Chapter 7 – The participative documentary through the lenses of the Live documentary

From Cinema Vérité to interactive documentaries for change

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From Cinema Vérité to interactive documentaries for change

Beside co-authoring and co-producing there is another way to include the participant in the production of an interactive documentary: co-initiating content. This happens when the collaboration is placed in the pre-production phase of both the video material and the interactive artefact. In this case the participant is not a “user” of a launched interactive artefact but a potential “subject” of a project in its shaping. This type of collaboration does not come from the peer-sourcing of open software, nor from the crowd-sourcing of Wikipedia and YouTube, but rather from the participative school of Cinema Vérité of the 1960’s and it is often linked to a social activist cause. Trans-media theorist O’Flynn recalls how for both Canadian social activist documentary series Challenge for Change (1967-1980) and Studio D’s Representation of Women's Lives in Canada  (1974-1996) the aim was ‘of serving as a catalyst for social change into the production process itself by giving the ‘subjects’ of the documentaries editorial approval of the content of the film’ (n.d:9). Forms of editorial control were also a feature of UK access- TV. In BBC2 Video Nation a group of people were selected and given camcorders, and video training. Those subjects could then record aspects of their everyday lives during the course of one year. Although professional editors were compiling the final short film, contributors “had a right of veto over their material so that nothing was broadcast without their consent”59. Reflecting on the material that people did record, Video Nation’s co-producer Mandy Rose60 noticed that effectively subjects were articulating ‘the gap between television representation and lived experience’ (as cited in Biressi and Nun, 2005:18).

Interventionist media used the affordances of video to empower ‘subjects’ in their own representation during the filming, and sometimes during the editing of the documentary. Subjects could become the filmmaker, the observed observer. Video was supposed to empower them, allowing the formulation of their own point of view. But in the year 2011 the affordances of the media have changed: digital cameras, the internet, social media do empower people beyond the production of the film itself. Online movies have forums for discussion, viewers can get in touch with the ‘subjects’ of the film by a simple click61… in other words the video production is only one part of a larger cross-media production. Interactive documentaries create a network of relations that opens the reality of the filmed ‘subjects’ to the world allowing them to be active during the filming process, but also in the discussion of the final artefact. Being dynamic this network can easily put in relation the subjects with the political and regional institutions that could change the situation portrayed in the documentary – or with other people sharing the same concerns.

In Highrise, a “multi-year, many-media collaborative documentary experiment at the National Film Board of Canada”62 Katerina Cizek explores life in suburbia and vertical buildings around the planet. Highrise is an umbrella name for what effectively is a series of stand-alone digital experiments that are accessible through a common website, but are totally separate experiences. The project launched in April 2010, with The Thousandth Tower, an interactive documentary which takes the web visitor into the apartments and lives of six residents in a highrise in Toronto’s interurban neighbourhood, Rexdale. At the moment of writing, November 2011, Highrise has already expanded into five interactive forms: The Thousandth Tower, Out My Window, Participate (a website and a gallery installation) and One Millionth Tower.

Each of those interactive forms experiment with different participative logics: sometimes they involve the ‘subjects’ (The Thousandth Tower, Out My Window) sometimes they involve the ‘user’ (Participate) and sometimes they put in contact the ‘subjects’ with the ‘experts’ (the Millionth Tower). What is fascinating about Highrise is the way it evolves with a ripple effect, each wave creating a different one, separated and yet related. Highrise is a truly relational object: a series of ‘bridges within several worlds’ (Gaudenzi, 2011:2). Two of its sub-projects, The Thousandth Tower and Out My Window specifically concentrate on the involvement of their ‘subjects’ in a similar way to interventionist documentaries. ‘Key to both the interface and narrative design of these projects is that the individuals depicted negotiate their social environments through an active and relational writing of self in place’ (O’Flynn, n.d:10).

With The Thousandth Tower director Cizek ‘began a participatory project with 6 highrise residents living in Toronto suburbian highrise, and asked them to show the world what the view looks like from inside’63. Using self-created images, audio and text each resident speaks about ‘the immigrant experience of alienation, financial instability, lack of social support mechanisms and residential infrastructure that many low-income highrise residents experience’ (O’Flynn, n.d:3). Although to its web visitor The Thousandth Tower looks very much as an ordinary hypertext documentary, the way director Cizek produced it makes it a participative documentary because the subjects were actively involved in the process of production.

