I was one of twelve documentary filmmakers from eight countries who were locked in a room at IDFA with fourteen I-Mac’s, two laptops and ten interactivity freaks. Our task: each of us had to create a non-linear interactive documentary in five days. Our tool: fresh from the University of Arts in Berlin, the experimental new «korsakow system» software. We were the lab rats with our paws on the keyboards. Our course coach Klaas Kuitenbrouwer from Mediamatic in Amsterdam called it “a mixture of a pressure-cooker and a kindergarten.” The idea was to discover to what extent the Korsakow experimental software answers the needs of non-linear narrative in documentary, to test the interactive interface with the viewer, to push the system’s boundaries and to play with its possibilities.
This was virgin territory to me; I was attracted by the way interactivity seems to offer the exciting prospect of a new relationship between a documentary’s author and its audience. I was relieved to find that the software tool, invented by our tutor Florian Thalhofer, is easy-to-use and an elegant, flexible solution to the non-linear problem of grouping and labelling one’s shots and sequences. Essentially, it’s a database intelligently linked by keywords, allowing viewers to navigate their own customised path through the material. Building a project is quick, tinkering with it is fun, testing it on viewers (or ‘players’, we found ourselves adopting gaming terminology) is revealing.
A lot of the workshop’s hottest moments happened in the kitchen, debating and arguing about the philosophy of interactive documentary. The most experienced participants were Flemming Lyngse and Mia Fryland from Denmark, who are in the throes of making an original interactive documentary about a right-wing politician Danes love to hate, giving the audience choices about what they want to see of him. What struck me was Flemming and Mia’s confession that they get so many requests for interviews from academics and filmmakers wanting to find out what they’re doing, that if they answered every query they’d never have time to work on their project. It’s clear that interactive documentary is much more studied than practised, much more hyped than produced. There’s a hunger to see how documentaries can join the net age, but frankly there’s not a lot of product to fill the demand. As doc-makers we’ve been told for some time now that the interactive revolution is “just around the corner,” but it’s turning out to be a long, long corner.
Although I had a ball using it, I must admit that the Korsakow interface is cruder and clunkier than I had expected. The technology is not on-line yet, and the interface is not intuitive for the user – to such an extent that when we gave a presentation of some of our projects at IDFA, the audience was never allowed to interact with them. The feedback at the end of our presentation showed that the audience felt that instead of liberating them from linear narrative, the experience was “dictatorial” and “manipulative”, “a step backwards”. They were unconvinced that the projects were narrative in any real sense. My own piece, for example, gratifyingly made the audience laugh on cue; but the jokes were more self-referential in-jokes about the interactive process itself than genuine narrative gags. I found myself drawn to the ‘random’ button when I built my project, playing with the viewers’ expectations and their desire to make their own meaning; it was intriguing but it didn’t really add up to ‘storytelling’.
I can see that the concept of interactive documentary has potential and I’ll keep an eye out for further developments. But I felt the technology still doesn’t live up to its aspirations, and I certainly don’t think us old-fashioned linear documentary-makers need to give up our day-jobs yet. Some new technologies kill old ones, either because they’re better or because of commercial pressures. Talkies killed silent movies, non-linear editing killed linear editing, CDs killed vinyl, e-mail is killing handwritten mail. But I see no danger that interactive narrative will kill off linear narrative – it simply does something different. Even if you watch TV alone, watching linear documentaries is a communal activity: you’ve seen the same film as everyone else around the proverbial water cooler; while interactive documentary as it now exists is necessarily an individual experience (though there’s a possibility of more viewers joining in on the web in the future). At IDFA there was no contest in terms of compelling, satisfying narrative between the interactive projects we saw on the course and the films I watched at festival screenings. At my cinema seat after a long day playing interactive at the computer screen, my hand never itched for the mouse. New technologies don’t always replace old ones: TV didn’t kill the cinema, cinema didn’t kill theatre or books, photography didn’t kill painting – and regardless of what the ‘80s pop lyric said, video didn’t kill the radio star.