As we’ve covered previously, in our Interactive Documentary Guide, there are certain subjects and themes that can’t be fully realised within a simple linear structured work. The interactive documentary format lends itself to larger, more labyrinthian structures that the user can actively navigate through, allowing multiple narratives to be formed and layered. Robert Knoth and Antoinette de Jong, creators of Poppy, have constructed an interactive documentary focused on how drug money is used to destabilise countries and fuel global conflicts. Poppy began as an art installation and book/video before evolving into an interactive documentary. I spoke to Robert and his web developer Aart Jan van Der Linden, about this process and why the interactive doc format was the correct choice for their research.

You can view Poppy in its entirety here.

What attracted you to compiling Poppy into an interactive documentary as opposed to a traditional linear piece?

Robert Knoth: The problem was scale, all that work was produced, collected and assembled over a period of almost 20 years, in about 20 countries in all. Altogether a massive amount of long or little stories, reportage, historical figures and events, which we combined with our personal observations.

A linear documentary would have meant us picking some of those stories and focussing on those rather than showing the framework in which organized crime, war and instability have developed a symbiotic relationship. The framework itself, in which all actors in our story operate, was what we wanted to show, unearthing this fluid, constantly shifting network around the globe that is destabilizing large parts of it was the goal. Not the drugs trade itself, not the crime nor war as such, but the global network that has developed over the last 30 years or so. How this globalized world made this development possible.

Traditional, or analogue, ways of visualizing these complexities are not sufficient anymore. So, we explored and tried to create new forms of storytelling by integrating different disciplines and techniques. We put everything into a giant blender and constructed a new narrative about the wars raging in places such as Afghanistan or Syria.

Fred Ritchin states in his book After Photography, “The photograph is no longer a tangible object, a rectangle resembling a painting, it is part of a larger array of linked dynamic media.” He refers to the principles of quantum physics to describe some of the potential of digital imagery. “Distance may be illusory, certain measurements are impossible, time may go backwards, particles can be in two places simultaneously.”

The non-linearity of digital imagery, fluid and not fixed, suited well in explaining the undercurrent in our project: how interconnectivity in a modern world creates multiple forces of its own, operating in destabilizing ways in many areas, as described. Currents of images and storylines are presented, sometimes evocative or metaphorical, and at times switching to more descriptive elements. This provides a kaleidoscopic impression, illustrating the chaos, urgency and elusiveness of what takes place along the three routes. For the audience it evokes a sense of being submerged into multi-layered or parallel worlds where different events and developments are related and interconnected, forcing viewers to reposition themselves again and again.

Otherwise, it would have been ‘just another story about crime and violence.’

How did you go about deciding the specifics of the structure for Poppy then? The visualisation of the globe, I found, was a really insightful aid to the narrative of the video content. How did you go about deciding the routes that the viewer would take?

RK: On the basis of the video-installation Poppy: Trails of Afghan Heroin, launched in 2012; an installation consisting of one larger panorama of 12 meters wide, subdivided into four projection fields. We experimented first with no routes at all with the interactive documentary. There were routes, but under the surface, you had to discover them for yourself, besides you could also create your own route. It wasn’t ideal. It all felt too random, although the element of randomness, we felt, had to play an important role because it’s an integral part of our story.

Unless you are a viewer already having a lot of background information, you got lost very easily. Most of the stories are only vaguely related or connected on the surface. What has a mother of three got to do with a corrupt official in Dubai or opium farmer in Afghanistan. They surely have connections, but that only becomes clear if you spend a long time going through the project. That’s an effort very few are willing or able to make. The routes are a navigational tool. They provide a structure for the viewer. The geographical element gives you the feeling of a beginning and ending. You are able to switch routes at certain points in the structure, moving for instance from the Northern to the Southern route.

Traditional, or analogue, ways of visualizing these complexities are not sufficient anymore.

The video-installation itself provided the structure back in 2012. With the book it was the same, the book, also published in 2012, itself confines the story. Online it doesn’t work that way. You get lost. The routes are based on the actual routes the heroine takes from Afghanistan or South America into Europe. The Balkan is the traditional route, dating back to the 80s. The Southern route is ‘the new kid on the block’ as in a more recently established trafficking route, destabilizing large parts of Eastern Africa and Western Africa. The Northern route is going through more stable regions in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, with the exception of Ukraine, but all the ingredients for war and violence as one can see along the other two routes are clearly present.

How did you brief Aart Jan? Were there gaps between how you initially wanted the site to work vs what was technically possible? Did the tech opened up any opportunities you hadn’t initially considered?

RK: Not really. Given the fact that there already was a book and a video installation they had a pretty clear idea about where the project should go and how to do it. The real struggle was structuring the story in such a way so it would work online. The big technical question was to either produce an interactive map ourselves or use Google as a basis.

