The Research Forum is OpenDocLab’s space for researchers to voice their opinions and test new theories. As part of our mission to promote the exchange of ideas about the new arts of documentary, we hope to encourage academic discussion and debate about these emerging forms by creating a place where researchers can develop ideas and interact with the field. The views presented here belong to their authors, and will necessarily take different forms. In the spirit of the documentaries we study, we look forward to community collaboration and exchange as the ideas explored in the Research Forum take root, grow and support the development of the field.


The distinction between linear and interactive documentaries: physical involvement and organic entities

by Arnau Gifreu Castells

Since March 2013 we have been trying to define the interactive documentary with our Research Position at Open Documentary Lab. In the initial series we focused on analysing the two main components of the interactive documentary field – the documentary genre and interactive media – outlining some key concepts in the two fields.

In the next series of posts we will establish the basic distinction between linear and interactive documentaries, focusing in this case on the physical involvement and organic entities.

As we mentioned in the last post, the linear documentary demands just one form of cognitive involvement from its audience – a mental involvement which results in an interpretation and a reflection on what is seen. On the other hand, the interactive documentary requires, apart from cognitive interpretation, a type of related physical participation and decision-making that results in the use of the mouse, movement around the virtual scenario, the use of the keyboard and writing, speech, etc.

This physical response demanded of the interactor is realized by means of the elements which the interactive documentary proposes: the modalities of navigation and interaction. Bill Nichols’ methods of representation were relevant in the case of linear documentaries, but in the present case – the analysis of interactive documentaries – the key components are navigation and interaction. This perspective redirects attention from the documentary as a finished product, which can be analyzed through styles and conventions (camera position, the use of voice in off, the style of editing, the political role, etc..) to the study of the documentary as a dynamic form, as a system composed of its relations with different realities (people who have been interviewed, the mediation of the camera, the inner thoughts of the author, user participation, the cultural and economic context , etc.).

An analysis of the interactive documentary based on its methods of navigation and interaction marks another major difference between the two types of documentaries: throughout the production process, a linear documentary may change constantly, but once it is released, this process of change ceases. The production process and the visualization process are kept separate in the analog media. This is not the case in interactive digital media. The process does not stop in the case of interactive documentaries, and, by extension, the latter can be considered as organic systems that evolve and that continue to change as long as the collaboration and participation is sustainable and/or desired by the users or systems of which they consist.

Myriam Verrault is the director of the interactive documentary Ma tribe c’est ma vie (2011), which examines the impact of new media on interpersonal relationships, focusing on eight marginal characters who are fanatical music fans. She expresses her views as follows:

“For me, cinema takes place in a screening room and not before a computer screen. I was reticent to throw myself into a webdocumentary project for the simple reason that I had the impression that I was participating in the slow death of classic documentary, which a number of experts have been predicting since the explosion of the web. Having done it, I feel that the webdocumentary is not the normal evolution of documentary, but a totally different medium with its own codes. Because of its interactive character, the web is not just a new way to boost a broadcast, but the message itself.” (Verrault, Documentary Network, 2011, p. 33)

If this new format were to become absorbed by the media, according to Verrault (2011), the point of view, one of its great added values ​​that differentiate it from other formats, would be in danger of disappearing:

“The documentary filmmaker does not owe his survival to the webdocumentary. On the other hand, the webdocumentary is an astonishing medium with an under-exploited potential, and the world of journalism has quickly understood this by investing in it first. It would be a pity if documentary filmmakers leave this fantastic medium to the journalists and deprive the webdocumentary of the heart of the classic documentary tradition, a point of view.” (Verrault, 2011, p. 33)

The interactive documentary, therefore, differs from the traditional documentary in that it permits a nonlinear presentation of the subject generally through sections of information, a style similar to that of press coverage, and confers on the user an active role in deciding the amount of content he/she wants to see and in what order. The interactive documentary also provides a form of community building through the incorporation of forums, comments and deeper levels of communication. Its strength lies in the innovative presentation of content and its systems of interaction.


Arnau Gifreu Castells (PhD)
Research Affiliate, MIT Open Documentary Lab

Post Image: Catalina Acelas



Documentary Network/Observatoire du Documental. AAMI. APFC. APFTQ. AQTIS. ARRQ. ASTRAL. CBC. CFTPA. DGC. DOC. ONF-NFB. RIDM. SARTEC. SRC . TÉLÉ-QUÉBE. VIDÉOGRAPHE, Documentary and New Digital Platforms: An Ecosystem in Transition, 2011.

Gifreu, Arnau (2012), The interactive documentary as a new audiovisual genre. Study of the emergence of the new genre, approach to its definition and taxonomy proposal and a model of analysis for the purposes of evaluation, design and production. [Doctoral Thesis]. Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Communication Department.

Verreault, Myriam. National Film Board of Canada, Ma tribu c’est ma vie, 2011.


Bonus tracks / Further readings

National Fim Board of Canada – Films by Myriam Verreault

Myriam Verreault Vimeo Channel

My tribe is my life – Wikipedia

Differences between linear and interactive documentaries – Arnau Gifreu (via i-docs)

Basic distinction between representation, navigation and interaction modes. Interactive documentary modalities (I) – Arnau Gifreu (via i-docs)

Methods of navigation and interaction of an interactive documentary. I-Docs Modalities (II) – Arnau Gifreu (via i-docs)