Last month, a strange little project launched online. Prison Valley is an interactive, Web-based documentary with its own iPhone app, and a heavy social media presence. It’s been produced in three languages, by two French guys with a little help from the the Franco-German arts channel Arte. What’s odd about this project is that, instead of the TV documentary being the focal point and using the Web as a promotional tool, it’s the other way round.
The premise of Prison Valley, which took 16 months to complete, is about a town in Colorado called Canon City. 36,000 residents, 13 prisons. The crew spent time in the town, interviewing the people who live and work there, and documenting what the voiceover calls “the clean version of hell.” The town has grown up around the prisons. “If the prisons weren’t here, there would be nothing and nobody, because there is nothing else to offer.” Gritty stuff.
After a four-minute introduction, the $300,000 project gets interactive. Viewers register via Facebook or Twitter, and watch the documentary, pausing every couple of minutes to check out additional footage and information. There’s a forum for the community to share opinions of the show, and a blog where this afternoon (Thursday), French Secretary of State for Justice, Jean-Marie Bockel, is doing a live chat. Thanks to the member profiles, the Web site remembers the last bit you watched, so there’s no need to go back to the beginning and search for where you left off.
David Dufresne, one of the creators of the Web doc, spoke to Fast Company about the project. “We didn’t plan to make a movie at the beginning,” he says. “That came after our initial filming in Colorado.” He and the rest of the crew on Prison Valley wanted to prove that online video is not just about the five-minute YouTube clip, but that a long-form doc can be executed successfully on the Web. “Our goal is to provide the elements and tools of the debate about prisons.”
Most interesting, however, is the way that Prison Valley unfolds for each individual viewer. “When you log into Prison Valley with either Facebook or Twitter,” says Dufresne, “your journey in the movie is ‘told’ to your friends on either your Facebook wall or your Twitter timeline. We spent several days with Eric Drier of Upian (a Parisian production and web agency involved in the making of the film) writing these little automatic sentences, not like a marketing tool, but as an extension of our job/work as journalists. These sentences are a kind of symbol of what social media could be as a creative tool.”
By the time the project comes to a close, it will have spawned a Web documentary, a TV documentary, a book, an iPhone app and even an exhibition in Paris next month. The Web site Innovative Interactivity has an in-depth interview with Dufresne on the technical details of making Prison Valley.
One warning, though. While Dufresne acknowledges the role of tech in the project’s production, there is no doubt as to the real star of the show. “Story is all,” he says. “If you don’t have a good story, technology is technology.”