Exploring Hollow, Elaine McMillion-Sheldon’s award-winning interactive documentary about post-industrial rural America, you come across Markella Gianato, in her Ya‘sou Restaurant in Kimball, West Virginia. On a family photo behind her is a graphic depicting a fastened lock and a message to watch Markella’s story to see more. Unlocking content as a reward for successful play is a familiar engagement tactic in games. In the context of the excess of free content online, holding back material is sometimes a promotional ploy; but what does such a device represent within a documentary experience?
Hollow is a project which emerged from a process of dialogue and workshopping with people in McDowell County, West Virginia – a county formally designated as dying. The community suggested stories about the past, present and future of the area in contrast to the relentless stories of poverty and drug abuse which characterised local media coverage. McMillion-Sheldon hoped that Hollow might be, “a project that wouldn’t just document, but maybe inspire people to get involved” – a work of capacity building as much as one of representation.
While the use of media for development is not new – going back to the Fogo Process devised in Canada in the mid 1960s - Hollow is one of a number of web documentary initiatives that show how this project is being reimagined through interactivity. The creators of Quipu are devising a system which combines analogue and digital technology to allow Peruvian women in remote areas who suffered forced sterilization in the 1990s to use a phone to record their testimonies, to hear the stories of other women for the first time and to be alerted when someone hears their story online. The creators of these projects are not just collaborating with their subjects, they are moving beyond participation towards participatory design - devising media interactions in which documentary storytelling serves community interests.
People in McDowell Country didn’t open up to McMillion-Sheldon as soon as she met them; that took time and trust. The lock device simulates that process of getting acquainted, with the user unable to access Markella’s precious family photos until they have committed the time to understand her family’s story.
In these examples we can see how documentary can use the potential of interactivity to negotiate the attention economy of the web, engaging with a global audience with attention to local participants and concerns.