This web documentary was made in 2008 by French production company Honkytonk Films (and more specifically by directors Samuel Bollendorff and Abel Ségrétin). Interestingly it was first First released on French news portal lemonde.fr and has then successfully toured the most renowned Documentary Film Festivals of this world…
The documentary wants to make public the very poor working conditions of Chinese coal miners and investigates on the daily death that occur in those mines – deaths that never get reported by the media. Following a montage of stylish photos linked by an explanatory scrolling text, you are positioned in the role of an investigator that travels in the coal region and meets local people.
Your journey begins in Datong which is located just a couple hours away West from Beijing. You travel from there all around the region and visit its major coal mines, from the “best” state-owned complex to the worst private coal plants.
In and around the coal mines, you get the story first hand from the mingong, the rural migrants traveling their country looking for work.
At your own pace and will, you meet them and learn more about how they live in this valley of death and pollution, sometimes even literally bumping into them as they leave their home for their night shift, in the frozen winter of Northern China.
Ultimately, you might discover China forbidden mines in which happen most of the accidents.
Find out more:
For information and credits about the project click here
To view the documentary online click here
This humanistic/current affairs documentary is a very successful example of how interaction can be a tool for immersion in a factual story. If any of us did not care about what happens in remote China, it would be quite impossible to not feel concerned after meeting the people that Journey to the end of coal presents us. At first the quality and beauty of the photos acts as an incentive to see more… then after a few screens a text invites us to interview the person that is on screen. Here again, sheer human curiosity acts as an incentive to learn more… and before we know we feel part of a journey that tells us about what we did not know.
As I was browsing through the project I could not help trying to understand the interactive structure behind it. After a few instructions I found myself on a photo of a train station where a text gave me a unique option: take the train to Shanxi. I clicked. A video started with some credits, but it is on another photo with scrolling text that I was presented with my next two options:”visit the state mine complex” or “go look for coal miners”. This ramifications of choices sounded very much like a branching narrative where even interviews with people are lead by selecting a question out of a choice of two or three.
Now… I normally dislike branching narrative (with a few exceptions, like some of Florian’s Korsakow films) because they always leave me with the feeling that in real life I would I liked a different option, and that tends to frustrate me. Why should I select between things I do not care about? While in linear movies a sort of inertia makes me watch even things that I do not care about, in interactive films the moment I loose curiosity I stop interacting – and this is the end of the film. So… why was I not irritated by Journey to the end of coal?
I suspect it is a mixture of things:
1- the photos are elaborated and grabbing
2- the informational text about China’s coal miners is interesting
3- the compulsory branching choices often give the feeling that those are the two or three question that the reported asked while he/she was filming and, although they are maybe not the one that I would have asked, they seem quite natural and legitimate questions… so they are not irritating
4- the lives of the people that one meets are so extremes, that one cannot but sympathise
5- the topic is very interesting, and I knew nothing about it
Branching narratives (that I call hypertext mode in my PhD) have the disadvantage of not allowing a creative participation of the user. All you can do is normally to choose between pre-selected choices and it is therefore a type of interaction that that is one way: you are selecting an option but you cannot change it nor affect the final project. But I am noticing that this type of interaction works quite well when one is browsing through other peoples lives. Florian Thalhofer’s Love Story Project and Journey to the end of coal are two successful applications of branching narratives… and I think that it is because they have one thing in common: they put us in front of people that we do not know, but that we are interested in. Our human curiosity works as an incentive to go ahead and our natural shyness welcomes the given choices (even if limited) that allow us to meet those strangers without having to thing about “what shall I ask”.
I would be glad if other people could give me their comments on this…
This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008