Prison Valley : Documentary 2.0

Par David Dufresne, 30 juin 2011 | 24620 Lectures

Source :

1. Introduction

Prison Valley is an award winning documentary about the American prison system made by the French journalists Philippe Brault and David Dufresne. In 2009 they presented their online platform and 30 minutes of footage at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). On April 22nd 2010 the completed interactive web documentary was launched. Prison Valley is a story told through different media in a remarkable order : first a web documentary, an iPhone-app, then an exhibition in an art gallery, later a TV documentary on Arte, and finally a published book. Viewers can decide themselves through which medium they want to experience the story.

Prison Valley is a cross-media documentary, though the web documentary has a leading role. Usually a website is launched mere to support a documentary that has been broadcasted on television, surprisingly enough the TV documentary was broadcasted afterwards. The web documentary hosts the greatest and most diverse amount of information. Different media are being used within the website : photo, video and audio interviews. It also contains interactive elements such as a forum and a chat function. This relatively new type of documentary offers the audience freedom in the way the narrative is experienced. Within the parameters set by the authors a viewer can create his or her own narrative. This case study wants to find out what more this new type of documentary has to offer compared to a traditional documentary broadcasted on television.

Research question

How is the interactive web documentary different compared to the TV documentary, and what are the consequences for storytelling ?

2. Interactive web documentary

What constitutes a documentary ? Nichols provides a thorough definition of this concept :

“Documentary films speak about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves to us as themselves in stories that convey a plausible proposal, or perspective on, the lives, situations, and events portrayed. The distinct point of view of the filmmaker shapes this story into a way of seeing the historical world directly rather than into a fictional allegory.”[1]

Documentaries have existed for many decades, yet the interactive web documentary (IW-doc) is a relatively new phenomenon. In the past couple of years more and more documentary makers turn to the internet to broadcast their story about the historical world. The internet is more attractive than television for a number of reasons, these reasons will be mentioned below.

First, an IW-doc can be viewed 24 hours per day, so a potentially higher number of people will be reached. If a certain person would miss a documentary on television, he or she will have to look up the time of rerun and wait for it to be aired on television for the second time. It is very likely this same person will miss the documentary again. The internet offers unrestricted broadcasting at a time suitable for the viewer.

Second, television cannot offer the same amount of interactivity the internet can offer. The possibilities for interaction online have existed as long as the internet itself. In the past two decades interactivity on the internet has been highly developed, though interactivity on television has only just begun. Indeed, interactivity on television does exist, for instance throughout the use of social media. It is not uncommon for talk show hosts to ask their guests questions that were sent by viewers at home through Twitter. Another example is voting for a specific candidate in television shows like The X Factor. Though the degree of interactivity on television is very low compared to the possibilities of the internet.

Third, traditional documentaries offer only linear storylines. Of course digital television can offer new options such as rewind, fast forward and pause while a program is being broadcasted, but again these options are very limited compared to those of the internet. The whole concept of hypertext is non-linearity and therefore the possibilities for authors to shape a narrative are endless. Viewers construct a narrative on their own in the hypertext. “The participatory mode has come to embrace the spectator as participant as well. Interactive websites and installations allow the viewer to chart a path through the spectrum of possibilities made possible by the filmmaker.”[2]

Fourth, the internet can facilitate as an attractive alternative medium due to the “massive convergence process in course on a battle for “the screen” between TV broadcasters, online newspapers and media distribution companies.”[3]

The IW-doc is a new genre and its possibilities are just starting to be explored, therefore not much research has been done about it. “No one knows exactly what skills are needed for an interactive documentary or how to build up a team ; even more challenging, no one knows for sure if some of the skills exist yet.”[4]

3. Prison Valley narrative

“Welcome to Cañon City, Colorado. A town in the middle of nowhere with 36,000 souls and 13 prisons, one of which is Supermax, the new ’Alcatraz’ of America. A prison town where even those living on the outside live on the inside. A journey into what the future might hold.”[4]

