Can a kernel of corn be a compelling character?


In the last post, Amaranta discussed the challenge of balancing the needs of performing research and preparing for its communication as an i-doc. There she talked about how a documentary typically needs compelling characters.

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When this research project was first proposed, the idea was that a kernel of corn was to be the central character. The plan being to follow the journey of a kernel of corn and map the networks of relations we found across the three different agri/cultures of organic, conventional and GM production (check out our previous post on the challenges we are facing maintaining this categorisation). In the original proposal, it was important that our cartography of these relations documented not just the human actors shaping the different production systems, but also the non-human ‘actants’ involved.

The idea of an actant comes from Actor-Network Theory, developed by Bruno Latour, John Law and others. It captures the idea that non-human entities such as technological devices, also have agency and power to influence and shape social systems (or socio-technical systems as they were relabelled). This means, for example, that technologies such as sowing, harvesting and milling machines need to be recognised for the role they play in structuring the relational networks of different agri/cultures. Furthermore, entities like insects, bacteria and fungi also need to be acknowledged as significantly shaping the practices and processes that take place in these systems (socio-techno-ecological systems?).

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This desire to recognise and map the role of non-human actants in agri/cultures, combined with the idea of having a kernel of corn as the central character of our narrative, raises the question of how compelling non-human agents can be. Can we attract an audience and create an emotional connection to such actants without anthropomorphising them?


We find it incredibly useful when explaining our project to talk about how we are following the journey of a kernel of corn through different cultures of agriculture and mapping the various places, people and processes we encounter. But we have to admit that we are struggling somewhat to capture the concept of the actant in our elevator pitch of the project. We are also finding it challenging to explore human discourse and consistently remain sufficiently attentive to actants in our mapping task. It is also not clear for us whether kernels of corn can be compelling enough characters to carry our story as an i-doc.

Can stories about the socio-ecological relations of agri/cultural systems create engaging characters from non-human entities?

How can an analysis of human discourse be woven into a story about the varied journeys of a kernel of corn?

Academic Research & Making an Interactive Documentary: Compatible Worlds?

  Chapter 1: Discourses vs Characters

The Agri/Cultures project attempts to investigate new ways to document and communicate scientific data.

To be experimental, the project has begun fieldwork with an intention to create an interactive documentary (also known as i-doc, web documentary, web doc or multimedia documentary). An i-doc differs from traditional forms of documentary by having a non-linear narrative, containing different sorts of interactive information (audio, infographics, photography, video and text material). In this type of documentary, interactivity offers more power and agency to users. It also allows them to navigate through a network of relations, exploring an ecosystem of dynamically interlinked nodes.

The process of creating a web-doc:

I will be writing a series of posts related to the challenge of using audiovisual documentation devices and techniques to do research. I will try to summarise some of the difficulties and opportunities we have found when trying to reconcile these two logics.

The first difficulty deals with the different focus: Discourses vs Characters

On the one hand, when doing research, we are interested in identifying, describing and explaining different discourses. That is, different ways people understand, talk about and interact with the world.

In research, these discourses are fragmented and partially reproduced by many of the research subjects. Our job is to explore, categorise, reconstruct, and weave these fragmented discourses.


In the communication sphere of documentary-making, however, the main focus is not discourse, but character. There is a use of compelling and moving characters who can act as vessels to help users navigate through a story or a topic. Sadly, not everyone can be a good character for a documentary. For those selected though, more visual information about each character is needed so audiences can empathise with them. This has important implications for us as researchers.

For an i-doc (or a more traditional documentary) we need to go beyond filming talking heads from interviews, which is a bias researchers who use cameras to focus on discourses often take. To go beyond implies filming activities that the character does in his/her daily life or familiar places in which she or he lives, things he or she likes to do that will illustrate his or her talk. It is about creating an emotional connection with the character.


This creates a practical limitation to the number of characters that can appear in a film or a story. It has to be a manageable number, so audiences can connect with them in a relatively short space of time.

We are trying to find a compromise between these two demands of research and i-doc making, but the truth is that it’s not very easy.

On the one hand, we already know that we will have many more interviewees than our documentary can have. Asking all of them to show us their homes or places of work is also intensively time-consuming. This creates hundreds of hours of recorded material that is difficult to store and handle and not very efficient for the editing. Interviews by themselves take time, approximately 2 hours, which increases to 3 if we are filming. So, if we also add more time to be able to film additional material, it goes well beyond 3 hours for each interviewee.

Usually, when making a documentary, there has been  research about the main characters of the story and they are identified from the very beginning. The research project has just begun. Now it’s summer in Spain. We are having an extreme and unprecedented series of heat waves with temperatures going beyond 38 degrees, and it is a busy time for farmers. It gets very difficult to steal more time from them to film something that we are not even sure we will be using.


So, what are we doing with these different demands in practice? We are currently prioritizing the research (and therefore, the discourses) and we are trying to do as much filming as possible. We are playing it largely by ear in relation to the changing context we are seeking to map. While we continue to learn about the tools available for i-doc making in our digital age, we film the interview and if there is time and the interview went well, we ask to film more images about the person’s workplace and environment. If we later identify an engaging character that we want to have as a main character for our i-doc, we can ask them about filming further.

As we navigate this new territory though, we welcome any advice and ideas on how to continue moving forward.