to media that may never have a place in a linear form. Ideally, all these fragments of media are used to tell an overarching and crafted narrative, but ultimately it allows a person to explore. You can go through archives just as you would in the local library, you can unlock the photo album of an elderly couple after learning about their life together, you can access interactive data that gives you an understanding of the issues. Additionally, you can explore many perspectives, including those of residents.
Some interactive docs, such as Journal of Insomnia, Big Stories, Small Towns, and 18 Days in Egypt, allow for community-generated or user-generated content. This authentic, local view of a place peels back the layers of professional video production and allows you to see the place through their eyes. Not only did McDowell County residents shoot content during production, but they continue to use the community tool “Holler Home” to update and share stories. This gives the user a unique level of access to what we formerly would call “subjects.” With this new form, the “subjects” are now active storytellers.
Due to its presence as a web-native project, people from 104 countries have experienced life in McDowell County. Through their interactions, our users have discovered the universal issues that rural towns all across our globe face through the stories of one place. Analytics show us that people spend a long time on the site, and many who visit Hollow return. This may potentially be because the project houses over three hours of video content, but many have said they’ve gotten “lost” in the experience. Scrolling progresses the narrative and allows you to reveal new stories, ideas, sounds, and data. The more you scroll, the more you experience. I don’t know if I could have interested as many people to view a linear version of this project. I think by making it interactive, we’ve discovered a larger and a more engaged audience.
My hope is that interactive documentaries continue to explore the opportunity to tell an evolving narrative. Rather than showing us the way things were, interactive documentaries have the potential to show and encourage change over time. I don’t believe every story is best told in this form. The linear documentary will always have tremendous storytelling power, but in the case of Hollow, it was too limiting. The interactive form allowed our users to be explorers, rather than consumers, and understand a complex story and place.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without the work of a dedicated team and the McDowell County community. I was fortunate to have a team made up of two heavy-lifting developers, Robert Hall and Russell Goldenburg; a user experience designer and art director who choreographed the flow on content, Jeff Soyk; video editors who helped me sort through 7 terabytes of footage, Sarah Ginsburg and Kerrin Sheldon; a researcher and writer who could sink her teeth into some massive datasets, Tricia Fulks; a talented sound designer with a passion for story, Billy Wirasnik; a person with experience in participatory video training and organizing community workshops, Michelle Miller; a project manager who could keep us on budget and schedule, Nathaniel Hansen; and many others.