Aart Jan, in terms of the technicalities, could you talk about how, using what Robert and Antoinette briefed you with, you constructed Poppy? And, similarly, how you initially wanted to the site to work vs what was technically possible?

Aart Jan van der Linden: After having used the Google Maps API in a number of projects we decided to switch to Mapbox for this project. The main reasons for using Mapbox was the amount of flexibility in the styling of the map-tiles and better animation options. We ended up generating a custom set of tiles based on the exact colors and terrain styles our Designer Christiaan had envisioned (using NASA’s Blue Marble as the starting point). This ultimate freedom of tile styling wouldn’t have been possible using the Google Maps API. To generate our tiles we used MapTiler and because MapBox uses a simple file-and-folder based tile system the website doesn’t require a special server with GIS features.

The Mapbox API is based on the Leaflet library we used before, for instance on Refugee Republic, but it adds a lot of geo-functionality that we could use. In addition, there’s the option to tilt the map. We discovered this while experimenting with the new library, liked it very much and decided to put it in. I really like this way of working at Submarine Channel, with quite advanced prototyping in the early concepting and design stages, allowing these experiments and accidental findings to make it into the productions. The ‘track’ functionality, the white line drawn between the points you visited, was something we created using an extra library, Turf.js.

For projects like this, the pricing options of services like MapBox are often challenging. They are usually based on pay-per-view, which would require open-end funding for the lifetime of the project. It will also lead to increasing costs if we are successful in attracting visitors, while visitors on these projects usually don’t generate money. Therefore we are very grateful for Mapbox that they provide their API for free, so we can combine it with our self-hosted tiles, to keep the total costs of the site manageable for a longer time.

We used HTML5’s built in closed caption functionality, using WebVTT tracks, but only for the timing of the captions. The captions themselves are text in an overlay layer. This provides us with flexibility in styling, resulting in captions resizing and repositioning according to the screen of the visitor.

The different parts of the project are told in different styles, most of them from a personal viewpoint, sometimes without a very strict narrative. We decided to ‘back’ these parts with very factual information, such as the price of an AK47 in different parts of the world, how to fly a cocaine filled Boeing across the Southern Atlantic Ocean or the economy behind Islamic State. To show this information we used a few different techniques, such as exactly positioned overlays on the map, using Mapbox layers, 2D bar and line graphs, using Plotly.js, simple infographic images and lines on the maps using MapBox and Turf.js.

The frontend is based on vanilla JavaScript for the logic and jQuery for the manipulation of DOM elements. The content of the project is handed to the frontend as a static XML file, generated by a WordPress based content management system with Advanced Custom Fields for easy editing of the data. We use this setup often, currently leaning towards metabox.io, because it combines a very low learning curve for the content editors with an efficient way to set up an exact tailored backend system. In these projects, we only use WordPress for managing the content, not for displaying the websites.

In the end, like most of our projects, this is a website that grew in our hands from the first working sketches into the final production website. It’s an attempt to capture the many different stories told by Robert and Antoinette into an interface that invites users to enter into the web of intertwined relations between drug money and global conflicts, between savvy merchants and deadly terrorism, between immense real estate projects and the occasional soft drugs user.

And how have you found the audience response?

RK: The feedback so far has been very positive, the project was nominated for the IDFA Doclab Competition for Digital Storytelling and has received an honourable mention at the Prix Ars Electronica 2018. As with the previous version, the project turns out to be an eye-opener for many. The long-term perspective and difference on the topics of globalization, war in the 21st century, transnational crime, corruption and other issues presented in the project is welcomed by our viewers. The decision to not simplify or narrow the project down to a few stories bound together, but show it in full, is highly appreciated, especially by younger generations, who often show a sign of relief that projects of this scale are made.

Do you find the reason for this is that people engage more with the content of the doc as they’re actively participating rather than passively watching?

RK: Hard to say, I think much depends on personal preferences. Some like to find out for themselves, others prefer the opposite. The major difference between the book/video version of Poppy and the interactive website is that we have been able to tell a more complete story, present more information, while the geographical elements in Poppy Interactive provide you with a better feeling of how much of what has been featuring in the headlines of the last 15 years is linked in all sorts of ways.

And finally, what projects can we expect from you in the future?

There could be a follow of Poppy, not a direct one, but coming out of it with the working title What Young Men Do about ultra-violence being an attraction for young men, not only for groups such as ISIS but also drug-cartels or violent groups such as the Hell’s Angels. But that is still in an infant stage. First the book.

Poppy Interactive is available to experience in its entirity here.

For a detailed primer in successful non-linear documentary filmmaking read our Guide to Interactive Documentary: Structure, Tools & Narrative.

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