Eyewitness films on Internet platforms – An introduction and four examples of media convergence

Internet platforms have been springing up of late that feature documentation and recordings of current events as seen through the eyes of contemporary witnesses. Most of these are editorially supervised theme-oriented websites, but there are also some videosharing platforms among them. At the same time, as the media of Internet, film and television converge, professionally produced documentary film projects are increasingly being undertaken that combine several different documentary and media formats. We would like to present a few examples here.

The French photographer and filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand created the website  “6 milliards d’Autres (6 billion Others – Climate Voices)” in 2008-2009. Last year David Lynch produced his son Austin Lynch’s “Interview Project Germany”. From 2009 to 2010 the National Film Board of Canada produced “GDP – Measuring the Human Side of the Canadian Economic Crisis”. And the television station ARTE has produced an interactive Web documentary called “Gaza/Sderot”.

What these eyewitness projects on the Internet have in common is that they give so-called everyday citizens the floor, allowing them to express their opinions or give their own account of their experiences. The projects embrace various formal approaches and concepts, and each has a specific agenda. They might address global themes such as climate change or the economic crisis. Or they take stock of the state of people’s lives in a certain region or country in a specific historical situation.

Seen against the backdrop of media history, documentary Web projects and Internet archives can look back on a long course of development, drawing their motives from several different sources. The desire to record historical events on film for posterity is bound up inextricably with the history of the film as medium. The very first films from the pioneer days of the cinema were already designed to serve this need. Film made it possible for the first time in the history of art and culture to capture time directly without stopping it – a phenomenon that Andrei Tarkovsky called in his eponymous essay “sealed time”.

The motives for making eyewitness films vary. In the science field ethnographers in particular have long used audiovisual recordings for research purposes. Historians working empirically often question contemporary witnesses in order to close gaps in our understanding of what happened in the past. And in more recent research, the practice of oral history is taking on increasing importance.

Primarily for political reasons, eyewitness documentation is also used as evidence. Special importance is attached to these documents in cases where issues or incidents are denied by portions of society or by a national government. The most obvious example here are the recordings of the personal accounts of Holocaust survivors of their experiences, such as those published online in Steven Spielberg’s “Visual History Archive”. A similar political approach is embodied in the concept of “history from below” as a corrective to the official historical record. Accounts by contemporary witnesses are used to represent the subjective experience of those who are not amongst the key political protagonists and decision-makers.

In view of today’s technical possibilities and the widespread availability of cameras, it is only logical to take things one step further. Instead of relying on how events are recorded by scientists, researchers or socially engaged documentary filmmakers, attention can be focused instead on films made by non-professionals who are themselves directly affected by the course of events. This usually happens, however, only in crises or exceptional situations, in particular when the media does not have any other material available. The best example of late is the dissemination on the Internet of videos made during the uprisings in the Arab countries.

In fact, however, there are to date very few eyewitness portals featuring exclusively amateur material. User-based content has been used in the past especially on Internet platforms run by NGOs working in the field of human rights or environmental protection. The goal here is to spread information that is omitted by the public media or censored by governments.

Amongst the trailblazers in this realm is the WITNESS platform, founded back in 1998 (!): with the programmatic slogan “See it. Film it. Change it”. The founders of the website, Peter Gabriel and partners, note that the key experience motivating their initiation of this project was the publicizing of the video made by a bystander of the brutal beating of Rodney King, Jr. by the Los Angeles police. Shot purely by coincidence, the footage proved that the statements made by the policemen were false. The video was later presented as an example of “inverse surveillance”. WITNESS was founded in order to publish exactly this type of eyewitness video.

Later on, the same year that YouTube was founded (2005), WITNESS put the videosharing platform The Hub online. It was possible there to post videos on human rights issues without any editorial supervision. Interestingly enough, the upload function for The Hub was deactivated last year and the project frozen. One reason was a series of technical problems. But the discontinuation of work on the platform was also a consequence of critical self-reflection. The operators were concerned about the quality and credibility of the uploaded videos and the lack of context in their presentation on the platform.

They now plan to develop WITNESS further on the basis of these experiences, a process that is still under way. The operators describe as their goal a better contextualization of the content of the eyewitness videos, the formulation of best practices for such films, and a proactive strategy for finding, making and publishing suitable witness videos (to replace the passive, unsupervised Hub model to date). Thus, a trend can be seen here toward greater professionalism and a convergence with methods used in other media. WITNESS still remains convinced, however, of the growing significance of non-professional eyewitness films.


