Highrise – A Landmark I-doc, with Room for Improvement

Highrise is an ongoing interactive web documentary that chronicles “the highrises of the world, and the worlds inside the highrises”. Director Katerina Cizek recognizes that the fastest growing and most diverse areas of the world’s cities are along the fringes, where highrises shoot up and suburbs form around a menagerie of incredibly diverse cultures.

Cizek’s goal with Highrise is to raise awareness for the low quality of life these people often suffer due to institutional neglect, including poor sanitation, gang violence, and lack of employment opportunities. Governments around the world are slowly recognizing that the growing edges of their cities are experiencing necrosis. Some political movements are enacting “reclamation projects” to breathe life back into these places.

However it is not yet enough. One of the aims of Highrise is to foster a community of action and support between people around the world through the creation of a shared highrise experience. Highrise invites the user to virtually stand inside a selection of international apartment complexes and share a space with its inhabitants. Captured in these images and stories are experiences of both tragedy and inspirational community life.

Highrise is certainly an achievement from a technological standpoint. The website is dynamic and enjoyable to navigate. The presentation is an internet marvel, incorporating navigable 360 degree videos and interactive photo panoramas (loads of new technology was developed by the NFB as part of the development of this project). All of this makes the site a great stopover for the internet sightseer at the very least.

I have been studying interactive documentaries like this one for a while now. The field is new and its conventions relatively un-established, but its potential is clear to many. At the time (year) this project’ realization was groundbreaking. It’s so interactive, easy to participate in, it has a unique visual and aural presentation, and all while reaching what it sets out to achieve.

That being said, there is a ‘beef’ that I have with interactive documentary. I always feel like I want to leave them after about 10 minutes, long before the all the content has been explored. Once I hit the mark where I say to myself “oh, cool. I get what this is about”, I feel like closing my browser tab. For the most part I stick it out and explore everything I can, either because I am writing a critique on or because I feel like I’m going to miss out on something.

This may not be a legitimate criticism. I can’t say if this is a result of the documentary being bad or an attention problem of mine. All I know is that the goal of the project is to engage me interactively enough to want to keep clicking, but I ultimately feel like my hand is forced. This might not be a problem if there wasn’t still an hour’s worth of videos to click through. Since we all know that nobody is a perfectly unique butterfly, I can only assume that there are others who share my reaction.

The interactive docs that have kept me along until the end have – and I know this may sound strange – shared qualities with video games. Bear 71 for instance is an NFB interactive doc that had a 20 minute length and then it was over, but in those 20 minutes I was riveted and ultimately satisfied. I still praise its ingenuity. Peers who also praised it described it as immersive, said they loved the open world design, and felt a real sense of discovery along with purposeful participation, and a compulsion to go on.

I think that had Highrise been presented to me as a linear documentary, I could have watched it from beginning to end and been mesmerized in thought. In its clickable online version, I found the freedom of choice made it hard to keep clicking for an indefinite amount of time until every piece of information was received. I just wanted it to talk to me, because I lost interest to interrogate it.

I do not mean to reduce Highrise to its flaws. Highrise is an important piece and a necessary one that helped lay out some conventions of interactive documentary. I have focused this reflection to decipher and point in the direction of what the medium can gain most by improving; the ability to inspire a continued willingness to participate and interrogate. Interactive doc has potential over linear film for a user to experience immersion, purpose, and fun. If these propensities of the medium are not built upon, it is my opinion that the medium will fail to distinguish itself as a viable form. However, I have faith.

I think that interactive documentary has enormous potential that hasn’t been reached yet. Studying it makes me feel like I’m living on the brink of a breakthrough new storytelling medium, one where the ability of games to engage and immerse is being used shift perspectives of people and show our world the way a good documentary does.

My peers and I may be in the perfect place to define that revolution.

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