Why Interactive?

At this point in my process, I’m tentatively identifying my project as an interactive documentary. Will I continue to label it as such? Not sure. For now, I want to use the question, Why Interactive?, as an invitation (or demand) to constantly reflect on what interaction means to me and how it fits into my own methods for telling/sharing/collaborating on stories with others.

Recently, I was talking with STA about storytelling and documentaries. He doesn’t like interactive documentaries because he sees the interactive features as often tacked on and unnecessary and, as he  bluntly put it,  “in documentaries someone is telling a story, and they should tell it, not make me do it!” His reasoning got me thinking.

superficial and superfluous

I did a little research on how “interactivity,” “interactive documentary” and “interactive storytelling” gets used and came across the article, 20 Beautiful examples of “Snowfall” style interactive storytelling. In it the author describes the interactive storytelling found in the recent NY Times story Snow Fall as a “technique for presenting longform writing online, by embellishing it with integrated multimedia elements, gorgeous photography, infographics and so on.” The key word here is embellish. To add to or enhance. But not necessarily to transform, to make more meaningful, or to allow users/readers to interact with on deeper levels.

In their critique of the “Snow Fall” phenomenon, known as snowfalling, Bobbie Johnson suggests that these new multimedia techniques are just about “razzle-dazzle,” often distracting the reader from the story instead of inviting them to pay attention to and remember it. Johnson’s critique is a caution against using new, trendy techniques that compromise the integrity of the longform story. The focus, Johnson argues, should always be on the story and the reader who wants to deeply engage with it.

I like this idea of thinking about how to focus audiences on engaging with and paying attention to the story, not the flashy graphics or dazzling parallax techniques. But, in my thinking about the dangers of superficial interactivity, I want to take a slightly different approach. My different approach is partly because I don’t envision my interactive documentary as journalism, which seems to be the focus of these articles and the discussion of longform stories.

While Johnson is invested in longform stories and how new multimedia techniques may or may not distract/detract from their ability to communicate a compelling story, I’m interested in exploring how multimedia techniques might enable us to transform how we tell stories. What new forms of storytelling might come out of our experiments with digital (and visual, aural) storytelling? Besides long form stories, how can we tell stories that enable users to think deeply, to engage, to care about, and to participate in the ideas and experiences we are sharing? And how can we use new media to do so?

I see interactive storytelling and interactive documentaries as superficial and superfluous when they tell the same (bad/boring?) story, just with video or pretty images. Like here.  When they don’t challenge, resist, transform or play with linear methods that offer only a beginning, middle and end and that involve author-as-producer and user-as-passive-consumer.

busting the binary: production/consumption

Unlike STA, who wants a documentary to tell him a story, not invite him to participate in the crafting of that story, I like the idea of storytelling not as reporting or telling, but as collaborating and initiating a conversation with a wide range of others. I want users to engage with, pay attention to and participate in the process of making meaning out of the stories that I tell and the accounts that I give.  This interest in collaboration, conversations and in challenging the binary of author/artist-as-producer and user-as-consumer/listener, is heavily influenced by my training in feminist pedagogy and my investment in making and staying trouble. I’ll say more about those influences in a future post. 

in summary (for me):

  • interactivity is used to try telling stories in new, non-linear ways
  • interactivity is used to challenge/disrupt/play with the strict division between Storyteller and story listeners
  • interactivity is about encouraging users to engage, participate, pay attention, care, resist, interrupt stories


Analysis: Flawed

15-150x150So, my first analysis, Snow Fall, was created by the New York Times. My next, Reframing Mexico, was created through a collaboration between UNC Chapel Hill and Tecnológico de Monterrey. Both of these projects involved documenting stories from many different people. Now, for my third analysis, I will focus on an interactive documentary that was created by and is centered on the experiences/stories of one person, the artist/filmmaker Andrea Dorfman. It’s called Flawed.

Design Elements

  • flash-based, must reload every time you click on site
  • hosted on NFB of Canada site with links for site on top navigation bar and links for specific project on bottom navigation bar
  • project nav bar includes: Start Over, About Flawed, Interactive Tool, Study Guide, Related NFB Films
  • stop motion animated six minute film
  • background music automatically plays once loaded, but can be muted


  • story about filmmaker’s journey to embrace her flaws
  • stop motion animated 6 minute film
  • while author tells her story about being flawed in voice-over, we watch, through stop-motion animation, the artist draw and paint illustrations of her story/stories
  • doc also includes about author page and an interactive tool, “embracing your flaws”
  • interactive tool enables you to click on different body parts of illustrated figure of author; author recounts stories about why those parts are “flawed” and why she embraces those flaws
  • study guide for 7th-12th grade
  • does not include entire doc short. see here for full 12 minutes.




  • creative mix of voice-over with stop motion animation
  • compelling narrative about embracing one’s flaws
  • mix of personal memories about author’s experiences with her body, especially her “big nose”
  • stories also told through interactive tool. user has greater ability to disrupt/shape story experience here
  • focused exclusively on her stories and her perspective


  • interactive tool, users can click on body parts to hear stories about author’s flaws
  • teaching guide with questions and advice on how to watch
  • find and watch related films on NFB site


  • compelling, creative, entertaining story with great message
  • cool interactive tool, using author’s body as story map
  • great use of stop motion animation


  • not responsive, flash-based
  • must reload documentary every time
  • needs more ways to interact (e.g.: could pose more questions for thought/reflection like, What’s your biggest flaw? How did you embrace it, etc? incorporate the study guide into the interactive doc more, instead of just as a pdf. allow users to comment or contribute their experiences and stories)
  • sound is automatically on until you mute it

Things to Use?

  • interactive tool: instead of the map of her flaws/body, a map of the farm and its buildings
  • add in study guide?

After writing the above analysis but before posting it online, I decided to watch the full documentary for Flawed. It had been screened at many different film festivals and on PBS’ POV a few years ago and was very popular. I was surprised by how the full version was the same story, but with various details edited out. I guess I was expecting the full documentary to include the interactive story, plus another story or two about her flaws. Watching both versions makes me curious. I wonder, how do the edits change the story? How did the artist choose which details to leave out and why?

For more of Andrea Dorfman’s great work, see her website.


While working on my analysis of Reframing Mexico yesterday, I started thinking about what interactivity could/will mean in my interactive documentary.  How do we create interactivity? What is interactivity? Who interacts and how and why? When other creators label their projects as interactive documentaries, how do they account for the term?

I think I’ll start by watching some video interviews over at the MIT Open Documentary Lab….I just  watched Jeremy Mendes’ response to the question, What is interactive documentary? I like the idea of interaction as interruption.