Professional productions

The theme-oriented portals for eyewitness films presented in detail in the following hire professionals to produce their videos, i.e. they do not use amateur recordings or user-generated content. These portals also demonstrate a convergence of media – except that in this case the makers do not come from the Internet sector but are instead well-known filmmakers or public institutions in the field of film or television production that have begun to produce Web-specific projects.

One of the first major online documentary projects using contemporary witnesses is “6 milliards d’Autres (6 Billion Others – Climate Voices)” established by French photographer and filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand. Producer of the website is a foundation established by Arthus-Bertrand called Good Planet – an NGO with an environmental agenda.

Arthus-Bertrand’s team gathered more than 6,000 “testimonies” from 75 countries for the project. After several years of preparation, the website went online in 2008. People from all over the world responded to questions about their living situation and personal hopes and dreams.

The individual testimonies are not interviews, because the authors did not conduct a dialogue with the respondents before the camera. Instead, they are statements following a uniform format. The participants were given a standard questionnaire, but were free to choose which question to answer. We usually see only the head of the “eyewitness”, giving the whole quite a “verbose” effect. Knowing the films of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, this creative decision is understandable: they show a deserted world from above, out of an airplane, while in this project he gives the people who live down below on the earth a voice. “6 billion Others” proves fascinating for reasons similar to the aerial images in his long documentaries: it is the global scope and above all the variety of faces, personalities and languages we encounter that make the website so appealing. Moreover, it becomes uniquely tangible here that, despite sharing basic values and oft-times the same yearnings, there are not only very individual nuances between the humans of the world, but also fundamental social and cultural differences in how they go about achieving those common values and desires.

For a presentation of their project at the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen in late 2009, Arthus-Bertrand and his teams conducted 600 further interviews in 17 additional countries with specific climate policy questions, this time approaching not only “the man on the street”, but also asking experts to contribute facts and information.

The result is a kind of archive or database of worldwide audiovisual eyewitness statements. Now these statements can be called up on the website by topic or location. Interactivity is limited to the option to post comments.

URL: <http://www.6milliardsdautres.org/>


“Interview Project Germany” by Lynch

For the “Interview Project Germany” photographer Jason S. joined Austin Lynch, David Lynch’s son – a trained social worker – on a trip across Germany. They approached passers-by on the street and asked them to tell their life’s story. The result is a collection of 50 films from three to five minutes in length that have been online since the beginning of the year. <http://interviewproject.de/>

“Interview Project Germany” is a continuation of a project initiated in 2009 in the USA, likewise produced by David Lynch’s company Absurda. For that undertaking, the team travelled 20,000 miles across the USA, portraying people they met along the way. These are the kind of biographies, many of them wrought with difficulties, that usually don’t make it into the media. As the film team gave metropolitan areas and big cities a wide berth, the main focus here is on supplying an impression of rural life in the USA. (see Interview Project USA: <http://interviewproject.davidlynch.com>)

As in the project launched by Arthus-Bertrand, the films here also share a common format and are based on responses by the subjects to a single list of questions (which are not however revealed to viewers). But the quality of the films differs considerably from those in Arthus-Bertrand’s project. These are short documentaries, each of which could stand on its own. They show their subjects on the go or at home, at work or in a typical everyday setting. The footage was cut and edited after shooting. Voices sometimes come from off-camera, while pans showing views of the respective scene are accompanied by music. This makes the films seem slightly staged. With their uniformity, they seem when viewed together to form a series, which has the effect of conveying a general impression of what life is like in the country in question that goes beyond individual destinies.


The GDP project by NFB/ONF

The project “GDP – Measuring the Human Side of the Canadian Economic Crisis” is a good example of a production by a public institution in which participation by the citizens is made possible – much more so than in the case of Arthus-Bertrand or Lynch – but is nonetheless limited to “the right dose”. Similar to Arthus-Bertrand’s project, GDP revolves around a specific theme.

GDP was initiated by the National Film Board of Canada/Office National du Film du Canada (NFB/ONF) to follow the effects of the financial crisis on the daily lives of Canadians during the course of a year. The Web documentation consists of a series of four-minute short films combined with photo reports and blogs in which citizens can tell of their everyday experiences and express their concerns.

