Charting Documentary's Futures: An Interview with MIT's William Uricchio (Part Three)

On the documentary side, the American public has probably never had access to as many different documentaries as they do now -- more are playing on television, more are getting theatrical runs, more are playing on the festival circuit, more are available through online platforms. So, how has this context impacted the ways documentary producers work today? How do they stand out in a cluttered environment? They are under increased pressure from funders to demonstrate their impact, but how do they insure impact in such a complicated media environment? It’s been a curious time for the documentary form. It’s being pushed on one side by the interactive, immersive, location-based forms that our report explores, where the boundaries are being redefined through new technologies, techniques, and empowered users. And on the other side, the traditional linear form is blurring thanks to a broad spectrum of reality television, from Animal Planet’s programming to series such as MythBusters. These predictably formatted programs technically hew to Grierson’s definition, but for the most part seem like extreme dilutions of documentary’s capacity to engage meaningfully with the world.

Meanwhile, there is indeed a lot of excellent linear documentary out there – I’ve been to a couple of remarkable festivals over the past few months – but sad to say, very little of what I’ve seen will ever be seen again, unless it’s at another festival or by very adventurous uses of Netflix. The more socially critical and engaged, the poorer the opportunities for theatrical or televisual distribution … and it’s still early days in terms of the various modalities of internet distribution.

The developments that we’ve been tracking address the ‘attention’ problem in a couple of ways. First, they are in many cases designed for the viewing platforms that seem increasingly dominant: smart phones and tablets, that is, relatively small mobile screens with touch interfaces. In this sense, they are digital native productions, making use of links, user interventions, etc. already well understood from everyday encounters with these technologies. They take the form of a new vernacular, rather than repurposing the older forms of dramatic narrative film, television and the long form story.

Secondly, in a number of cases, they attempt to be immersive. This might take as extreme a form as Karim Ben Khelifa’s The Enemy, which uses Oculus Rift to bring an interview to life; or as simple a form as Question Bridge (Hank Willis Thomas, Kamal Sinclair, Chris Johnson and Bayeté Ross Smith) which lets users follow their interests by controlling the configuration of questions and answers.

Question Bridge: Black Males - Project Trailer from Question Bridge on Vimeo.

And as this suggests, thirdly, a high degree of customization is often possible, as users make decisions about what they want to see, which characters or perspectives they want to follow, or where they want to dive more deeply.

These approaches to attention also, unfortunately, make the lack of attention quite visible. Whereas linear documentaries continue to flow along regardless of whether one is watching, asleep or in the next room making a sandwich, interactives usually stop cold the moment that one has stopped interacting with them. And in a world of data tracking, that is not always good news for interactives. Attention can be more sharply measured, but the metrics regimes between linear and interactive aren’t necessarily compatible.

This gets to your second question: impact. I find this a fraught area in general, and in particular in the case of interactives, where we have tended to extend the logics of assessing fixed linear texts to texts with a very different set of conditions and affordances. There has been a recent spate of impact assessment studies that have essentially (and often unknowingly) worked in parallel with the television industry, where, as Philip Napoli puts it, interest in exposure has been replaced by interest in engagement.

That is, the vast proliferation of program options has weakened the market share of any one program and therefore logics of economic value; and at the very same moment, new and more fine-grained tools are available, encouraging the industry to shift from quantitative to qualitative arguments. Nielsen’s partnership with Twitter, and the importance of social media as a site of ‘engagement’, are all about this shift.

Anyway, in the more refined world of academics and foundations concerned with social change, the same basic shift in thinking is underway. How can we use the new tools available to us (Twitter feeds and Facebook mentions) better to understand engagement, impact and social change?

It’s a fair question, of course, and there are good reasons to ask what kind of impact a documentary had and what we can learn in order to improve down the road. But at the moment, we seem caught up in defaults that largely extend the thinking of the broadcast past and its obsession with comparative metrics and standardization, redoubling it with the data trails users of digital media leave behind. And that, it seems to me, does a great disservice to the affordances of the interactive forms we’ve been investigating.

