THE POWER 20

To celebrate the full scope of what moving image means today, we’ve put together a list of the 20 innovators who we feel are most forcefully pushing boundaries, reinventing perspectives and disrupting old methods, with Emma Watson, David Attenborough and Beyoncé among the better known. When it comes to advancing community in our digital landscape, it’s hard to downplay the influence of social wunderkinds like Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel and YouTube phenomenon Pewdiepie, or the technical wizardry of pioneers such as Scott Bolton from NASA and Eric Cheng, the drone pilot recently recruited by Facebook. Then there are those marrying their creative skills with admirable crusading, including actor David Oyelowo, an outspoken proponent of greater diversity in film; mastermind of cult show Transparent Jill Soloway; and Oren Yakabovich of Videre, whose mission is to covertly capture human rights abuses. If Power Of Film And Moving Image honours the capacity of film to inform, seduce, entertain and, ultimately, inspire change, these are the human agents directing the action (as well as the lights and cameras).
Southern Jupiter from Perijove 3, December 2016. NASA, JPL-Caltech, SwRI, MSSS; Processing: Damian Peach

Southern Jupiter from Perijove 3, December 2016. NASA, JPL-Caltech, SwRI, MSSS; Processing: Damian Peach

SCOTT BOLTON

JUPITER WHISPERER, SAN ANTONIO, TX

As the NASA space probe Juno, built by Lockheed Martin, approached Jupiter last summer, it captured never-before-seen footage of the celestial dance between the planet’s four moons. For Scott Bolton, the principal investigator for the Juno project, who gained his PhD in Astrophysics from Berkeley, this video was the victorious culmination of many years’ work, including more than five since the spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in August 2011. Jupiter has been orbited only once before, by Galileo, a spacecraft named after the 17th-century astronomer, which first discovered the planet’s moons. Galileo circled the planet from 1995 to 2003. Juno, which became the fastest human-made object ever built when it reached 165,000 miles per hour, references the wife of the planet’s namesake god, and Bolton, based at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, was put in charge of her mission.

Capturing galactic images requires special technology, of course: “Cameras need to be lightweight and much more robust (you can’t repair them if something breaks). The cameras and data storage units must be very simple to withstand the extreme environment. Space is cold, and radiation from high-energy particles can destroy the electronics as well as affect the camera sensors,” explains Bolton. The Jupiter approach video was made using time-lapse technology, with one photo taken every 15 minutes over the course of 17 days as the orbiter travelled through seven million miles of space. We see one moon, Callisto, orbiting once while the other three large moons — Io, Europa and Ganymede — go through several orbits. “Juno’s approach movie shows humankind the motion of the heavens for the first time. This was effectively what Galileo saw and from this he realised that the stars were actually moons in orbit around Jupiter, a fundamental realisation that changed our society and perspective forever... Earth is not the centre of the Universe,” says Bolton.


Megyn Kelly

TRUMP ANTAGONIST, NEW YORK, NY

Amid the bluster and hyperbole of last year’s US Presidential race, Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly ruled the networks. When she so memorably quoted a catalogue of Trump’s sexist comments back to him while moderating the first Republican debate, the now-President famously suggested her tough questioning was the result of “blood coming out of her wherever”. Through tumultuous months covering both sides of the political campaign (described in her recent book, Settle for More), Kelly was unwavering in her clear-eyed interrogation and cool poise. Trump unleashed his Twitter account on Kelly in a public feud, calling her, amongst other choice epithets, “a bimbo”, “a liar”, “crazy”, “sick”, and “overrated”; but her ratings suggested he was in the minority. Described by the New Yorker as “a happy Valkyrie with amused eyes and a stiletto tucked into her rhetorical boot”, the Syracuse-born 46-year-old proved an anchor in the storm as viewers waded through the tidal wave of fake news and partisan opinion in search of a credible voice. Early this year Kelly announced she was quitting Fox for NBC, despite her former employees offering $25 million a year for her to stay. She plans to helm a daily daytime programme as well as a Sunday news show, from which she’ll no doubt continue to provoke, debate and infuriate.

Megyn Kelly, New York, 2016. Photo by Patrick Demarchelier. Styled by Jessica Diehl. Patrick Demarchelier / Vanity Fair; © Condé Nast

Megyn Kelly, New York, 2016. Photo by Patrick Demarchelier. Styled by Jessica Diehl. Patrick Demarchelier / Vanity Fair; © Condé Nast


JEFF SKOLL

BUSINESS-SAVVY BENEFACTOR. LOS ANGELES, CA

Jeff Skoll was the first employee at eBay and helped build the company into a multi-billion-dollar business. But such success was a detour from what he saw as his life’s calling: storytelling. Upon leaving the internet giant, the Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist set up Participant Productions in 2004, quickly garnering industry respect with early projects such as Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, North Country and Murder Ball, and earning 11 Academy Awards nominations and one victory in 2006 (Best Supporting Actor for George Clooney in Syriana).

From the outset the company implemented progressive marketing campaigns that “encourage and empower [the audience] to take action”. Al Gore’s 2006 rallying cry An Inconvenient Truth engaged advocacy groups for the environment in its promotion and continued the company’s green strategy by creating carbon offsets for the film. In 2008, the company rebranded as Participant Media as it broadened its horizons, now focusing on diversifying its forms of narrative to include more original short-form video — tapping Hoop Dreams director Steve James to produce an unscripted series about two Chicago public schools, and adding SoulPancake, Rainn Wilson’s youth-targeted digital platform, to its portfolio — as well as branching into virtual reality.