For the pan-Canadian production under the direction of documentary filmmaker Hélène Choquette, teams of filmmakers and photographers were enlisted to shoot the eyewitness accounts on site in the various regions, travelling coast to coast. A total of 185 short documentary films and photo essays were created in this fashion, which were placed online one after the other until the end of the project in September 2010.

With respect to thematic focus and the contextualization in the Web presentation, the GDP project is just as different from Arthus-Bertrand’s overwhelming kaleidoscope of global talking heads as it is from Lynch’s more classical, linear and impressionistic, narrative style. For GDP the persons portrayed and their stories were each shown and presented in several episodes at different times and in different settings. The individual episodes taken together, along with background information (texts and photos) are like tiles in a mosaic that only gradually coalescence to form a bigger picture.

Approaching the making of the films and documents as a gradual process, along with the opportunity for interaction on the website, made it possible to involve the participants much more closely than in the other projects. Reactions by neighbours of those portrayed could be incorporated, for example, or expressions of sympathy and pieces of advice offered by utter strangers in completely different locations. These empathetic encounters and the communication between the protagonists and viewer of the films – which in some cases even continued on outside the Internet in real life – is a special quality of the GDP project.


Another interesting project, likewise produced by an institution, is “Gaza Sderot – Life in spite of everything” by the German-French culture channel ARTE.

The website from 2008, which ARTE calls a “programme” as if it were on TV, reports on the everyday lives of people in Israel and Palestine. It was shot in the neighbouring border towns of Gaza and Sderot. Over a period of 10 weeks seven residents on either side of the border were accompanied by film teams – because of the political situation, one Palestinian and one Israeli team on each side. Short films of about 2 minutes in length were produced daily, making for a total of 80 short films.

Similar to the Canadian GDP project, the selected persons were visited several times in different situations, whether at work or spending time with their families. In contrast to GDP, though, there was no overarching theme. The people usually introduce themselves briefly, speaking into the camera, and are then accompanied by a camera as they go about their daily activities. Stylistically, the short films hardly differ noticeably from normal television features.

What is special about them is instead the way they are embedded in an interactive website with a consistent and distinctive graphic style. Particularly impressive is the split-screen layout that juxtaposes the two cities. A timeline runs along the border allowing the viewer to move through the films day by day. At any point on the line it is also possible to jump across to the other side of the border, i.e. to the other city, and find out what is happening there.

The Web documentary can also be accessed geographically or thematically. For geographic navigation, there is an animated, zooming satellite picture. This provides a very good cartographic overview and an idea of where the various shooting locations were, and where the protagonists live. The content can also be organized according to theme, but this is not very fruitful, as keywords were only assigned to the films and statements after the fact. As in a tag cloud, any search brings up far too many unstructured terms and themes.

Apart from the option of posting comments, interactivity is basically limited to navigating through the website. But a myriad of possibilities are provided for that. The use of flash animation is for example almost excessive, threatening to distract viewers from the content. The overall look of the site is homogeneous and coherent – adhering to the station’s corporate design. In this respect, “Gaza/Sderot” really is a “programme” – even including the usual rolling television credits. This makes the project a prime example of the convergence of television and Internet.

The Internet is becoming an all-encompassing archive of humanity. But the greatest treasure trove of filmed eyewitness accounts has not yet been unearthed, and probably never will be: the millions of authentic amateur films collected on videosharing platforms like YouTube, from all walks of life and covering every conceivable theme in (almost) every region of the world. Without intending to, these videos are in the process of writing history from below. Any attempt to catalogue the steadily growing, unmanageable mass of material would be futile. Every time a current account is uploaded, it knocks aside ten previous ones. It’s impossible to stop the clock in order to step back and get an overview of the whole. Past and present both become fleeting. Paradoxically, reduction and limitation are required here, as well as the artistic editing of the material in order to preserve eyewitness recordings for the shared cultural and collective memory.

Sources and references on the theme:

6 billion Others Climate Voices: http://www.6billionothers.org/
The Interview Project USA: http://interviewproject.davidlynch.com/
The Interview Project Germany: http://www.interviewproject.de/
NFB/ONF “GDP – Measuring the Human Side of the Canadian Economic Crisis”: http://gdp.nfb.ca/home

CrowdVoice: http://www.crowdvoice.org
GlobalVoices: http://globalvoicesonline.org/
The Memoro Project: http://www.memoro.org/
Viewchange: http://www.viewchange.org/ www.iranianstories.org/
WITNESS: http://www.witness.org/

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