Commemorating WWI Online: A Few Examples from France

(Re)promoting archives on the web

In France, several initiatives are underway to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War. Among televised documentaries and various commemorative ceremonies, digital media actors have seized the topic in the hope of giving a digital and possibly innovative vision to this commemoration on a global scale.

A host of very different projects thus blossomed and others yet will blossom in the coming months. These projects allow us to observe how traditional archives can be presented digitally in an interactive and participative fashion. How can the duty of remembrance be represented on the web? On an ancillary basis, how can these digital works reach younger audiences more than four generations after the conflict?

Long-term web devices

The web makes it possible to explore a subject or event over a longer period of time than any other media. One of Radio France’s projects—14-18 : France Info y était—will cover a five-year period (2014-2018) and present a series of radio chronicles and documentaries on a dedicated Facebook page.

Launched on January 1, 2014 and spearheaded by ARTE and Les Films d’Ici (a production company highly renowned for its classic documentaries), the 1914, dernières nouvelles site written by Bruno Masi also takes the stance of other webdocumentaries and interactive objects on the subject.

Indeed, set in time seven months before the actual beginning of the war, this project deals first and foremost with daily life at the beginning of the 20th Century such as to demonstrate that the onset of WWI is not the only event to have happened in 1914. At the rhythm of one archive per day, fashion, music, politics and economics are all dealt with in this long-term serial, which ends on August 1, 1914—the day before officially going to war.

The war as a historic event

Other projects have chosen a more classic path by studying the war as a piece of history. Such projects are based on a specific theme (e.g., 14/18 à travers les arts) or an established “brand” (e.g., “Apocalypse” and its colourized archives).

The latest —Apocalypse – 10 Destins— is a major Franco-Canadian coproduction that uses effective fictionalization tools (voice off, drawing) to present the destiny of ten international figures whose paths will cross during the war. The project comprises ten 15-minute episodes. By seeking to tell the “small” story whereas the TV series focuses on the “big” story, this ambitious content faithfully reflects the usual balance between TV and web.

Whereas the archives are at the core of the eponym televised documentary, they are not as visible in the web version. Elegantly incorporated into the animated strip, the archives are put to the service of the narrative.

Customized archives: interactivity and participation

Compared to traditional archival documentaries and other historic works, the web’s inherent interactivity is also used to approach the Great History in a more intimate and subjective manner.

Supported by Cinétévé, Générations 14 is definitely part of this category. As soon as they land on the site, users are invited to enter their family name to find out if one of their ancestors “died for France.” If so, the system accesses the ancestor’s file and the user can upload other documents to the site to enrich said ancestor’s profile.

Linked to the Department of Defence’s Mémoire des Hommes database, the site also proposes ten archival short films on “original” aspects of the war (wartime godmothers, prisoners of war, etc.).

These films are also based on archives collected during a “Grande Collecte” initiated throughout France in November 2013 and orchestrated by the Bibliothèque nationale and Mission Centenaire 14-18, an institutional organization in charge of centralizing and labelling all such initiatives.

In yet another way of customizing the user experience, the Jaurès, pas à pas mobile documentary project focuses on the most prominent figure of French socialism and proposes in app form (to be launched in the fall) a review of the life of Jean Jaurès. The review includes nine archival films and two augmented reality sets in the politician’s two strongholds: Paris and Toulouse.

These two projects would have been impossible to conceive without the help of digital medias: participative research in one case and mobile device geolocalization in the other. Archives are used in an original and innovative manner to increase user involvement.

Using social networks to revisit history

Other initiatives that have invaded social networks make it possible to apprehend the lives of those who experienced the war firsthand through a tool used on a daily basis, particularly among younger viewers.

Thus, since the beginning of the year, a few specialty accounts have appeared online—both on Facebook and on Twitter—relating historic events from the sinking of the Titanic up to World War II.

The most emblematic example was launched in April 2013 by the Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux in collaboration with the DDB Paris agency. The campaign titled “Facebook 1914”takes on the face of Léon Vivien, a fictional young school teacher initially reformed before going off to war in 1915. His human and embodied story interested over 66,000 fans and became the subject of a book relating the social story.

The most iconic images of the war are thus reused to tell a story—fictional yet plausible—using the specific features of social networks.

This is in no way an exhaustive list (other projects are described here), but the subject of commemoration has obviously inspired major audiovisual production players as well as “new media” broadcasters—namely France TV Nouvelles Écritures, ARTE and Radio France—in association with more original players such as museums and historical institutions.

Thanks to this type of innovative projects on the web, mobile devices or social networks, archival documents are being used in renewed and diversified ways. These documents are presented in a more attractive manner without relinquishing their evocative and pedagogical features.

For more information on the abovementioned projects, go to Blog Documentaire [in French] where several posts have been written on them.

Oriane Hurard
Oriane Hurard is a producer with Les Produits Frais as well as a festival programmer for new storytelling formats (transmedia, webseries, VR) and a new media and community management instructor.
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