Bell Fund: Case Study, Web Documentary Programme

This case-study was commissioned by The Bell Fund to provide insight into the development process of the project’s creative iterations from its initial intentions set in January 2014 to the final experience launched at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June 2017. 

The Project The Space We Hold is a direct provocation to audiences to bear witness to the testimonies of three former “comfort women” who were among the 200,000 girls and young women kidnapped and forced into military sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. 

In a cinematic opening, users are introduced to women from South Korea, China and The Philippines 70 years after they were taken to the “comfort stations.” After decades of living in silence and shame about their past, they courageously agree to share their stories with those who are willing to listen. 

The women featured in the interactive experience are survivors of the largest case of human trafficking in the 20th century. Demanding the user’s attention throughout their intimate first-hand accounts, the experience guides the user from a solitary act of witnessing to become part of a collective, networked response to the women we refer to as “The Grandmothers”. 

The Zeitgeist — From the project’s inception the producerial team understood we were envisioning an interactive documentary experience admidst a cultural moment where the narratives of sexual violence survivors were heard, received and mediated in a new way — across cultures and generations via online platforms to possibly engage and actively create spaces for societal conversations. 

Through interviews with The Grandmothers who recount stories of being taken to the comfort stations, brutally raped, held captive and how they’ve lived the past 70 years in relative silence — we’ve come to understand more intrinsically how the act of telling one’s personal story of sexual violence is fraught. More specifically, how globally “rape culture” has historically admonished survivors wherein the experience of guilt and shame solely rests with the survivor. 

As creators/producers we watched and listened to how stories of sexual violence were being told, taken up and responded to online/in social media. 2014 felt like a watershed moment in North America where survivors of sexual violence were telling their stories and garnering a lot of public attention, support and yes — vilification. 

It was a moment we had not collectively experienced and with the advent of women telling their stories online and garnering social responses like #IBelieveSurvivors#TheEmptyChair #BeenRapedNeverReported #HeForShe #IbelieveLucy and #MeToo — required us to reimagine throughout our development and production processes how audiences or “users” consume and respond to stories about sexual violence online.


The First Interactive Co-Production In Spring of 2014 it was established that The NFB Ontario Studio would move forward with the project as the first official english-language digital co-production with Patricia Lee (Cult Leader). In order to trigger NFB production funds, Cult Leader was required to secure 51% of the production financing. Given the feature film The Apology was a 100% NFB production, the project did not meet eligibility criteria for many of the convergent funds that exist in Canada. After thorough research and meetings with various US and Canadian funders — we decided that the project’s best shot at securing production dollars rested with The OMDC ‘s Interactive Digital Media Production Fund. The team progressed the concept via work sessions and iterative design sprints with a UX/Designer on-boarded to generate a more fleshed out concept to paper for the August OMDC IDM Fund Deadline.

At the time of submission to the OMDC IDM fund the interactive project’s site architecture consisted of following components:

  • Homepage: The opening page where users can select one of the 3 interactive character story modules
  • 3 Character Story Modules consist of 3 videos & 3 Interactive pages comprised of videos, photos, archival (historical materials), sound, audio and text that are 20 min in length.
  • Interactive History Module consist of 1 video (approx. 5–8 min) with an interactive page that takes form of an interactive map that overlays significant historical context (in multimedia format) for the comfort women issue in addition to information about WWII.

How did we get to the project we see today? 

The project from January to August 2014 — the conceptual development process, existed primarily as a web-based educational tool that contextualized the stories of the comfort women in the context of WW II. There were a number of critical factors that initiated the project’s pivot to further hone the experiential execution and define the narrative objectives.

September 2014 —  Regime change in Spring 2014 at The NFB’s Ontario studio saw the project’s producer, Anita Lee become The Executive Producer of English Language programmes which led to the eventual hiring of David Oppenheim as one of NFB’s new producers at The Ontario Centre— assigned to The Space We Hold (then known as “Apology Digital”) as co-producer. 