Prison Valley is a documentary, a report of a road trip two French journalists made through Fremont County, Colorado (United States of America) of which Cañon City is the county seat. This area is known for its high number of prisons and has the nickname Prison Valley. There are 7,735 persons incarcerated in thirteen prisons, of which are nine state prisons and four federal prisons. Among those prisons is the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, also known as a Supermax or Alcatraz of the Rockies. This maximum security prison incarcerates convicts who are considered extremely dangerous and a flight risk. Within the prison they have very little freedom compared to inmates in less secured prisons. It is the only federal Supermax in the US. The United States have the largest incarcerated population in the world, more than one in 100 adults is now locked up in this country.[6]

The prison system has a great influence on the local culture in Fremont County, and it still has. Ever since the first penitentiary was built, the region has developed itself around the prisons. Many inhabitants work in or for the prisons. During their road trip the journalists visited several penitentiaries and other places in the area, such as the town hall, a bar and the local prison museum. Several people have been interviewed who are related to the prison in different ways. Interviewees speak about daily life, work and beliefs regarding the prison system locally, but also nationwide.

During shooting the makers decided that a traditional documentary would not be sufficient to report what they had experienced in Fremont County, therefore a more interactive medium was selected, hence the internet. The IW-doc was launched on April 22nd 2010.[8] Their footage was gathered and presented in several other ways as well. Besides the website, they launched an iPhone-app which could be used to explore Prison Valley. This application revealed a mere glimpse of the possibilities offered by the website, for instance photos en sound slideshows. In May 2010 the Since Upian Gallery in Paris hosted an exhibition which provided insights on the journalists’ road trip as well as how the documentary was made. It showed photos, facts, notes, articles and souvenirs of the journey made through Fremont County.[9] In June television channel Arte broadcasted the TV documentary Prison Valley, this channel coproduced the documentary. Later that year their road trip was translated into a book.[10]

3.1. Prison Valley - content interactive web documentary

How does the IW-doc actually work ? After a visitor clicks the “start” button on the Prison Valley website a four minute introduction film is shown full screen. It contains audio, video and photo fragments, in it the title and credits appear and afterwards a voiceover speaks from a first person plural perspective about arriving to Fremont County and the Riviera Motel. There are shots made from within a moving vehicle. During the introduction the voiceover speaks about meeting the first character, Halina Dabrowska, who is the owner of the motel. The introduction film ends with a shot of the motel front desk. Then the interface is requesting visitors to register themselves in order to check in to the motel room and. In order to continue the visitors need to either log in with their Facebook or Twitter account, create a Prison Valley account or they can connect to Prison Valley as a guest. As a guest there is restricted access to certain functions and the progress made so far within the documentary will not be saved. This means every time a guest visits the website again, he or she will have to start from the beginning. After selecting the registration option the visitor enters his or her motel room. The motel room is the base of operations for experiencing the documentary and it is possible to look around in the room by moving the mouse (see Figure 1 & 3). There are several options that can be selected : “Leave room”, “Rear window”, “Clues”, “Notebook”, “Forums”, “Desk” and “News”, each option will be discussed below.



3.1.1. Leave room



By selecting this option the visitor returns to the road trip through Prison Valley. A new screen opens with a map of the area (Figure 2). On the left is shown “My exploration”, this is an overview of the video fragments that have been watched so far (corresponding to the orange dots on the map) and videos that have not been viewed yet (black dots). Videos are shown full screen. After each video fragment or cluster of fragments the visitor is given the possibility to find out more about the topic, for instance throughout a discussion board, photo slideshow, background information or another video. He or she may also simply choose to “hit the road” and continue watching the video fragments. By clicking on the “Motel” button the visitor returns to the motel room.





3.1.2. Rear window

By selecting this option a new screen is opened and the visitor is offered a look out of the motel room window, through which the motel owner can be seen passing by. This same person has been seen moving around earlier in the introduction video, so there is no addition to the content of the narrative. Through clicking on the “Back to film” button the visitor returns to watching the video fragments.

