Let’s forget about OTT and TV screens for a minute, because history is not anymore intended to be told only through flat and linear contents. New ways of archival storytelling at the crossroad of the documentary and digital scenes are popping up all over the internet, driven by a desire to embark the youngest audience on more engaging experiences of the past. This craze became “the occasion” for this year’s Sunny Side of the Doc breakfast discussion « Archives & new storytelling, a history of love ». The panel was moderated by the producer Laurent Duret (Bachibouzouk) and as one of the invited panelists, Archive Valley is happy to share with you some insights into this new exciting trend.
Laurent Duret – producer Bachibouzouk, Bruno Masi – Author filmmaker, Amandine Collinet – chief editor digital productions INA, Yoann Gantch – BnF – Partenariat, Mikhail Zygar & Karen Shainyan – founders Future History, Our CEO Melanie Rosencwajg
We see today a growing number of content creators investing the infinite channels and media offered by the digital world with new types of archive-driven narratives, largely stimulated by the rise of the short-doc form. And when it comes to short form, the influence of Twitter cannot be neglected.
Already in 2011 while being busy blending archive and innovation at studio ArtchiviumLab, we’ve happily discovered the new-born twitter account @HistoryInPics, managed by two teenagers with one clear ambition: creating the buzz out of entertaining and powerful historical photographs picked on the internet and supercharged with a dramatic storytelling. While one can argue that historical truth and data accuracy were not really their point of concern when it all started, the duo’s first tweets went quickly viral, and as a result, we saw an invasion of archival content in the social media. Eventually, none of the myriads of similar twitter accounts created on the same model could compete with the team’ s great sense of spectacle, neither reproduce their huge success: the still-active account @HistoryInPics boasts today more than 4 million followers.
Similarly, the blog project “Retronaut” (See the past like you wouldn’t believe) started in 2010 with WolgangWild’s idea to share his fascination for the nostalgia by showcasing and curating his own collection of odd and eccentric old photographs in so-called ‘capsules’ of time. Three weeks after the launch, the site got 30,000 hits in one day thanks to a post celebrating wonderful Kodachrome color photographs of 1949’s London. In 2014, the blog’ success led to an exclusive partnership with Mashable and Retronaut’s content became the most shared and viewed piece on the whole website. By now more than 40,000 Retronautic photographs were published, each one carefully chosen for its power « to disrupt the viewers’ sense of the past » and to generate a viral hit, based on what Wild established as the S.P.E.E.D. formula: a unique approach for predicting any archival photograph’s potential for drawing an enormous audience.
Most importantly, a great appetite for archival storytelling (when done right) emerged, and thanks to all the disruption in the way content is being distributed, the rise of social media and cross-media made it work even better. Filmmakers and content creators, as well as newspapers and even archival sources, quickly grabbed that unique opportunity to reach a global audience. Let’s shade a light on some of those standout projects that bring archives and history even closer to the contemporary audience.
As a former journalist seeking for new territories apart from the traditional press and the linear documentary, Bruno Masi is one of the pioneers of the web documentary form with his interactive project “La Zone”(2011), revealing the Chernobyl aftermath. A couple of years later on the occasion of the centenary of the WWI, he creates the project ‘1914 Dernières Nouvelles’(co-produced by Arte and Bachibouzouk), an online newspaper that will set a daily appointment with the contemporary audience. In an attempt to immerse the audience into the daily life and escalating dangers of this crucial year, through the use of a pseudo-live temporality, the project displays one archival photograph per day during eight months, together with press articles and additional textual information that help to bring context in some sort of « popcorn narration ». As a partnership between TV channel Arte and newspaper Liberation, the project has been displayed in different channels and platforms simultaneously in order to multiply the impact of the project.
The author’s latest experimental project “Barricade“(co-produced by INA, Bachibouzouk, and Liberation.fr) is based on a similar process, with a web-series of 20 episodes, 20 minutes each, telling hour by hour May 1968’s most violent day. Based on archival footage from INA’s collections, the series aims to respect the historical chronology of the events while the unusual use of voices inputs a fictional and cinematographic storytelling approach to the narration. Should we refer to it as docu-fiction? Not really. Instead, chief editor at digital productions INA Amandine Collinet is more likely to speak about « documented fiction », a new sophisticated form of storytelling where archives are treated as a pure material of fiction.
“La Grande Explication” is another project recently initiated by the French archive INA together with RTS in resonance with anniversary dates which appear to be the most rewarding strategy to drive audience. Dedicated for a youth target audience mainly active on Facebook, this 10 episodes web-series aims at deciphering ten major historical events, from Hiroshima bombing to Nelson Mandela election, while overlaying the archive clips with modern graphics such as text message bubbles inspired by the smartphone aesthetic in order to «dynamize and desacralize the archives ».
Yet, speaking about repackaging the archives using the technologies of today, a special mention needs to go out to 1968.DIGITAL, the first-ever mobile documentary series. Specially tailored for smartphone screens, this ongoing project takes up the challenge of revisiting the story of one heroic character per week through the lens of their iPhone and the various apps they could have owned in 1968; viewers witness the Beatles exchanging via a WhatsApp chat, Andy Warhol sharing photos on Instagram, Gabriel Garcia Marquez writing in Notes, and Martin Luther King’s funeral is announced via a Facebook’s event reminder.
Created and produced by Russian independent journalists and cofounders of Future History studio, Mikhail Zygar and Karen Shainyan, this project is the result of a prior effort to bring primary sources to the forefront with “Project1917“, a web-project relying on Facebook daily posting style to immerse the audience into the making of the Russian Revolution. In addition to providing a fresh experience of the past, Future History’s projects rely on a very specific mission statement: showing how major events shaped the culture and the society of nowadays while revealing patterns of similarities and clear influences between people across the world, both in the present and the past.
A social media phenomenon, “1968.DIGITAL“(The Year that created the world as we know it) has so far reached millions of views thanks to a smart distribution strategy based on partnerships with different news media, maximizing the chance to disseminate the content across a wide variety of channels and platforms… and to multiply the views. The project was initially designed as a three-episode series untitled “Future History: 1968,” which was premiered by BuzzFeed News, the millennial-focused site, and it was released exclusively on Apple News before going to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Soon additional news publishers have joined the project such as “Liberation.fr” for producing a French version of the series.
All this is actually very representative of what’s going on today with news businesses: they are in a frenzy for original, fresh and higher-quality video content to license or produce, and especially for short docs aiming to recap historical moments while providing context to nowadays world Another great example is The New York Times ‘partnership with the news organization Retro Report, which has produced more than 125 short docs, combining investigative journalism and narrative storytelling to tell the audience the history behind the news.
A mix of digital creatives and journalists, all those highly-engaged creators are not only working on adding a modern twist to archival storytelling but they are also giving a fresh and unprecedented access to history and archives to the youngest generations via unique video experiences delivered directly to their doors: in Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Mashable, BuzzFeed etc. What an exciting and optimistic time for archival storytelling.