Review: Journey to the End of Coal

Note by the Editor: This story is another point of view of the same project created by the French photojournalist Samuel Bollendorff. You can read another post on that interactive documentary here

This web interactive documentary is a story about the the coal mines in China. Using short video, photographs, written narratives, natural sounds and live interviews, it provides an all-around experiences that guide you into the engine of China’s tremendous growth: the highly polluted and accident-prone coal mines in Shangxi province. Through train rides and truck hop-on, you do get a sense that you are travelling and on the ground interacting with locals.

In positioning the user as an investigative journalist going through the cities trying to uncover the truth of a recent coal mine accident, the documentary also highlights the difficulty of going beyond the official rhetoric and hint at the dangers facing journalists asking sensitive questions. In conversations with coal mine workers, government officials, truck drivers and pollution victims, you are able to piece together the story behind China’s economic boom: the dangerous coal mining, the terrible environmental pollution, the corruptions, the cover-up by government officials and the helplessness of the workers who know the danger but needed the money.

The design was clean: on the bottom right side of the screen, you have your options to choose how you explore the story, on the bottom right is additional information that provides users with more in depth context for the story. A map serves as orientation and indicates where you are as you go step by step into the story.

Besides all serious and sad, the makers has also made an effort to lighten the mood by inserting a portion on singing and dancing which provides the user with a rare glimpse into the leisurely and artistic side of the coal miners.

The documentary offers an impressive and powerful insight into the coal mining situation in China. Using imagery and short narrative, it gives you the full story without having to spend too much effort. The fact that you are able to select what questions to ask each interviewees makes you much more attentive to what they are saying. The selection of characters offered a full perspectives on the matter as it included government officials, several workers at different stages of mining, reminiscing elderly man and scavenging mother.

A few changes that the authors might consider is adding the function to return to the previous step or making the map available at each step of the way. It is possible that the authors prefer that an experience that goes according to their design flow but I think for many users, exploring each option and seeing the possibilities is a compulsion. Additionally, the author had used the same photograph for all the government officials in several different cities, which is perhaps an effort to emphasize the monotonous response but it would have been more realistic if different ones were used. Lastly, the voice-over of the interviewees need more work as some sounded foreign and several do not sound like they are from the region.

Nonetheless, this is a very creative and insightful way to tell a story. I would highly recommend anyone to give it a try.