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Interactive documentaries change the way we tell stories

John Grierson coined the term “documentary” and defines it as “the creative interpretation of actuality”. Nowhere in that short definition is there anything pertaining to film. We have a tendency to think of documentaries as linear motion pictures, but in reality, the medium is changing. As new technologies becoming available, the way of making documentaries is evolving.

At the forefront of this change is Katerina Cizek, a Canadian filmmaker who has been making documentaries since the 1990s. Her new interactive documentary, One Millionth Tower, premiered on Wired.com earlier this month.

Both One Millionth Tower and Out My Window (2010) fall under the National Film Board of Canada’s (NFB) umbrella project called High Rise – an online exhibition of vertical living in global suburbs. As the world’s population grows, High Rise aims to document and analyze how life in apartment buildings changes. With new HTML5 technology, the viewer is plunged into a three dimensional digital world, clicking randomly and controlling the narrative.

“For me, documentaries are concerned with our contemporary worlds, and digital tools are a part of this world,” says Cizek. “They are changing the way we think about most of our lives: political, economic, social, psychological and cultural. Why just document this, when we can use these tools to experiment and attempt to understand these profound changes?”

Cizek says she is most concerned with the best way of telling the story and how accessible it will be to the most number of people. “Canned film only made it to those it reached physically, in cinemas, schools and church basements,” she says. “TV broadcasts only make it to those who have TVs, who may need to pay fees to receive the emission, and those who are watching that channel at that time.

“Internet projects are available to those with new enough computers, strong-enough Internet hook-ups and the desire to see your site.”

Participatory films are becoming increasingly popular online. Oxfam recently released an interactive documentary about life in a Cyclone-ravaged coastal town in Bangladesh on its website. Anthropologist Donald Johansan produced Becoming Human, an interactive film about evolution, and made it available online.

But Canada’s National Film Board is leading the way when it comes to interactive documentaries. It funds a multitude of experimental projects – including Cizek’s.

“We are mandated to work in platforms that ‘don’t exist yet’ to experiment in pushing approaches to the storytelling form and content that can be done nowhere else,” says Cizek.

The NFB also funded Cizek’s 2006 “Filmmaker in Residence” project in which she lived in a downtown Toronto hospital to document patients’ experiences. The result was an interactive project in which visitors to the website navigate sound collages, photographs, text boxes, and video clips to get to the heart of the story.

Although Cizek believes traditional films will continue to thrive, she is excited about the web becoming a popular platform for screening documentaries. “Conventional filmmaking will continue to exist,” she says. “The feature length linear film does certain kinds of stories very well, but digital tools are changing our lives in profound ways, and that includes the way we tell stories.”

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Kristy is an associate producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto. She is a recent graduate of City University London, where she got her Master’s in International Journalism with a specialism in radio reporting. She also holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she studied print and TV journalism, as well as documentary filmmaking. Early on, Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans got her hooked on docs and she has been obsessed with them ever since. Her other favourites are Grizzly Man, The Invisible War, and anything on Al Jazeera English.

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