Creating documentaries to engage the viewer: Prison Valley- a webdoc.

On: September 11, 2010
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About Stefania Bercu
I'm a Sociology graduate from Bucharest, currently located in Amsterdam and doing a masters in New Media.


Prison Valley posterIn November, 2009, Philippe Brault and David Dufresne, journalists for were onstage at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam to present the online platform and the first 30 minutes of edited footage of their upcoming project: Prison Valley- a webdocumentary. Prison Valley is a road movie about a small city in the state of Colorado, Cañon City, that lives off of its prison industry: there are 14 prisons and 36 ooo inhabitants in the area around Cañon City. On April 22, 2010 the final version of the project went online. On June 10, the project won the Crossmedia Prize at the Bellaria Festival in Italy and on August 31, the award for 2nd FRANCE 24-RFI webdocumentary award in Visa pour l’image.
In the last few years, more and more (and then some more) documentary film makers and journalists have turned to the Internet to broadcast their work, in an attempt to use the available technology to maximize the viewers’ engagement and to encourage feedback and discussion- in the words of David Dufresne „Melting borders; styles mixing, influencing each other, changing and shaking things up. Merging professions and knowledge, cultures and counter-cultures. […]To blend different jobs, not superimpose them. Photo. Video. Forks in the path. Text. Journalism. Web. Interactivity. Hypertext. Hypermadness. Web and documentary. Web doc.”
When asked to create the platform of Prison Valley keeping interactivity and the blending of different media in mind, Upian, the webcompany in charge with producing the webdoc, delivered exactly that. The interface of Prison Valley is very similar to that of an adventure game: you are a journalist who travels to Cañon City to write a piece about the implications of living in an area that is home to both dangerous and petty criminals and whose economy is supported by the many state-funded prisons in the city. I checked in to the Cañon City Motel using my Twitter account. My followers received updates as the story was unfolding and by looking up the #prisonvalley twitter hashtag, I could find the people who were virtually in Prison Valley at the time and read about their thoughts and opinions on the matter.
Discussion among viewers is encouraged throughout the documentary through the chat button (very similar to Facebook chat) or the „go to the discussion board” button. On the discussion board, people put up background information regarding the prison industry in the USA and had debates about more philosophical issues, such as the extent to which the state can limit one’s freedom or the reasons behind encouraging inmate labour. Also, the citizens of Cañon City who were less then impressed with the depiction of their hometown in this project were able to voice their thoughts and engage in dialogue with the Prison Valley producers and fans.
A great thing about web documentaries is that you somehow get the feeling of being co-author of the story. There are scattered pieces of information available (photos, videos, newspaper articles, laws, graphs and statistics) and you can glue them together to create a story.  Of course, when you have a puzzle of a picture of two kittens to solve, in whatever order you decide to put the pieces together, at the end you will still get a picture of two kittens, so I suppose the matter of the viewer as a co-author is debatable and fit for a later discussion. However, you will probably also find yourself googling and wiki-ing and conducting your personal online research, so in this sense you are encouraged to become an author for this story.
In the end, is Prison Valley better as a webdocumentary than as a TV-doc? For me, it certainly was more time consuming and more frustrating, not knowing at the time the end credits appeared whether I had gone through all the available footage and material or whether I had somehow missed an important lead (in this sense, I guess I got to feel like a true field journalist). I probably would have gotten the same amount of information from an 1 hour and a half videodoc that I got from 5 hours and a half of being online and finding my way through Canon City. I also think that, had I turned on the TV to watch a documentary about prisons in Colorado, the details of the story would not have stayed with me the way they did.

Trailer Prison Valley

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