There is a world of difference between, on one hand, taking a guided tour of a city, where one sits back and listens to an informed and compelling tale, and on the other, wandering through the city on one’s own, where there is much greater latitude in terms of where to direct attention and different requirements for engagement. I’m not (yet) convinced that the latter experience can be measured on the same standardized customer satisfaction form as the former. So while I am by no means adverse to assessment, I guess I’d say that the verdict is still out on best impact assessment practices for the interactive space, though many of my colleagues seem comfortable with tweaking the tools developed for fixed linear experiences and porting them over to interactives.

With support from the Fledgling Fund, the MIT Open Documentary Lab partnered with the Tribeca Film Institute to bring together leading social impact assessment researchers and practitioners to examine how participatory and interactive media can be used to enhance social justice initiatives. The goal of the Media Impact Assessment Working Group was to provide common strategies and frameworks for the measurement and assessment of documentary media-based engagement campaigns – including both long-form films linked to cross-platform campaigns, and interactive, participatory, or non-linear forms of storytelling. As I said, there is a lot of work out there – reports galore – but I think there are still more compelling questions than answers in these early days of interactive, immersive and participatory forms.

Your lab is focused on “open documentaries.” What does this phrase mean to you and what are some examples of how these techniques have been deployed?

Open…. We use this term for a couple of reasons. One important cluster of motives comes from our institutional setting: MIT.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, Ricky Leacock, probably best known for his work with direct cinema, was increasingly involved in developing a film technology that would put the tools of documentary production into everyone’s hands. His work with sound Super 8mm was, we now know, doomed by the soon to emerge technology of portable video, but his endeavor was right on target: how can we take the next step from ‘direct cinema’? how can we empower the documentary subject to take up the means of representation and tell their own story? how can we enable widespread participation in the documentary project, opening up the filmmaker-subject dynamic in important ways?

A second factor is the work of Glorianna Davenport’s group at the Media Lab. Starting in the 1980s, Glorianna and her team developed some remarkably sophisticated interactive platforms – conceptual equivalents of what we are still doing today. The difference was that projects like Elastic Charles involved stacks of computers and laser disks to implement – they were technology intensive in the worst way. But they opened up the user’s ability to explore an issue, to assemble the parts in ways that made sense to them.

A third MIT-related invocation of ‘open’ comes from the legacy of people like Hal Ableson, Gerald Sussman, Richard Stallman and others who were instrumental in founding initiatives such as the free software movement and Creative Commons. With a goal of opening up code and creative work for sharing and creative reiteration, their work helped us to appreciate the importance of opening up the processes, techniques and even tools behind the screen, and of incorporating the principles of sharing and participation into the bones of the documentary project.

Together, Leacock’s participatory technology, Davenport’s interactive texts and Ableson et al’s sharing and learning economy all contributed key elements to our work. Sure, today’s widespread and networked mobile technologies and a tech-savvy population are important, but more important are the underlying principles. Understanding them and fighting the good fight to keep and expand them is essential, especially if we seek to enhance critical engagement and encourage widespread participation in the project of representing and changing the world.

Beyond ‘open’ as an adjective, we also use it as a verb, since our lab’s task is to open debate, to open the documentary form to new participants, to explore the possibilities of new technologies, and to understand the expressive capacities of new textual possibilities. It’s a big agenda, and in part means revisiting documentary’s past to ‘liberate’ it from the film medium (the documentary ethos, we argue in Moments of Innovation , has been around for centuries and taken many different media forms).

And finally, consistent with the spirit of CMS that binds your and my histories together, we do our best to open our lab’s doors and ideas to anyone who might benefit from our work … and at the same time, to be open to and learn from the many different experiences out there in the world.

This all hits documentary in several ways. First, more people than ever before are equipped to make documentaries, to reflect on and give form to their ideas and observations. High definition video cameras are built into most smartphones, and Vine and Youtube upload rates suggest that producing moving images is increasingly the norm. Second, networked distribution enables unprecedented global reach. Third, the tools for designing interactive and participatory texts have never been so accessible, both in the senses of easy and free. And meanwhile, interactivity has been increasingly normalized in our encounters with situated texts, that is, we have become comfortable navigating our way through texts and contexts, effectively constructing our own meta-texts (whether our mobile devices, audio-visual systems, or DVDs). This all adds up to an incentive to think about newly enabled users, new ways of telling stories, and new ways of connecting with one another.

William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at