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Interactive Documentary Archive

Journey to the End of Coal

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By: Honkytonk Films (France)
Project type: Web



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 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

My comments:

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…

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

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  1. On November 4th, 2009 at 16:32 Rob wrote:

    This is a very interesting piece, the photos carry it tho and the sheer interesting nature of the subject matter. You really feel like you are going places you shouldn’t and getting information that the Chinese state and assorted mafia would prefer you didn’t. The narrative is basically the same as in a computer game and the use of branching narratives has led to me getting lost and losing interest. I will go back to it later tho as I feel immersed in he story and the fate of the miners.

  2. On August 23rd, 2010 at 15:39 Jon Olshefski wrote:

    I think this is a really interesting piece. Though the main question I have is: to what degree are elements manipulated in order to create the illusion that the user/participant is navigating the environment.

    The piece manifests as such a structured environment and narrative I wonder if anything is staged/manipulated/added later to pull it all together. I question if the voice over really belongs to the characters depicted in the photographs.

    Some of the moments seem contrived (the mine boss asking us to leave)…but maybe all of these things did happen serendipitously and were simply woven to create this user experience.

    Having fictional elements does not take away from the story or the documentary value. It is just context which I would to know because it informs how I understand certain sections. I am curious about the story as the actual documentary process and some of this is clouded when I am put in the shoes of the “journalist.”

    BTW thanks for these links this is a great resource.

  3. On August 29th, 2010 at 23:00 Sandra wrote:

    Jon, thank you for the comment.
    I see what you mean… sometimes the project seems just a bit too fluid…
    I am not sure I can give you a final answer on this one, but when I interviewed the photographer of the project – Samuel Bollendorf- he told me that he went to China as a photographer, without any idea of doing an interactive documentary, he was just looking for “stories” for print magazines. It is only when he came back to France that he met the producer of HonKyTonk and that they thought that they could transform all this material into a webdocumentary.
    This leads me to think that the only choice they had at that point was to re-use exactly the data and the questions that the photographer had been through (since they could not plan or add anything else!).
    It might be that a few things have been re-arranged but I suspect that most of it sticks to the first person experience that Samuel had when he was there.
    I also suspect that this is why this project works so well… somehow it feels quite “natural”.
    Have a look to a very recent project on Forests and Climate change in Papua Ginea done by Deutsche Welle television . The narrative technique is very similar to Journey to the End of Coal, but the feeling for the user is totally different.
    Actually, if you have time do let me know what you think of it… I am quite curious of your reaction…

  4. On April 4th, 2011 at 12:11 Arnau Gifreu wrote:

    Idea or technique… what’s first on interactive documentaries? Honkytonk develops a successful branched navigation method, prioritizing always the idea before the technology. The cases of “Journey to the End of the Coal” and “The Big Issue”.

    I believe (in relation to the post of Judith Aston: Storytelling and interactive documentary (February 2, 2011,, which talks about the new technologies and nature of I-docs -besides many other things…-) that within the universe of the interactive documentary there is room for all types of discourses and narratives … and the power offered by interactive technologies and web 2.0 has to be seized to provide new forms of communication and interactivity, but in any case the technology (technique, the “how”) cannot replace an approach, progress and outcome, a good script, a good story and a good speech (“what”is said, not “as they say … “). In short, what prevails is the story, but let’s not forget the approach, which would be halfway “how to” tell it. That is, the art and aesthetics …
    In Vic (Universitat de Vic), when students develop a multimedia project as a Final Degree Project (and we insists that it is an I-doc or a short interactive film), always starting and ending with the same: first think about a good “what” and then the rest will come after (“how”). Think of a good idea and then how to develop it (there is an eastern proverb that says “it is not the same to point to the moon, than the moon itself”).
    I find quite interesting remarks about some of the productions that Honkytonk, a French production company dedicated to producing interactive documentaries offers, precisely because their products are not technically marvelous, but the ideas (including exploitation of the miners in the average communist-capitalist country as China or the explosion of the phenomenon of obesity in the world and in France) are simple, effective and successful. Let’s have a little look into these two proposals.
    The Big Issue is an interactive documentary which focuses on a preliminary investigation of the World Health Organization on the causes of the explosion of global obesity. According to this organization, it is estimated that 2.3 million people will be obese by 2015. In 2015, 2.3 billion human beings will be overweight and 937 million will be obese, if nothing is done. The figures are alarming, and their rise seems unstoppable. The project questions, since different logics of representation and navigation in documentary, this simple and powerful question: why human beings are becoming so overweight?
    In the course of an investigation that unfolds from one side of the Atlantic to the other, The Big Issue invites the viewer to confront the many factors in the epidemic of obesity and question our modern lifestyle, to try to investigate the responsibility of the food industry and public authorities. In short, this unique tour will enable interactor to assume the role of a journalist, and taking responsibility at a time, on steps to take to stop this global epidemic as soon as possible. The user begins to navigate a personal journey into the causes of the explosion of obesity in today’s society. The project uses the same scheme of its predecessor, Journey to the End of the Coal (2007): like in a classic interactive game, you choose your path through the available movie clips and many interviews. Those who wish to complete the story at the end of their trip can also choose to view any of 10 separate interviews. Directed by photographer and camera Samuel and Olivia Bollendorff Colo, The Big Issue is a documentary project dedicated to an online audience. It is based on the original web form created for the documentary Journey to the End of the Coal .
    The interactor, at the beginning of the story, cannot choose between different possible modes of navigation and interaction, but must start at the beginning forced (as in the development of any narrative genre, which tells a story in parts). We can see how the principle is inflexible, but the knot and development are chosen by the interactor, depending on your preferences.


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