Prison Valley: Breakaway web documentary



Prison Valley is a landmark web documentary on many counts: it is long (one hour in its linear form, plus “bonuses”), it cost a lot to make (230,000 euro budget), and it was successful.

French journalist David Dufresne and photographer Philippe Brault investigate the prison industry in Fremont County, a remote part of Colorado, USA, in the French documentary. The two reporters explore an area that has 36,000 inhabitants, over 7,000 inmates and 13 jails.

A unique multimedia project, Prison Valley attracted attention mainly for its quality of interactive features. “Tens of thousands people” visited the site,, since it went online on 22 April, 2010, according to David Dufresne. “24 percent watched it in full”, said the journalist.

The future of the documentary?

Prison Valley is made up of a linear 59-minute film, which was aired on television channel Arte (who co-produced the documentary) on 12 June, 2010. But besides this, web users can view extra footage, interviews and statistics online.

The documentary uses many of the possibilities provided by the Internet, including photography, text, audio, video and infographics. Viewers can explore the content using a navigation system similar to a video game.

“The main advantage of web documentaries is that more space and time are available. This makes it possible to see what there is outside the camera angle, which is wiped out by the constraints of standard formats,” said David Dufersne.

“We thought that minds and technology were ready for a different type of work. The fundamentals of storytelling have not changed since the Ancient Greeks: there is a beginning, a middle and an end. But the online genre offers new possibilities,” noted the journalist.


The large budget production (by French web-documentary standards at least) was widely commented upon in journalism blogs.

Some media professionals believe that multimedia documentaries will become the norm, as TV and the Internet are merging steadily. Besides bonuses and navigation, web documentaries can be far more interactive.

Prison Valley was used as a platform for discussions, with gateways to forums at the end of chapters. Live chat sessions were also scheduled regularly for two months. Some involved characters seen in the documentary.

The producers also integrated social media. In order to start watching the documentary where they last left it, users could register using their Facebook or Twitter page.

Awarding web documentaries

Online documentaries are getting increasing attention in France. At the photojournalism festival Visa pour l’Image, in Perpignan, a prize has been awarded for ‘Best Web Documentary’ since 2009.

Ziad Maalouf, a journalist at Radio France International and a member of the jury, says that web documentaries are thriving in France.

“France has a vibrant web documentary scene, thanks in part to funding from the CNC, the French national film council (a public body which subsidises productions)”.

Prison Valley enjoyed a 90,000 euro grant from the CNC, including 19,000 euro for the two authors to get started. But despite this help, plus 70,000 euro from Arte and 70,000 euro from production company Upian, the producers planned to sell the documentary to foreign television companies to break even.

Multimedia may be an important part of the future format of journalism. But web documentaries haven’t solved the problem of financing reporting.

Project timeline