October 2014 — Canada experienced “a moment” in terms of dealing with stories of sexual assault. It was called a sea-change, tides moving in to shift the landscape for how stories of sexual assault are heard and responded to. On an hourly, daily basis we could see the online behaviours, mores, understandings about how we receive and respond to stories of sexual violence were shifting, often rapidly. We started understand more deeply that to create an interactive project that tells survivors stories would require us to contend with the temporal nature in which the internet grapples with women publicly telling their stories of sexual violence online. 

November of 2014 we successfully received 150 K from the OMDC IDM Fund to move the project into production.The team at this phase had multiple intentions, strategies and narrative arcs for the interactive project. At large the interactive team was not intimately familiar with the 300 + hours of footage captured by the filmmakers. We spent the next few months revisiting the footage, creating logs, watching and categorizing moments, scenes, characters to explore all the narrative possibilities.

In January 2015 it became clear that we ostensibly had “no stakes in the ground” with respect to a unified vision for the project. The producers agreed that we had a critical opportunity to pivot the project’s intentions, objectives and narrative experience to create a project that would actively engage and speak to the contemporary conversations the world was having about sexual violence online to also reimagine the project where users, audiences were at the centre of the storytelling.

The process began with defining clear goals for the interactive experience wherein we spent a number of days together in a room with the filmmakers, designers, interactive narrative specialists and user experience experts to clearly map a set of narrative and experiential frameworks for the project. 


We knew that we wanted to create a “stand-alone” interactive documentary experience wherein audiences/users had not needed to view the feature length film to understand the interactive documentary. Through a number of group sessions and consultations we distilled — again, all the possible narrative opportunities for the interactive web-documentary.

The team’s content analysis sessions involved quick iterative sprints to foresee possible interactions and storylines ranging from Tiffany Hsuing’s (the filmmaker) backstory, stories focusing on the secondary characters related to the 3 main characters of the feature film and the testimonies of the 20+ comfort women as told to the filmmakers.

The producers designed a series of design-thinking, interactive narrative work sessions with the key creative team to onboard Siobhan O’Flynn to lead narrative design sessions and Milena Vujanovic to lead experience design sessions to get the core-team to a unified objective about the project-at-large.


Atlarge the constraints we created around the use of the 20+ testimonies of the grandmothers became a critical guidepost as we were making ethical and creative decisions throughout this process. By evaluating the content via the lens of constraints it faciliated the ability to focus the storytelling more powerfully to establish a structure, a sense of time and understand the conventions of the “coming out” narrative that exists when survivors tell their story. 

Asking ourselves — what affordances our content allowed assisted greatly in establishing that we’d move forward with the testimonies of the grandmothers as the primary video content experience for the project. 

The filmmakers had recorded up to 20+ testimonies of Grandmothers across Korea, China and the Phillipines and we understood fundamentally that the footage of the grandmothers telling their stories direct to camera was the most powerful and resonant —The decision to make The Grandmothers’ direct-to-camera testimonies central to the interactive experience was our first creative stake in the ground.

The ethical considerations with this project were always immense and continue to occupy a large part of the project well after it’s launch . The exercise of bringing constraints and affordances like: If we use the testimonies of The Grandmothers — they will not take the form of short, bite-sized viral marketing videos etc. that we were able to productively understand the collectivity of concerns to then focus on repositioning some of our central questions about the project during the experience design sessions that followed.

Watching and listening intently to how the world took up the conversations about sexual violence online we asked ourselves the following questions:

  • How do we address directly the historical position of The Grandmothers as women who were not believed by family, friends and their governments when they told their stories. How do we create an interactive framework that does not ask the user to contemplate “did that really happen”? 
  • How do we acknowledge, respect and honour the immense courage and tenacity required for survivors of sexual violence to tell their stories publicly to the world wherein once told survivors often have little or no control in how their stories are received and mediated in world.
  • How do audiences feel when we listen to stories of sexual violence told by survivors? What is typically the default response? What are the interactions we can create to ask for a more engaged response from witnesses in the digital age?
  • What are our responsibilities to our subjects, The Grandmothers who have trusted us to tell their stories? What is the response they would like to see? Is their response, synergestic to the responses we can expect from the audience?