Fig 7. From

Fig 8. From

The six ‘subjects’ portrayed in the Thousandth Tower where not just found and interviewed by a filmmaker. Director Cizek and her team, certainly selected them but then started a long term relationship of collaboration between the interactive producer, the residents of the tower and Toronto’s urban planning institutions. Those subjects were not just filmed and observed but rather placed in a dynamic for change which started with some technical training, and continued with a plan for the elaboration of politics of change. In December 2010, Cizek announced the second stage of the project, which brought residents and architects together for The Kipling Towers Community Design Charette. During such event architects and residents were asked to reimagine the possibilities of urban rejuvenation based on the input and ideas of the residents. The result of such workshop had both virtual and physical repercussions: the playground of the tower block was re-built and the ideas of the workshop fed Highrise’s latest development: One Millionth Tower, an online 3D visualization space to ‘bring to life the creative vision of those who are often underrepresented in these discussions but whom this initiative positions as the Resident Experts’ (O’Flynn, 2011:4).

Katerine Cizek understands participation as a way to impact the world of the people she is portraying. She sees documentary “not as a way to speak about people but to see how it can be a tool to work with for change”64. Her strategy of collaboration touches upon her subjects and, as a result, the aesthetics of her work is fairly hypertextual: a controlled amount of choices and routes, as opposed to an overwhelming possible entry points. Since the potential user/viewer is not a subject of the documentary there is no need to visualise the multiple, as in the mosaic aesthetic described in the previous sub-chapter.

When in October 2010 – just six months after launching The Thousandth Tower – Cizek created Out My Window (OMW ) she wanted to step out of Toronto and involve the rest of the world in her exploration of vertical living. She also wanted to try a different way to collaborate with her subjects. This time she used social media to find thirteen subjects scattered around the world. Being so distant from her subjects Cizek had to delegate the production to local crews. She could not anymore meet her subjects every week, as in The Thousandth Tower. In OMW she used digital media to create a network of collaboration, but also to let the project emerge. The interface of OMW emerged from the contribution received. The idea of creating a fictional digital tower block from where the web user would be able to enter thirteen different flat (spread in reality across the globe) was not designed yet when starting the project, but the material received made such vision possible.

Fig 9. Home screen of Out My Window – prior to any selection.

Available at, retrieved 20.11.11

Fig 10. Home screen of Out My Window – once one flat is selected it appears in colour.

Available at, retrieved 20.11.11

Fig 11. Home screen of Out My Window – once a flat is double clicked it fills all the screen and the user can navigate in it by using the arrow keys (or clicking and dragging)

Available at, retrieved 20.11.11

The subjects were active in the “pre-production” phase in what is called “assets production” in Out My Window’s production schedule65. Those “assets” are then going to be edited together by Cizek and her team and it is only then that the “architecture and design” of the public website will be created.

There are now two stages where Cizek’s authorial voice is being expressed: the editing and the interactive design (leading to OMW’s online interface). In her presentation of Highrise at the British Library, Cizek said “in a project like this the navigation itself is the content. When you scroll around that 360 degrees collages, to me that is content. You are creating meaning as stories appear and sound unfolds” 66. The unfolding of personal stories and memories was carefully orchestrated via details: objects that are in the flats, and that carry the stories of their users, have been used as entry points to unveil the subject’s narratives.

This is a story that would not necessarily translate well into a 90 minutes feature film. People that are doing films are looking for extremely strong characters that are going through some sort of life changing transformation. There is a beginning, middle and an end to what we witness in the story. Whereas here [in OMW] the units are really very small, they speak about the details, the minutia of everyday life. And that is what I love about the Web, because it honours that everyday experience. I think (…) it opens up a whole new series of opportunities in storytelling.

