An Emmy-Winning Year in New Yorker Video
This year, The New Yorker presented more than eighty short films, received two Oscar nominations and won his first Emmy, for “Reeducated”, a virtual-reality documentary about prison camps in Xinjiang. The films included investigations, personal stories and fantastic animations, with filmmakers from around the world working with The New Yorkers video department to produce short works shot from under-reported angles. Whether looking at nature tourism in Canada from the perspective of a polar bear or showing the emotional toll of translating war crimes evidence in The Hague, the films deviate from the usual stories and structures. The films below represent just a few of the highlights.
Daniel Lombroso’s documentary reveals the ecological destruction wrought by Donald Trump’s border wall. Shot in southern Arizona, the film features stunning drone footage to show the scale and beauty of the affected areas, and dives deep into the ongoing debate about how to manage the damaged ecosystems that remain.
Even if the idea of solitary confinement is familiar – with “the box” now a common trope in prison stories – James Burns and Shal Ngo’s short documentary delivers a shock. Using a combination of first-person narration, live-action rain and stop-motion animation, the film brings to life the stories of formerly incarcerated people who survived regions in isolation. Their reflections convey in a deeply personal way the experience of going without human contact and explore the long-term psychological consequences.
This documentary, made by brother and sister filmmakers Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev, takes place on a strange, remote beach in the Siberian Arctic. There they lodged for several months with a solitary biologist who lives in an isolated cabin to observe a large group of walruses that visit the coast each year. As sea ice disappears, the walruses must travel on, under increasing stress, congregating dangerously on the beach and sometimes even trapping the Arbugaevs and their host in the cabin. The resulting film shows up close the impact of climate change on wild creatures and places, a vantage point that is intimate to the point of claustrophobia.
In “Holding Moses”, a documentary by Rivkah Beth Medow and Jen Rainin, the mother of a severely disabled child struggles to come to terms with her son’s condition and what it means for both of their lives. Randi, the mother, is queer, male-presenting, and a dancer; all these elements of her identity are clear and present without them becoming the focus of the film. Instead, the film’s interest is in how bodily practices—touching, stretching, dancing, playing—can provide powerful ways not only to give and receive care, but to catalyze emotional change.
“In Flow of Words”
A translator’s job is to disappear, to convey the words of another without becoming part of the story. In her documentary, filmmaker Eliane Esther Bots puts the profession first. “In Flow of Words” focuses on several interpreters who worked for years at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where they communicated on behalf of both victims and perpetrators. Now they can speak for themselves, offering poignant and sometimes surprising reflections on war, narrative and identity.
Diana Cam Van Nguyen’s film is an unusual kind of memoir that turns letters she and her father sent each other while he was in prison, during her childhood, into characters. While tracing difficult family history, Nguyen brings the correspondence to life using a variety of techniques. Making the film was more than a creative challenge, she said The New Yorker; it was a process of catharsis.
To make their unusual spin on a nature documentary, Jack Weisman and Gabriela Osio Vanden spent a lot of time driving around Churchill, Manitoba with a camera on their car. The town has become a popular destination for wildlife photographers, with tourists flocking to the area to spot polar bears. Weisman and Osio Vanden were interested in human-bear interactions, but wanted to see the phenomenon from the animals’ perspective. Their film—which eschews the nature-doc trope of voice-over and emotional musical cues—captures the town from a bear’s-eye view.
In her narrative short, Seemab Gul recounts the turmoil a girl in Karachi experiences after sending a suggestive (if still PG, by American standards) cell phone video to her boyfriend. The film is inspired by the real-life story of Egyptian teenager Ghadeer Ahmed, but the contours of its drama will resonate with anyone who has felt exposed or vulnerable because of the contents of their phone.
“Stranger at the Gate”
When Richard McKinney returned to the US from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was angry, isolated and filled with Islamophobia. He hatched a plan to attack the local mosque in Muncie, Indiana, but when he visited the facility to conduct reconnaissance, he found, instead of enemies, a community that embraced and transformed him. Joshua Seftel’s polyphonic documentary explores that relationship from all sides, with interviews with McKinney, his family and many members of the religious community at the center of its plot. ♦