TRANSMEDIA FRAMEWORK: Narrative Design for Social Impact

In order to further solidify the ground and expanse that we’d draw from in defining the project we utilized Lina Srivastava’s Transmedia Narrative Framework to define the narrative goals for the project.

The project’s “Transmedia Framework” became an important diagnostics to measure, evaluate and discuss the project’s intentions through each iterative sprint. Establishing these experiential and narrative guideposts is what helped us wayfind to the project we see live in the world today.


March 2015 — Milena Vujancovic led a number of sessions with the key creative team to help map out what is referred to as The 5 E’s of Customer Journey essentially, to consider the five stages that the audience will experience as a whole which will comprise the interactive documentary— Entice, Enter, Engage, Exit, and Extend. The questions we asked ourselves, as a group were as follows:

Entice — How will our audience first hear about the project? What will trigger their interest? What will make them come to the website? What do we want them to know before they come to the experience?

Enter — What impression do we want to create for audiences when the enter the experience, online. What will they see, hear? How long before they decide to leave?

Engage — What does the interaction look like? What are the considerations we will offer audiences to engage with the project, the stories of The Grandmothers? Will they need to come back more than once before making a committment to experience the project? What do they need in terms of voice, call-to-action, design, tone etc to engage wholeheartedly with the project?

Exit — What is the audiences’ final impression, take-away from the project? Do they leave with a negative experience? Are they moved? Excited? Empowered?

Extend — What incites the audience to share, tell their friends about the project? Will they return to the experience? How will they interact with the project in the future?

Hold The Space Bar to Listen

The story doesn’t end — for us as audience — with the telling, but continues to resonate out into social spaces with our collective responses and the conversations they generate. In a way, the story is us

We wanted to create an interactive documentary experience that engaged people in an act of listening that was unique in online spaces, where the challenges of reconciliation are so visible. And where we can begin to know what it means to listen to testimonies of sexual violence in a digital age.

 As interactive creators we understood that sharing the stories of The Grandmothers would require a rigour that both respected the telling but also understood that an interactive experience via one’s desk/laptop computer would mean that the user’s attention would be split, fragmented, hard to hold.

We wanted to create an experience where the audience/user is implicated and apart of the storytelling that demanded some reciprocity between the storyteller (The Grandmother) and the audience (the witness).This witnessing paradigm places the responsibility on the user to understand that the stories of the comfort women are difficult to hear, but even more difficult to tell. 

PRODUCTION: Iterative Sprints, Prototyping and User Testing

April 2015 As we began production we decided to create an open-ended production process that utilized prototyping and user testing as the primary activity to get the project from version to version. Through all the iterations the project had a core-creative team of producers, filmmakers, technologists, narrative specialists, data visualization practitioners, sound and experience designers who worked both collaboratively and in very specialized sprints throughout the production process. 

The project, it’s subject matter and our questions required a motley crew of specialists to create user flows, design mock-ups to paper prototype a myriad of experiences to test our assumptions and the response of users. 



The team embarked on a series of paper prototyping exercises to communicate the various ideas generated via the user flows diagrams. This process was important in helping us develop a common language between designers, content leads, producers and the creators regarding the project. 

 It familiarized the team with our core UX questions, gave context to the content team who’d be editing and generating new content for the experience in terms of videos, text, narration and images. It also allowed for an open-ended process with key decision makers within the NFB studio system to have a dialogue about the project’s evolution. It ultimately helped establish the intentionality of the production which would be measured, considered and validated as we moved forward. 

Our paper protoyping also afforded the ability to observe user interactions and responses with the subject matter through testing of video content to consider and incorporate the emotional response of the user to further understand the tone and requirements of the project’s interface before they were designed and developed. Keeping the prototyping at this phase low-fi allowed for significant budgetary savings.

Online Prototyping Tools

May 2015. After the paper prototyping process, the team utilized a number of free and paid online prototyping tools that allowed us to test the flow of the content, user interactions and explore tone, design of various iterations of the experience. Click here to view the project’s prototype from June 2015 created via the Hype online platform. 


