The Open Documentary Lab is pleased to announce the Research Forum, a 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 OpenDocLab team is happy to welcome Arnau Gifreu Castells, an OpenDocLab visiting research affiliate, as the inaugural contributor to the Research Forum. A Professor of Communication Studies at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the Universitat de Vic (UVIC), Arnau is also a member of the i-Docs group. The Director of the UVIC_Lab, the Digital Content Laboratory at UVIC, he has also held research lecturer positions at Harvard University (Harvard Metalab) and York University (Future Cinema Lab).

Combined evolution of the documentary genre and interactive media: towards the interactive documentary

Introduction: the documentary genre and the digital media (I)

by Arnau Gifreu Castells

In this series we focus on analyzing the two main parts that constitute the interactive documentary field: the documentary genre and interactive media. In these articles we trace the evolutions of both the documentary and digital medium, and examine the significant ways they intersect. Our aim is to link moments of innovation in the documentary genre and storytelling in general with technological experiments, inventions and pioneering concepts in the digital field.

The documentary genre: preliminary issues

The study of documentary is a complex area and it is often difficult to put forth a definition of the genre that is free of criticism. As well as attempting to illuminate a historical context and possible definitions, it is very important to review the various positions adopted by documentary filmmakers during the first century of the genre’s existence, and to illustrate this using a number of directors and specific works. In Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (1996:261), Erik Barnouw says that the positions or different functions adopted by the genre were never mutually exclusive, but instead, directors used to adopt a combination of various functions or positions assumed at different points in time. Barnouw also points out that the documentary’s position in history has varied depending on the period and the prevailing needs, and has often been subordinate to the regime in power and its social function.

While the history of documentary can arguably be traced back centuries ago (even millennia, with cave paintings), based on the initial studies by Janssen, Muybridge and Marey, we will consider the evolution of the documentary genre over slightly more than a century. This brief approximation does not use a linear chronology, but is instead essentially based on the description of the modes suggested by Bill Nichols in Representing reality. Issues and Concepts in Documentary (1991). It cites and lists a series of outstanding authors and periods in the genre’s history.

Directors in the genre have worked outside the boundaries of the big fiction system and outside the major film studios, as their field is reality and the outside world. Documentary filmmakers are becoming increasingly interested in the history and significance of the medium in which they operate. They pay tribute to and remember the work and words of several pioneers of the genre, such as Louis Lumière and his invention, Flaherty and his passion for other peoples, Esfir Shub and montage, Dziga Vertov and stylistic innovation, Grierson and his passion for immediate reality, and others. The directors of documentaries are excited by images and sounds from reality, and are drawn to them rather than to the things they could invent using a fictional screenplay. The documentary director way of expressing themselves is based on selecting and arranging what they find, and the decisions they make in this process become the discourse that they broadcast to the world, which is always framed within their individual subjectivity. Every choice by the documentary filmmaker becomes the expression of a particular point of view, conscious or unconscious, recognized or unrecognized. Barnouw (1996:312-313) believes that a documentary cannot be considered “the truth” but rather the evidence or the testimony of a fact or situation, within the complex historical process.

Michael Rabiger (1989:497) warned that the increasing production of documentaries, their independence from news journalism and their growing development as an individual voice in film could have major consequences in the future. Today, documentaries can be produced at no great expense using the latest modern technology, as the documentary does not depend on either studios or production centers. Two decades ago, Rabiger (1989) backed the production of films made on a speculative basis, and predicted a considerable increase in works in which the author was defined by their diversification and their independence from the major centers of power.

As with any other art form, film has been subjected to many classifications based on different criteria and points of view over the years. Rick Altman (2000) says that the film genre can be understood based on various perspectives and meanings. The list he suggests (Altman, 2000:35) is as follows:

  • The genre as a blueprint, as a formula that precedes, programs and patterns industry production
  • The genre as structure, as the formal framework on which individual films are founded
  • The genre as label, as the name of a category central to the decisions and communications of distributors and exhibitors
  • The genre as contract, as the viewing position required by each genre film of its audience

Altman’s proposal is an initial approach, which does not divide the genre into the two classic categories, fiction and nonfiction. Roman Gubern (1993) defined the concept of a film genre as “a subject category, a rigid cultural model, based on standardized and repetitive formulas which are used to create the episodic and formal variations that distinguish each specific product and create families of themed subgenres within each major genre” (Romaguera, 1999:46).

