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The Tillman Story: The Interactive Edition

Director Amir Bar-Lev invites his audience to expand their experience of his acclaimed documentary through an online platform of transmedia content.

Like many documentary directors, I kill my babies. That’s the somewhat disturbing way of saying that nothing makes the final cut if it doesn't serve the story. One of the most challenging things I faced while editing my last film, The Tillman Story, was accepting the amount of material that had to end up on the cutting room floor.

For nearly three years, I had explored the case of Pat Tillman, the football player turned Army Ranger whose death was twisted into a symbol of patriotic fervor by the government and the media. In gathering material to tell this incredibly complicated story, I wished that the film could have followed every intellectual tangent, narrative tendril and web of facts that I came across. But documentaries are about efficient, linear storytelling. Thus, I had to kill my babies.

But that doesn’t mean I forgot about them. In the year since The Tillman Story came out in theaters, my team and I have chewed over various ideas about how to incorporate all this ancillary material into viewers’ experience of the film, especially as it continues to provoke an outpouring of interest in Pat Tillman’s case among those now viewing it on DVD and television broadcast. The typical approach in this situation is to create DVD extras or a freestanding website with additional information on the story. But why not create a way that viewers can access material while watching the film itself, making the experience interactive and participatory?

The project we’ve initiated, The Tillman Story Interactive Edition, is a navigable web-based platform that will enable viewers to pause and break away from the film at any point while they watch it and explore tangential stories and ideas. It will serve as a frame around the film, popping open a stream of interactive graphics, resource wikis, video footage, searchable documents, audio files, photographs and action links in concert with the original footage. This active “annotation” of the film will tether seamlessly with social media and the web, providing a forum to connect with other interested parties. In this way, it’s our hope that viewers themselves will be able to dig into the facts about the cover-up of Pat’s death, access and create updates to the story, explore the film’s central themes of heroism, propaganda and war, and connect with others doing the same.

The TIllman Story: Amir Bar-Lev

The idea has put us into uncharted territory, but fortunately there are a lot of talented people navigating the same waters. We participated in the illuminating Silverdocs Transmedia Lab last spring, where we connected with the folks from Mozilla. As it turns out what we have been imagining is very possible using Popcorn, their JavaScript library that integrates video with the web. They have in turn introduced us to DocumentCloud, the groundbreaking project now overseen by investigative reporters and editors that allows researchers to upload, annotate and share primary source documents.
On our end, one of the coolest things about this project is taking part in an experimental movement that’s pushing the boundaries of how documentaries might be seen. A linear feature documentary is only the tip of an iceberg. By creating an annotated, interactive edition of The Tillman Story, we hope to help pioneer a powerful way to watch and participate in documentaries that may just become the new — and very exciting — standard.


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