In Summer 2015 the production hired Arts & Science a digital agency who would work with us through the build, development and launch of the project. In order to onboard a new team of technologists we devised a series of sprints that included Spencer Saunders (President), Kirk Clyne (Chief Creative Officer), and David Pell (Tech Lead), as well as producers Patricia Lee and David Oppenheim.

Sprint 1 Open-ended inquiry — In this sprint we re-visited the project’s outcomes and more specifically the role that Act 3 in our project the “data visualization” play within the experience. We wanted to understand fully the structure of the content and what experiential elements are desired and which still needed work. The outputs from this sprint allowed us to solidify the information architecture & high-level user flow.

In between sprints 1 & 2 the developer produced a set of wireframe schematics based on the information architecture and user flow defined in sprint#1.

Sprint #2-Wireframe Review. The wireframes generated were intended for collaboration and comment — to understand what’s working from an experiential perspective, what isn’t and what has not been considered thus far. This sprint allowed us collectively to a set of wireframe revisions (or instructions for revisions) that led to a finalized set of wireframes which then started to inform the technical workflow maps as well as provide a schematic “foundation” for the designers to start building high-fidelity comps.


In between sprint 2 &3 the developer completed wireframes to hand off to the external design team who then produced a series of high-fidelity compositions to be reviewed at the next sprint

Sprint #3- Design Review: The team reviewed and vetted the interface designs to also understand how the designs would impact the programming/development phase. The outcome of this sprint was to “lock down” the various requirements for full development and establish expectations for what features would be included for the Alpha development and what features were forthcoming.

The following items were the deliverables created as a result of these 3 sprints: 

1. “Business” and Technical Requirements

2. Information Architecture

3. Wireframes of the user experience

4. Technical Workflow Maps

5. Interface Designs 

6. Clickable Interactive Wireframes

USER TESTING through Alpha, Beta and Gold Phases of Production

Jan 2016 — Nov 2016 The production continued to utilize an iterative approach to the content, design and technology through the build phases of the project. At each Alpha, Beta and Gold phase we had approximately 3–4 sprints, versions of the experience that were typically built 3-weeks apart wherein the content team would provide the developer new assets (videos, interface designs, text, images, narration and testimonies). It was through user testing through each Alpha, Beta and Gold versions of the experience that allowed us to pivot user flows, change existing functionality and identify user experience issues that we could not anticipate. 


As an interactive co-production, The Space We Hold’s marketing and distribution activities were led by The Marketing, Communications and Distribution Teams at The NFB wherein a dedicated marketing manager is assigned to the project to work with producers to design a launch and project rollout strategy in-line with the target demographic and audience engagement goals for the project. 

As the production moved from iteration to iteration the marketing activities consisted of creating a stand-a-lone online EPK for the project, creating promotional video assets and collaborating on audience engagement activities that would be led by the co-producer (Patricia Lee). 


June 2017 For most NFB produced/distributed interactive documentary projects, the festival becomes an important event to align a project’s launch timing and marketing activities. Over the course of some months the project was sent to various programmers at notable festivals internationally. We decided to accept the invitation to launch the project at Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Alternate Realities Exhibit in June 2017. 

Given that the final Act (3)of the experience culminates the users/audiences 140 character written responses to The Grandmother’s stories the project went live without substantive user-generated (UGC) responses within the experience. To generate the UGC content we were looking for — The NFB executed a 4-week long Facebook campaign which brought over 5K of active users to the project and resulted in 500 UGC responses over the course of 2–3 weeks.

The Social Conversation at The Future of StoryTelling

October 2017 the project had it’s North American premiere at The Future of Storytelling (FoST) in New York City. During its exhibition The Space We Hold drew crowds who had the opportunity to explore the project. As part of the project’s audience engagement strategy, the creators hosted a special Twitter conversation alongside the NFB to open up discussion with the question, “How Do We Hold Space for Survivors of Sexual Violence?”