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With interactive elements, digital documentaries are changing the way we tell and consume stories

Highrise Producer, Gerry Flahive and Director, Katerina Cizek.
Highrise Producer, Gerry Flahive and Director, Katerina Cizek. - Voula Monoholias

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Documentaries really can change the world. Films like An Inconvenient Truth, Super Size Me, March of the Penguins, Corporation and Cove have stirred and influenced audiences about important, timely topics. While the stories that drive documentaries often grab the spotlight, there's an interesting technological shift happening, too: they're becoming interactive. Some of the most innovative and experimental work with documentaries is happening right here in Toronto's backyard thanks to the National Film Board.
 
For nearly a decade, the NFB has been incorporating new technologies to revolutionize how we consume media. Recent Toronto-based project Highrise drew international attention for its use of interactive features to chronicle vertical living within urban centres. The collective project features two main components thus far: Out of My Window, a recreation of vertical living spaces in 13 cities from around the world, and One Millionth Tower, an interactive documentary exploring the future of highrises. One Millionth Tower premiered on Wired and won a Digital Emmy.
 
"There is no business model for this yet and that's where a public agency like the film board can take risks," Highrise producer Gerry Flahive says.
 
Highrise was created using open-source software from Mozilla, the organization best known for the web browser Firefox. It's a world first, according to the NFB. Tower incorporates real-time experiences by having the virtual, interactive replica of its featured Kipling Avenue building reflect the current weather in Toronto. If it's snowing in Toronto, pixelated snow will fall in Tower, creating a more tangible connection between the viewer and the subjects in the documentary. 
 
The shift to interactive makes sense. Who hasn't had their interest piqued by something in a documentary and immediately pulled up Wikipedia to learn more? An interactive documentary can fold in the expanded threads so that users can pause the film and dive more in-depth, perhaps by providing additional relevant links or attaching supplemental photos and videos on a subject. Other works allow viewers to affect the images being presented. In Alma, an online documentary about a young former gang member in Guatemala, images of violence hover over Alma as she describes her former life. The choice of what is shown on screen is left to the viewer.
 
How storytellers and technologists work together is a key step in progressing the field of interactive documentaries. Toronto is "at the very heart of these conversations," says Highrise director Katerina Cizek, because of the proximity between its arts and technology sectors. This is true literally and figuratively: the National Film Board office in Toronto is a five-minute walk from Mozilla's Canadian headquarters.
 
Traditionally, the web was seen mainly as a promotional tool for a documentary, notes Flahive, as the main life of the film would be screenings on television, in cinemas, or at festivals. In 2004, Flahive and the NFB began to rethink how the web could be used for storytelling. What if instead of acting merely as an online billboard for the documentary, the web itself was the platform?
 
Enter Flahive and Cizek's first collaboration: Filmmaker-In-Residence (2006). The online series captured the stories frontline workers at St. Michael's Hospital and won a Webby award, Banff Award and Canadian New Media Award. 
 
Cizek wanted to continue to focus on Toronto and turned her eye to the sky. Toronto had 1,875 highrises as of 2011, the second-most of any North American city except Manhattan. "I'm fascinated by the city," says Cizek. "You've got the whole world here, and yet it's dividing up in very complex ways." 
 
"Unlike the neighbourhoods of Little Italy or Chinatown 50 years ago where you apprehend you're in a different community, now you go past a row of highrise buildings on Kipling and it doesn't say anything," Flahive says. Highrise residents, often new Canadians, can feel isolated from one another, and the film argues that highrises need to be reimagined with public spaces that will draw people together.  
 
Interactive documentary is still a young form. The field is experimenting with novel ways to encourage viewers to become more engaged with its stories, whether by breaking free from linearity or by readily making supplemental materials accessible to explore ideas further. No longer confined to conventional broadcasting time constraints, interactive documentaries have new freedoms within the medium. They have the potential to not only reach larger audiences, but also to cater to audience habits such as watching videos in chunks rather than in one long sitting. 
 
"There's this universe of possibilities that has opened up," says Flahive. 
 
Loc Dao, chief technologist for the NFB's English-language Digital Studio, estimates that 50,000 people have viewed Waterlife, a 2009 NFB documentary about the Great Lakes, through screenings, while the interactive documentary version has had more than two million viewers. One Millionth Tower drew viewers from 180 countries, and half a million viewers have seen Highrise. He notes that on average most interactive works have 100,000 to 150,000 viewers. 
 
The future of interactive documentaries is mobile. Forty per cent of traffic to the NFB website comes from tablets, so designing an interactive documentary mindful of the devices is a logical next step. Cizek thinks it would be interesting to examine the relationship between storytelling and space via smartphones and tablets. This could include location-based elements such as relevant geotagged information to enhance the viewer's experience.
 
"It's in the legacy of the NFB to embrace new technology as an experimental storytelling form," says Flahive. "It's really an obligation that we have, an obligation to innovate." 
 
Jaime Woo is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in the Financial Post,Toronto Standard, and AV Club. He is the author of the Meet Grindr, released in February 2013, about how the design of geolocation cruising apps shifts user behaviour.
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