Cizek, recorded interview, 16.09.11

Those details could only be picked up by the subjects themselves. They are the only ones that can “give a meaning” to objects that would appear neutral to any outside observer. When possible, and suitable, Cizek allowed her subjects to document their habitat by themselves. Seventy per cent of OMW content’s comes from people that Cizek has never met in flesh67. She communicated with them via Skype, Facebook or e-mails, sometimes not knowing what they were producing until she would receive the footage. A Cuban girl independently decided to interview her own father and then sent the footage by courier to Canada. Other people requested a professional photographer but were happy to record their voice by themselves. Is this content crowd-sourced (as in Life in a Day) or peer-sourced (as in RiP: A Remix Manifesto)? Neither of those two: there is no open call for video participation, and OMW’s subjects are not Cisek’s peers. The participants are not a huge crowd (leading to crowd-production of a mosaic aesthetic) nor a specialist team that wants to share Cizek’s authorship (leading to co-authoring). The material is not even user-generated, it is subject-generated. When I asked Kat Cizek her views on UGC she replied “I am not interested in user-generated content, I want to maintain an authorial role”68. She is the facilitator, and as such she maintains the authorship of navigation, which she considers as a form of content. What she opens to collaboration is the voice given to the subject. She accepts subject-producers. This makes all the difference. It makes the difference for the subjects: they are not to be one of the thousand points of views of a mosaic, but rather a character that can use digital media to empower herself. They are co-initiators in a process that will shape the documentary, shape its database and maybe change their lives. It makes the difference for the user: the web viewer of OMW is external to the project. She is navigating into a hypertext documentary, with the power of browsing through it but not of adding to the database (not even comments). Finally, it makes the difference for the digital artefact: with 90 minutes of material OMW goes deeply into the life stories of each subject, it is composed of thirteen portraits linked by an interface that uses details as entry points and a mixture of media (audio, photos, 360 degrees video) as ways to play with the notion of time, place and memory. Videos are used when a live action happens (a Tibetan family plays traditional music together), but photos with audio are used to zoom back into the past of each subject (a miniature Yak is the entry point for childhood memories). Although OMW is a participative project, it looks and feels totally different from Life in a Day Interactive Gallery. The participation is not opened to everybody as it is not placed in the viewing. To the web visitor it has an hypertext aesthetic: clicking, zooming in and out, making sense of and exploring someone’s else world. OMW plays on the distinction between the active-subject and the active-user.

Ultimately Cizek takes the responsibility to frame her active-subjects’ voices by fitting them into a precise interface that she mainly designs far from her subjects. This is a conscious choice as Cizek believes in authorship and considers her role to be the aggregator-narrator of those voices. A similar project – although ten years older – had tackled similar issues but proposed a completely different solution: Superchannel by activist artist group Superflex. It is worth mentioning such project because it questions whether the role of the director is ultimately to facilitate subjects in using media, and owning their voice, or to frame such voices within a product that subjects only partially own.

In 1999, the early days of internet TV, Superchannel69 offered the residents of a tower bloc in Copenhagen70, the possibility to broadcast their own programme through internet TV. Effectively technology was used as a tool for social empowerment where anybody could at any moment open her own channel. The format was designed to be so simple that anybody with a computer and a web-camera could participate. The result was a multitude of self-organized shows were resident would talk about music, local issues or sport. A parallel between Highrise and Superchannel Highrise shows how two different approaches to social empowerment can lead to different forms. While Superchannel looked as a series of amateurish shows, Highrise presents itself as a sleek and polished interactive documentary. But behind the aesthetics the impact is different: Highrise uses local content to be made global via internet distribution, hoping that in the process things will change locally and globally, while Superchannel effectively gives ownership of the medium to its subject, instantly projecting them into a potentially worldwide audience. Cizek works with her subjects, but she stays is stylistic control because she believes her role is to tell their stories. She is the author. Superchannel on the other hand wanted to empower residents with a tool, and to stay away from the form, the stories and aesthetic it would take - as the challenge was to give people ownership of the tool hoping that through it they could discover their voice. Superchannel activist Will Bradley wrote on their website ‘TV might not be just as something everybody watches, but something everybody does’ (Bradley, 2001, webpage n?). To this I will respond that it probably depends on who one wants to target with its artefact. Superchannel shows have very little interest to anybody that is not living in the tower block, but they are probably very relevant to the local residents and improvised talents. On the other hand Highrise has a clear divulgater appeal to a very vast audience that is interested in highrise living, or interactive documentaries, but it probably somehow restrains the voices of its subjects. The difference between the two project is in nuances of power levels given to the subjects. Up to which point does the author want to empower the subject? Also, when it comes to speak about the subject’s lives, who is ultimately the expert, the interactive producer or the subjects themselves? The proposition that they can collaborate sharing their expertises is probably what makes Highrise such a successful interactive documentary.

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