3.1.3. Clues

This option gives an overview of the information visitors have collected while exploring Prison Valley. A newspaper, a map (which gives access to the same screen when “Leave room” is selected) and pictures are scattered around on the bed. All clues are related to the narrative. These clues include the same options to find out more on a topic at the end of a video as discussed earlier. So once a video has been watched a clue is added. There are also clues that are not be found at the end of a video fragment, such as the Prison Valley soundtrack which can be downloaded or the opportunity to visit the local Skyline Theater.





3.1.4. Notebook

Here visitors can look up information on the characters of the documentary : pictures, information, contact details and links. It is required to have watched the sequence in which they are introduced in order to click on a certain person from the “Characters list”.

3.1.5. Forums

When a visitor clicks on this button he or she can select “chat”, “ask”, “react” or “live”. When “live” is selected a visitor will be directed to the “Prison Valley the blog” website to learn more about the background of the documentary itself and the makers. On this website the makers organized live chat sessions with characters from the documentary. Besides the option “live” there are three other options to interact with the other viewers (“chat”), characters of the documentary (“ask”) or the documentary makers (“react”). When “chat” is selected the chat dialog box is opened, this can also be activated by clicking on the balloon icon in the toolbox. The toolbox also shows names of users that are logged in simultaneously. If “ask” or “react” is selected the visitor is brought to the “Prison Valley Forums” page (Figure 4). On top of this page there are four tabs : “Themes”, “Discussions”, “Characters” and “Search”. This page can also be accessed through the computer icon in the toolbox.


3.1.6. Desk



When visitors choose this option a new screen is opened which zooms in on the phone. Most of the time the phone does not seem to function, although at one point a hint for a new clue is given by the motel owner Halina Dabrowska.

3.1.7. News

By clicking on this option a new screen is opened. It is possible to switch on the television and watch 3 channels, though only stills with sound are shown on the television screen. There does not appear to be a relationship with the narrative.

3.2. Prison Valley – content TV documentary

The TV documentary was broadcasted on television in 2010. Arte does not offer an online rerun, but it is possible purchase the documentary on their website. The length of the TV documentary is 58:53 minutes and consists of video, audio and photo. The documentary starts with an introduction of approximately 1:30 minutes, then the title and credits appear on the screen. The voiceover speaks from a first person plural perspective about arriving to Fremont County and checking in to the Riviera Motel. During the film several characters speak out. The voiceover comments on persons that are interviewed and the trip that is being made through the region, this is also visualized by shots made from a moving vehicle.

4. Comparison

Above the content of both documentaries has been discussed. In this section the IW-doc and the TV documentary will be compared regarding the following aspects : narrative, linearity, immersion, time and interactivity.

4.1. Narrative

Narrative in documentary is often constructed in another way than is the case in fictional film. Fiction tends to have more of a relationship of cause and effect, whereas documentary tends to have a problem-solution structure : a particular problem is introduced, its earlier and current backgrounds are explored, and a solution or direction to find one is offered. The narrative of Prison Valley resembles this problem-solution structure : the documentary makers explore several aspects of the American prison system through their journey in Fremont County. Several people speak out reflecting different points of view, leaving the necessity for a solution in the middle. This is to be judged by the viewer of him- or herself.[11]

Both documentaries have the same narrative, but the IW-doc offers options to extend the narrative. The content of the TV documentary consists of the different video fragments shown in the IW-doc, but compiled chronologically. For instance, the four minute introduction of the IW-doc is similar to the first four minutes of the TV documentary. The viewer of the IW-doc needs to register after the introduction and then finds him- or herself in the motel room. From that point he or she can start exploring the extra material the website has to offer : video, text, photo, interview, statistics or a link to another website.

