Crafting the i-doc

 Metal Road is ultimately a multiplatform documentary project that explores the dynamics of Native American labor on the American railroads through the lens of Navajo trackmen and women in a world linked by social, economic, and cultural ties.   That is, Metal Road is at once a documentary film project scheduled for public television broadcast beginning in September 2017, an online and social media archive and community hub, and a springboard for both historical scholarship on the role of Native American labor and media scholarship on digital humanities and multimedia outreach.

Photo from the Fledgling Fund. Interactive documentary strategies presented at IDFA 2015.

This phase of Metal Road builds upon our work to-date documenting oral histories of Navajo railroad workers, allowing us to bring the film to broadcast, as well as develop and launch the i-doc.  Interactive multiplatform documentaries, or i-docs, offer a framework for presentation and user engagement in digital humanities scholarship. This project, based upon our television documentary of an unheralded American subculture, uses multiplatform strategies to reveal a hidden history.  If the typical analog documentary is a linear story with a pre-ordained beginning, middle, and end, the multimedia documentary allows the user to “play” the story, navigating between ideas, people, and things in a non-linear matter. The order of the elements is less important than the stories that are being told.

The multi-platform strategy also allows for increased outreach to multiple potential audiences. The world of public broadcasting in the US is changing rapidly, and the structures and institutions of public TV are adjusting to the realities of multiplatform “edutainment” and storytelling.  It is increasingly difficult to separate a broadcast program from its online or social media presence, especially as rising numbers of viewers get their content in a variety of mediums and platforms unconstrained by traditional televisual culture and practices.

A screenshot of the Bear 71 interactive documentary.

So with this in mind, we are in the process of developing our structure, story, and approach for the Metal Road i-doc.  It’s been fun, yet also quite challenging.  We have been strongly influenced by interactive documentary projects such as Bear 71, Out My Window/Highrise, and Prison Valley. These projects allow the viewer to explore the story with a good deal of autonomy. The projects include such thing as exploratory mapping elements (Bear 71).

We could not have done any of this without our amazing media interns, Ashley Ben-Porat and Lee Lux, as well as the support of Arizona Humanities and The Miami University Humanities Center, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Thank you for believing in our project!

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