The French production company Article Z is a believer in the prospects of the Internet as a democratic media and has put this into practice by developing a documentary project known as “Mad Mundo” consisting of interactive investigations on the Net combined with documentaries broadcast on TV. ULLA JACOBSEN has browsed through the pilot Internet site and interviewed Patrice Barrat, the man behind “Mad Mundo”, by e-mail.
Mad Mundo is a project with an ideology behind it aiming at “technology” which places journalism at the service of the people’. It is also a pioneer project in the use of the new technology, in that it is truly interactive, between media (TV and the Internet), between subjects and directors and between the general public and the product. The process is part of the product by encouraging ‘people’ to get involved and take part.
Whereas its quite common for broadcasters to link some of their programmes to web sites that provide elaborating information and discussions, it is new to use the web as the starting point and have the television programmes come out of the web site.
The people behind “Mad Mundo” believe that this concept can generate a new interest in current affairs and important issues, and that the interactivity is the key to involving the public, eventually leading to more than raising awareness, but actually generating a certain sense of responsibility among the audience.
Mad Mundo is running now as a pilot Internet site, and three documentaries have already been made.
The plan is that each year Mad Mundo will tackle ten themes linked to globalisation. The format consists of investigations into a topic raised by any person with an idea, though he/she has to be the main character of the investigation, and it has to be a question that affects his/her own life. If Mad Mundo chooses to continue working with the topic, they get their network of reporters around the globe to look into the matter. The investigators report back via the web featuring short video clips and texts from the investigations. It is then open to the public to give suggestions on what leads should be followed and thus to influence the product. The recordings are then edited into a weekly or monthly 52-minute television broadcast that gives an update on maybe two or three investigations.
Each story will basically be built around the same elements: the starting point is a person – the main character – who wants to understand some phenomenon related to his/her own life. The investigators contact different people to illuminate the story and report their findings to the person in question. At some point they establish a direct link-up between the main character and some key characters of the investigations so that they can speak with each other directly.
An example of one of the stories that will be found at the Internet site is “Why Christoph needs migrants” which deals with international migration. Christoph Peter-Isenberger has set up an IT company in Germany and wants to attract computer programmers from all over the world to migrate to Germany to work for him. He wants to explore whether this is possible, whether the ‘world’ encourages this migration and whether computer programmers are interested in immigrating.
The topic is explored in India by Indian documentarist Sehjo Singh, who finds two computer programmers and sets up a link with Christoph. Both parties present themselves to see if employment is a possibility by investigating the skills and interests of the Indians. She also goes home with the Indians to show their background and life in India, their motivation to immigrate. In Bulgaria, Dagmar Wünnenberg follows the recruitment campaign of Christoph’s company and talks to young Bulgarians interested in going. In the UK, Julie Flink talks to the manager of a company that specializes in getting work permits for migrants and reveals that the British Government is quite open about green cards, whereas in Germany it is still quite difficult, despite a new law that should make it easier. Back in India Sehjo Singh has uncovered some of the exploitation traps in the ‘global workforce idea’, namely ‘body shopping’: some human traffickers keep half the salary of the migrant in return for organising the job.
Of the two other pilot investigations, one deals with Gilles Duflot who cannot see his daughters due to legal differences between Germany and France. The investigators visit politicians and lawyers to understand the system and the idea of a ‘United Europe’.
The other deals with carworker Geraldo de Sousa who got fired by Ford in Brazil and wants to understand why. His story is put into perspective as an effect of the crisis in Asia and Russia. It is the story of how the global economy affects one person’s life somewhere on the globe.
The website is financed by Arte, the European Commission, CNC Nouvelle Technologies and One World Supersite, and the pilot documentaries by ARTE, YLE and TV3 Catalunya.
Article Z is now working on the fundraising to make the format happen on a regular basis on television (as a weekly or monthly format). The current potential partners are ARTE, YLE, TV3 Catalunya, WorldlinkTV USA, and after being pitched at HOT DOCS (Toronto) last May, interest has been shown by Canada (CBC, Radio Canada and NFB (National Film Board)), Australia (SBS), and the US (PBS Frontline). The plan is to launch the format officially on the web early next year and on television later on.
Selection of stories and reporters
UJ: How will you select the stories? As far as I understand it, five stories will be selected by an editorial committee and five by ‘people’? Who makes up the editorial committee? Will the five other stories be selected by a sort of web election among everybody who wants to vote on all incoming proposals – or how?
PB: The Editorial Committee will be composed of the main partners, broadcasters, maybe some institutions taking part and two or three “visionaries”. The Committee will agree on the themes the programmes should deal with, but the actual stories will come from the web or other types of suggestions. The idea of the Editorial Committee is to make sure that I don’t make decisions on my own on such important issues and that I consult with people with different cultural and geopolitical backgrounds. And to involve the partners more so that they feel really involved with the project.
Honestly, I was not thinking of a web-election to select the stories which get to be made. I don’t want to be that “democratic” or “demagogic”. Or I don’t think of the process as a game. I would like to follow my instinct (briefing the Committee, too) in terms of what makes a ‘good story’ for the Mad Mundo format.
UJ: How do you pick your reporters: Is it a fixed team? You say you favour local reporters, but in your pilots that is often not the case. Will you find the reporters for the news stories after deciding on the subject and the countries to be investigated?
PB: It is not a fully fixed team, although I have something like an informal network of reporters and filmmakers I know around the world. It develops in an organic way. Having been with INPUT for ten years and other international organisations, having worked with people from different countries, I discovered that committed filmmakers or journalists tend to form a ‘family’ and if not, to share the same concerns. For instance Peter Wintonick in Canada and Sehjo Singh in India were working separately on the project, and later I discovered they knew each other very well.