All the material is related to the documentary and can be considered extensions to the narrative. For instance after watching a video about inmate labor in the prison industry, the viewer can choose to find out more background information or comment on the discussion “Cells made in… prison : for moral or cost reasons ?” The visitor is given the opportunity to either experience the narrative as presented in the TV documentary or to enter a side path which extends the narrative. The narrative can be personalized. If a photo slideshow or a discussion does not appeal to oneself, one has the freedom to skip this part and watch the next video fragment. Within the parameters set by the original authors there is a certain degree of influence on the narrative. Though this cannot be regarded as collaborative authorship, since the influence on the narrative possibilities is restricted. There is no equal relationship between the interactor and author, which is usually the case in examples of collaborative authorship. Due to the restrictions, determined by the documentary makers limitations, Murray regards this as “procedural authorship”.[12] The documentary makers have set the conditions and limitations from which the viewer can shape a narrative through interacting with the interface. The procedural author creates a “world of narrative possibilities”.[13] (See also Narative & Authorship)

4.2. Linearity

The documentary as broadcasted on Arte contains a linear storyline and the IW-doc contains linear as well as non-linear elements. It is not possible to change the order of the fragments when they are viewed for the first time. Visitors are required to watch the fragments in chronological order when they just started exploring. After a fragment has been watched for the first time its corresponding black dot on the region map is converted into an orange dot. From that point onwards it is possible to either watch it again or move on to the next fragment. The makers of the documentary are restricting the audience to unravel the narrative in a certain order, but offer freedom in reviewing the fragments and extra material. This restriction can also be found in the options offered in the motel room. For instance, in order to look up a character in “Notebook” it is required to have met this particular person by watching the video in which he or she is introduced. Clues added alongside the exploration of Prison Valley. All extra material can be accessed once they have been made available in the same way as discussed earlier.

Manovich argues that the shift in focus from narrative to database is typical for new media. In traditional media the narrative, which is considered the syntagm in semiotics, is created from a database of possibilities, the paradigm. In other words the elements of a traditional documentary are constructed in such a manner that meaningful narrative is created, as it was intended by the maker. In new media it is the other way around. The database of possibilities (paradigm) is superior over the narrative (syntagm). All elements in the material database are linked to each other and from this pool of paradigms a narrative (syntagm) can be constructed throughout the use of an interface. An interactor can choose his or her own trajectory, though in the end it is the maker of the documentary who decides which elements are to be added to the database.[14]

4.3. Immersion

The TV documentary contemplates a higher degree of immersion than the IW-doc does. As discussed earlier both documentaries contain the same video fragments, the difference is that in the IW-doc the videos are split up in single or clustered videos, between them the viewer needs to make choices by clicking in order to continue the story. This is a heterogeneous environment and a typical example of hypermediacy, the user is reminded he or she is looking at a medium instead of through a medium. Whereas immediacy is the opposite, in this style of representation the viewer gets the feeling he or she is in the presence of the represented object due to the unified space being portrayed. The viewer forgets he or she is looking at a medium and gets immersed in the story.[15]

4.4. Time

The IW-doc offers more freedom regarding time in two ways : the duration of the experience, as well as the moment of viewing. If viewers of the IW-doc would only view the video fragments and not explore any of the additional features, there would be little difference in duration compared to the TV documentary. The additional features can be explored if and whenever the visitor feels like it. When visitors are logged in with their social media or Prison Valley account their exploration of the documentary so far is stored and they can continue when logging in the next time. The TV documentary finishes after almost 59 minutes and was broadcasted on a fixed time. The IW-doc can be accessed at any time, 24 hours a day.

