Interactive Documentaries, Adam Curtis talks Anarchy, and the 3D Print Doc

Posted on January 7, 2015


For anyone wondering how films will still have the power to change our world in future, look no further than the interactive documentary. Film makers are opening up new arenas and asking viewers to become involved in the story directly, using aspects of video gaming to bring their subjects to life.

Fort McMoney screenshot

I think everyone should take a look at Fort McMoney, an episodic documentary about Canadian oil boomtown Fort McMurray that is an online game allowing you to explore the town and to interact with its places and people in great detail. Interactive documentary is the cutting edge when it comes to factual film making and this is, in the hands of David DuFresne (FM’s creator), extremely impressive, riveting and powerful. Great atmospherics and story married to real events and global issues. Along with Live Cinema, which is championed by the Light Surgeons, interactive documentaries are where all the smart money should be. Add in Oculus Rift and cheap virtual reality and you can start to see how we could really begin to experience others’ lives from afar.

But lets not get ahead of ourselves. Ingrid Kopp, director of digital initiatives at the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI), talked to i-Docs at the Watershed in Bristol on how to approach interactive storytelling and some of the projects that the TFI is championing. One of the things she talks about is the way audience expectation is transforming. TV is still a very powerful medium but a new generation of people growing up are native to the internet, interactive technologies and immersive experiences, and they expect more. Still, she says, we need to pay attention to history and she points to a fascinating documentary put together by science fiction author Douglas Adams in 1990.

Titled ‘Hyperland’ it sort of apes and must have been influenced by his idea of the ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ – an interactive electronic guide to, er, the galaxy. In the documentary Adams talks about an ‘agent’ that retrieves information for the user, like Google, from a web that had not been invented yet, featuring animated video clips much like GIFs. It is worth watching in its entirety – when has Douglas Adams not been entertaining? – and it features one of my favourite actors, the mind-bending former Dr Who, Tom Baker. Check it out below then click through to Youtube to watch the rest.

In any case Ingrid goes deep into the way we can interact with real life through digital technology and though it’s a long read I’d suggest stick with it because it will open your eyes to a few of the incredible possibilities. I’d also suggest you check out a few of the i-Docs TFI has supported via this PiratePad link. I’ve listed a few below that I think look like winners.

Bear 71 is an interactive doc narrated from the point of view of a grizzly bear featuring impressive video, graphics and information on how wildlife interacts with the human world. It is really insightful and you get a look inside the head of a grizzly and how we are encroaching on wild habitats and creating problems.

Bear 71

Prison Valley looks inside a US super prison in Colorado, called the ‘new Alcatraz’. It shows how even people living on the outside of the railings and walls are imprisoned by its penal activity. It is another David DuFresne project – he is obviously a big noise in interactive documentary.

Hollow meanwhile gently explores the future of rural America through the eyes of the inhabitants of McDowell County. It is beautifully expressive and cinematic and yet manages to be interactive and engaging too by getting you to contribute to the story.


Adam Curtis and Anarchy
One of my favourite documentary film makers is Adam Curtis, partially because of his incredible back catalogue of work with the BBC and others – check out The Mayfair Set, Century of the Self and the Power of Nightmares for evidence of his unique style of enquiry – but also because he continues to be artful about what he does, making almost dreamlike installations out of collections of facts.

Curtis’ BBC blog is an excellent resource because he packs it with archive news and current affairs programmes that he can access as a researcher/journalist at the BBC. One recent foray looked at the perception of Anarchists and how the Kurdish resistance had idolised an American anarchist called Murray Bookchin. Anarchism in the US is one of the documentaries he recommends looking at and it can be seen at the Internet Archive.

‘Bitter Lake’ is the title of a new film by Curtis and it will be out on 25 January on the BBC iPlayer (not on broadcast TV). Keep your eyes open for it.

Print the Legend
Finally, a documentary about the 3D print industry is exclusively available via Netflix (no I’m not signing up but go ahead). Made by the team behind ‘King of Kong’ and ‘Freakonomics’ it goes behind the scenes at Makerbot and FormLabs, and has already won several festival awards, so it must be some good. Check out the trailer below.