After the first programme ((How Geraldo lost his job?), I realized that some Western reporters might be too ‘condescending’ with the main character, might not listen enough to him and not ‘interact’ enough. So I decided to favour local reporters, or sometimes better, filmmakers who have a point of view. We won’t always know in advance how the investigations can unfold. So we might have to find a reporter in a given country in the course of the production.
Storytelling: same but different
UJ: How do the TV programmes differ from the episodes on the web? How does the interaction between a television broadcast and the web site work?
PB: The episodes on the web are edited specially for the web. The TV programme is edited with a different flow, different transitions and should have its own rhythm. Also, each “Mad Mundo” programme on TV will be like a progress report on two or three of the ten themes Mad Mundo will be dealing with.
The interaction between TV and the web works both ways. On the web, each story develops in order to generate interest and participation from the general public on an issue. This is reflected in the story we finalize for television. We hope to create a ‘snowball effect’ or a campaign on each theme (with the support of NGOs, newspapers and radio stations) even before the story gets on TV. The broadcast should then generate another level of visitors on the site. And also by exposing the status of our investigations on the web and on TV, we might get new developments with the entities (big business, governments, powers that be) concerned with the theme.
UJ: What is new in terms of storytelling? You are – like documentaries – still using local stories to tell global issues. And the stories are character driven.
PB: I think there is a need to find new forms to address such issues. It’s not enough to place the camera in one spot and move the viewers. We need to find a balance between the emotion and the abstraction. I believe this format can achieve this. So yes, like other documentaries, we use local stories. But for us, it’s a lever to get directly to the wider scope and tackle the institutions. In terms of storytelling, I do believe this can be new, although it’s difficult to use new technologies and avoid having them stand in the way of the storytelling. This format is not about technologies and how we use them. We just use them.
Above all, television is a medium and so is the web. Documentaries are usually shown once (or twice) and that’s it. “Mad Mundo” is a format which is trying to make full use of those media to have an impact. The very act of the broadcasting or webcasting becomes part of our story.
As much as I love documentaries as a form, I think documentary makers have a way of looking at reality that can be declined in many different forms. Their ‘eye’ counts more than the conventional documentary form. The circuit of documentary festivals, broadcasts and conferences is important but not important enough for the issues we have to deal with today. Our social responsibility should lead us to use the medium and not to abandon it to “reality TV”. It’s about time to claim reality and put it back where it belongs.
Democratizing the media?
UJ: You say that Mad Mundo is ‘journalism at the service of people’. Is Mad Mundo a way of democratizing the media? How?
PB: For too long journalists have been identifying with the powers that be. With Mad Mundo, I want journalists and filmmakers to “empower” people. To appear on their side. On the side of the moved and shaken rather than the movers and the shakers. As to the question of objectivity, which you are not raising, I would answer that the format gives a voice to all the players. And it’s more like a process than like the “ultimate and final” investigation on an issue. I am not sure it would democratize the media. It might change some perspectives.
UJ: How much editorial control do people have? How much do you have?
PB: It would be hypocritical to pretend that we abandon editorial control. We certainly edit and direct things. This being said, we do let people decide where the investigation should go. I would say that each reporter/filmmaker working on the project has his own agenda, his own vision of a problem, the same for the character, the same for me. The end result is a ‘compromise’, in a positive sense, between all of us.
UJ: You believe that people will get more involved in global issues because of the interactive storytelling. Why?
PB: I am not totally sure, but I do hope that with the support of other media (print, radio) and NGOs, the interactive storytelling will attract a number of people and get them involved. For instance, young people might find this more engaging than a ’straightforward’ one-off film. Or through the discussion forums, certain people might connect with other communities around the world that are affected by or concerned about the same issue.
Financing and compromises
UJ: You have created something new, really using the web as more than a by-product for a television programme. Still, you depend on TV money. Will the television financing influence the whole idea of ‘journalism in the service of the people’? Will you ultimately have to give in to television’s demands and tastes anyway?
PB: The project is indeed dependent on TV money. And there is a danger that it will affect the whole project. I did face this already with certain channels that could have been partners (like Channel Four). It can affect the choice of stories. The way they unfold or block us in tackling certain big companies with important advertising budgets. But there are still a few commissioning editors who understand and are willing to take some risks. Also, the structure of the partnership should enable us to lose one of the partners (not all of them) along the way.
UJ: Why do you think that you can you attract audiences to global issues or remote stories, when television can’t (or doesn’t believe it can)?
PB: Because the format establishes a link between the local and the global. Because keeping the thread with one character in the centre makes the issue remain at a ‘human level’ whatever the complexity. Because again I hope the “Mad Mundo” format and interactivity will attract younger audiences who have deserted international issues told in a conventional way on TV. Because the channels might see it and promote it as an ‘investigative soap’. Which is okay for me as long as it does not affect the content and form.
Above all, I believe there is momentum. Issues like global warming, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), the international financial system, etc., are not seen as being remote anymore. People do realize more than ever that they can feel these issues in their lives. So they are paying more attention. And these issues are evolving all the time. That’s why “Mad Mundo”, which presents evolving stories, is fit to deal with them.
UJ: Will Mad Mundo run exclusively on the web one day?
PB: It’s a possibility I have thought of. For the time being, technically and financially, we need television to reach the general public and to take off. With the digital divide, it would be a pity that so many people around the world don’t get to be viewers. But if the web was the only way to maintain the integrity of the project, it would certainly be an option. Let’s wait until 2004. Meanwhile, let’s make sure we actually gather all the partners before the spring of 2002 and that we do a good and honest job.
For more info contact: Article Z, firstname.lastname@example.org