4.5. Interactivity

Unlike the TV documentary the IW-doc contains interactive elements at two levels, by clicking or navigating through the interface as has been discussed earlier, but there is also the possibility top interact with other persons. When logged in to the IW-doc the viewer can start a chat session with other viewers that are logged in simultaneously, join discussions set up by the documentary makers or even get in touch with a character from the documentary. After the launch of the website the documentary take an active role as mediator on the Prison Valley website by starting new discussions and organizing live chat sessions with characters from the documentary and politicians such as the French Secretary of State. Viewers can keep track of their exploration made so far through Facebook or Twitter updates, or look up the progress of other users. Prison Valley also sent reminder emails to encourage viewers to continue their journey. This type of interactivity involves the exchange of information, such as views or facts, and is another way in which the viewer can extend the Prison Valley narrative. (Seel also : Interactivity)

5. Conclusion

How is the interactive web documentary different compared to the TV documentary and what are the consequences for storytelling ? This question can be answered in two ways, regarding the implications for documentary makers as well as the audience.

TV is still a very limited medium regarding non-linearity, but the internet offers endless possibilities to tell stories which are just started to being explored. The makers of Prison Valley decided to give the viewer a base (collection of video fragments) and optional extra material. The demands of different types of viewers are met in this way and thus a bigger audience can be reached. The extra material offers unique ways to extend the narrative, which is not possible on television today.

As Almeida and Alvelos warn : “There’s also no need to make it too clickable, too interactive.”[16] Hypertext involves the danger of getting lost in cyberspace which can have a negative influence on text coherence. In this case the makers prevented this by creating a chronological order in which elements should be accessed for the first time. This can be seen as an example of remediation : characteristics of the old medium, linearity, is used in the new, non-linear medium. To tell a story in a true non-linear way can be considered a great challenge for documentary makers. Every element of such a narrative would have to be self-contained. Viewers can decide the order of the sequences, which requires a whole new non-linear mindset for documentary makers.

Viewers get more immersed in the story while watching a TV documentary, which is opposite from an IW-doc where the viewer is conscious of the medium. This could have a negative influence on storytelling. On the other hand the IW-doc offers many possibilities to further explore the background and discuss with other people, there could be a higher degree of engagement regarding the subject.

Very different from the TV documentary are the options for duration and time of viewing regarding the IW-doc. The IW-doc can be watched in one time straight or over the course of several days, because of this freedom some viewers might also never return to the website.

The IW-doc offers the viewer more freedom and space to decide his or her perspective. Freedom on multiple levels is something which the contemporary internet user demands. Compared to traditional documentaries, this type of documentary offers not only several ways to inform oneself, but also different ways to analyze the world.[17] It gives more possibilities to viewers, but also to the makers. For instance they have the possibility to communicate with their audience, in a way that is impossible on television. Prison Valley won man prizes, though it appeared that the Citizens of Cañon City were less impressed with their portrayed home county. This is another possibility to extend the narrative, which is simply not there when the final credits appear on television. It demands a physically and mentally active user, less immersed, but most likely more engaged. “Online documentaries (...) redefine the idea of documentary as a stable and fixed work which once complete and having been exhibited is retired to the archives”.[18]

6. References


[1] Nichols 2010, p. 14.

[2] Nichols 2010, p. 180.

[3] Almeida & Alvelos 2010, p. 123.

[4] Almeida & Alvelos 2010, p. 124.







[11] Beattie 2004, p. 19.

[12] Murray 1997, p. 152.

[13] Murray 1997, p. 153.

[14] Manovich 2001, p. 229.

[15] Balter & Grusin 2000, p. 34.

[16] Almeida & Alvelos 2010, p. 125.


[18] Beattie 2004, p. 213.


Almeida, A. & Alvelos, H., Interactive Documentary Manifesto. Third Joint Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling Proceedings, 2010

Beattie, K., Documentary screens : Nonfiction, film and television. Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2004

Bolter, J. D. & Grusin, R., Remediation. Understanding New Media. Cambrigde, MA : The MIT Press, 2000

Manovich, L., “The Forms”, in The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA : MIT Press, 2001, pp. 212-281

Murray, J. H., “Agency”, in Hamlet on the Holodeck : The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York, The Free Press, 1997, pp. 126-153.

Nichols, B. Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2010


All images are taken from

Prison Valley

Prison Valley : Grimme Online Award 2011

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