Is the web the beginning of a new future for documentary filmmaking? This was an oft-repeated and explored question among members of the documentary community during Hot Hacks, a two-day workshop organized by Mozilla for this year’s Hot Docs festival.

Chosen from a pool of 30 applications, the filmmakers of six outstanding documentary projects teamed up with web developers to create a prototype, or “minimum viable product”, of a web documentary experience. DOX was invited to the Mozilla offices in Toronto for a closer look at this exciting process of developing a common vocabulary between documentary filmmakers and the web community:

Brett Gaylor

“Our idea is to help consumers of the web become creators of the web,” Brett Gaylor, director of Mozilla Popcorn, says. Hot Hacks is part of Mozilla’s Living Docs project, an evolution of Popcorn, which started with the idea of linking events that happen in a video’s timeline to other elements of the web. Discovering that a large swathe of Popcorn’s user base comprised documentary filmmakers, Mozilla invited them to collaborate with web developers and to produce, within a short time period, ‘a proof of concept for what an interactive piece could be’.

The web creates a pool of simultaneously shared experiences for documentaries, engaging the audience in storytelling. The dynamism and ability to rapidly propagate have made web documentaries an increasingly viable medium that documentary filmmakers must consider when developing their projects.
Even so, it all boils down to the story: “Start with the story and what the experience will feel like; and then think about the technology. Don’t be guided by the technology first,” Bailey Smith refers to what she learned during Hot Hacks. She’s the technologist Immigrant Nation, whose prototype generates user content to help people personalize the idea of immigration. Users can log in from their Facebook account with a statement about their views on immigration, and locate their own immigration story, aided by a timeline, within the larger trajectory of immigration to the US.
Another example is The Last Hijack’s prototype, on the Somali pirates. It blends live action documentary with animation, archival footage, data visualizations and photographs. Yet another one is Turcot, on the reconstruction of Montreal’s Turcot Interchange, which integrates street views and Google maps and correlates these with data about income disparity.

Web documentaries make it easier and more entertaining to access various types of data on an issue. Documentary filmmakers are increasingly using the power of the web to create communities and encourage activism on the issues present in their work. For example, the prototype of The Message, on climate change, features an HTML5 Popcorn-powered debate using development footage to fuel and sustain discussion on the subject. The highly collaborative Union Docs project, Living Los Sures, also uses technologies like Zeega and Popcorn to create an online public space for the ever-changing populations of the Brooklyn neighborhood that it depicts over the course of 30 years.

Mike Robbins and Alison Rose working on their project Atheneum Enterprise Reunion
Mike Robbins and Alison Rose working on their project Atheneum Enterprise Reunion

Director Alison Rose works with the project Following Wise Men, a story about four elderly astronomers on a 50th reunion road trip, uses the power of the web to allow greater flexibility with the scientific content inherent in the project. Their prototype takes the web’s wider audiences on a fun journey by letting us explore the sky above us using Google Sky.

What the web can offer in terms of creativity and freedom is indeed enormous, as veteran doc filmmaker Daniel Cross says to DOX: “because it’s so young anything is possible”.
Yet the challenge is equally big: how to make the best use of the semantics of the web without sacrificing the story.