The pioneers of digital media and digital technology

The purpose of this second part of the article is to present a brief summary of the emergence and evolution of the digital medium, and to define the main contributions made by the pioneers of its conceptualization, who were mainly mathematicians and engineers. We will attempt to summarize the contributions to the terminology of the field and the concepts of multimedia, hypermedia, Internet, hypertext and interactive narrative. The documentary genre began in the late nineteenth century with the invention of the cinematograph by the brothers August and Louis Lumière. The emergence of the digital medium occurred half a century later, but it developed at an exponentially quicker pace. The difference between analogue and digital media lies in how they operate: until the arrival of digitization, all media operated based on analogue methods, i.e. by replica or imitation. Analogue is equivalent to transcription. Encoding information on an analogue basis involves transcribing a given magnitude to another system, consisting of a new magnitude proportional to the first, but more manageable.

Traditionally, in the analogue medium, an artist or author has a model or a reality and transcribes it (or transforms it) to physical media such as photographic paper (photographs), stone (sculpture) or paint (painting). In digital media, the process is no longer a question of transcription, but rather of conversion: the encoding of information entails the conversion of physical magnitudes into binary numerical parameters. The model becomes a series of numbers (which are always 0 or 1) without any new physical representation. As a result, during the digital conversion process, different physical items such as text, images and sounds are converted into bits of information (a kind of unique information package, which leads us to think that there is ultimately only one medium and interactive programs, as argued by Berenguer in 1997, are “unimedial”). In short: in analogue transcription there is always a physical medium (paper, rock, fabric, etc.), while in digital conversion only a series of numbers occupy the computer’s processor. A digital medium is defined as all the practices originating in an analogue or digital medium that become a specific numeric code after processing of their signal (a combination chain between 0 and 1).

It is possible to speak in terms of new media thanks to a series of contributions by mathematicians and engineers who invented and used tools and languages which today we call computer systems, which laid the foundations of this new communication environment known as the digital medium. Note that in many cases, the individual concerned did not invent the instrument or language, but instead led or coordinated a design and/or development team. The linking of the inventor to his invention, called the “heroic theory of invention,” has been heavily criticised by authors advocating a social perspective on technology (seen in terms of a product that emerges from working networks and is reconfigured to work and society), and is in contrast to the “theory of multiple discovery,” which posits that most scientific discoveries are made by different people simultaneously). Broadly speaking, the pioneers were the following authors: Charles Babbage, Herman Hollerith, Alan Turing, Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, Konrad Zuse, Jack Kilby and Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, among others. The next table is a diagram showing the most important contributions by each of these authors.



ALTMAN, Rick (2000), Los géneros cinematográficos. Madrid: Ediciones Paidós Ibérica.
BARNOUW, Erik (1996), El documental. Historia y estilo. Barcelona: Gedisa.
BERENGUER, Xavier (1997), “Escriure programes interactius”. Barcelona: Formats, 1.Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Versió en línia disponible a:
GUBERN, Román (1993), De John Travolta a Indiana. Jones, Madrid: Espasa Calpe.
MERAN BARSAM, R. Nonfiction Film: a Critical History. Bloomington, Indiannapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992.
NICHOLS, Bill (1991), La representación de la realidad: Cuestiones y Conceptos sobre el Documental. Barcelona: Paidós.
RABIGER, Michael (1989), Dirección de documentales. Madrid: Instituto Oficial de Radio y Televisión.
ROMAGUERA, Joaquim (1999), El lenguaje cinematográfico. Madrid: La Torre.
WIENER, Norbert (1948), Cybernetics: or the Study of Control and Communication in
the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge: MIT Press.
— (1956), I Am a Mathematician. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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