The company started last year by winning the Best Picture Oscar for Spotlight, based on the true story of the Boston Globe journalists who doggedly investigated and exposed paedophilia in the Catholic Church. In January, as part of Sundance’s New Climate program, Participant premiered An Inconvenient Sequel, a decade-later follow up to Gore’s first documentary. “We are proud to bring global audiences a promising update,” says LA-based Skoll. “That a future powered by clean, safe, renewable, inexpensive, non-polluting energy is no longer a dream but a very attainable reality.”


Eric Cheng

THE DRONE DUDE. SAN FRANCISCO, CA

Eric Cheng, Holuhraun volcano, Iceland, 2014. Photo by Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson/Arctic-Images.com

Eric Cheng, Holuhraun volcano, Iceland, 2014. Photo by Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson/Arctic-Images.com

When Eric Cheng worked at innovative Chinese tech company DJI, he piloted a Phantom quadcopter into the fiery insides of an Icelandic volcano as it spewed molten lava and poisonous gases. His drone returned from its treacherous expedition with a melted face but its memory card intact, revealing volcanic reworks no human could have witnessed first hand, and the resulting footage went viral when it debuted on the company’s YouTube channel. With drones fast becoming the new selfie sticks — drone sales tripled in the last year, and there are now drone film festivals all over the globe — Cheng is at the frontier of revolutionary image capture. Drawn to the world’s more inhospitable environments, the San Francisco-based technologist is a pioneer experimenting at the extremes of aerial photography and moving image. He has shot bewitching undersea images and spearheaded expeditions to Fiji and the Galapagos Islands, as well as the remote Japanese island of Ogasawara — where he and a couple of colleagues were the first to photograph a sperm whale devouring a giant squid. He is also a longtime champion of marine wildlife, most perilously joining the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society when they took to the oceans against Japanese whalers in 2008.

Cheng’s polymath talents and passion caught the eye of Facebook, which recruited him as the company’s head of immersive media last year. Soon afterwards, they rolled out the ability to share 360-degree photos globally, allowing us to explore hidden worlds from the International Space Station to Hollywood film sets to the historic corridors of the US Supreme Court. In his new role, Cheng is focusing on unlocking the potential of 360-degree video and virtual reality — the queasy problem of VR nausea notwithstanding — as the future of how we’ll consume media.


David Attenborough

NATURE’S ELDER STATESMAN. LONDON, ENGLAND

Animal ambassador Sir David Attenborough is possibly the most universally loved figure on our screens. For over 60 years, the broadcaster has brought us intimate dispatches from all corners of the globe, igniting our imaginations with his undisguised passion for the natural world. These days, technology can finally do justice to the 90-year-old’s lifelong mission. The spectacular premier of Planet Earth II had over nine million viewers holding their breath as baby marine iguanas ran for their lives, hunted by a nightmarish swarm of whip-fast racer snakes. Attenborough’s latest series involved 117 trips to 40 countries, and was the BBC’s first to be shot in ultra-high definition, revealing nature’s teeth and claws in heart-stopping, pin-sharp detail, while remotely operated cameras and drones captured some animals on film for the first time, resulting in jaw-dropping, action-movie-style footage.

It’s a monumental achievement — both for the dazzling visual spectacle, and even more so for Attenborough’s profound contribution to our understanding of life on earth. It’s not the blood-drooling Komodo dragons or acid-spitting red crabs that are the real horror here, but mankind’s virulently destructive impact. By bringing us so close to the natural world, no one has done more than Attenborough to remind us our own survival depends on it. He rounded off his awe-inspiring series — which was divided into chapters devoted to the ecosystems of islands, mountains, jungles, deserts, grasslands and cities, and hearteningly won more young viewers than the X Factor — with a direct plea: “It is, surely, our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.”

Hanuman langurs, Jodhpur, 2015. Photo by Fredi Devas for BBC NHU

Hanuman langurs, Jodhpur, 2015. Photo by Fredi Devas for BBC NHU


David Oleyowo, New York, 2015. Photo by Dan Hallman/Invision/AP

David Oleyowo, New York, 2015. Photo by Dan Hallman/Invision/AP

David Oyelowo

DIVERSITY CHAMPION. LOS ANGELES, CA

During the British Film Institute’s Black Star symposium of 2016, British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo joked how sick he was of talking about diversity. But he isn’t going to stop now, having become a champion of breaking down not just racial but also gender boundaries. rough the projects he attaches to as producer and star Oyelowo is committed to shaking up the system: “If you’re not part of the solution, trust me, my friend, you’re part of the problem. It’s not enough to have the same old producers patting themselves on the back because they made a black drama either. That’s not diversity. It’s got to be baked into the foundation of where the ideas ow from,” he said during last year’s London Film Festival. Given that the majority of the Hollywood establishment is made up of white males it’s no surprise that most films have that point of view. Oyelowo has worked hard to ensure that other perspectives are told — such as with Academy Award-nominated film Selma, which was ultimately directed, at Oyelowo’s suggestion, by African American Ava DuVernay, who enriched the female characters and family dynamics. Last year’s A United Kingdom and Queen of Katwe, both powerful African stories that heavily involve him, were also helmed by female auteurs, Amma Asante and Mira Nair, respectively. The latter is a radical film for Disney that could never have been made without Tendo Nagenda, a senior creative executive at Walt Disney Studios who is of Ugandan descent. Oyelowo, who graduated from LAMDA in 1998 and has lived in America since 2007, recently returned to his roots on the stage playing Othello opposite Daniel Craig on Broadway, but expect his film roster — and his impassioned yell — to increase in volume.


Evan Spiegel

THE SNAP KID. LOS ANGELES, CA

With 60 per cent of its purportedly 150 million-plus active users under the age of 25, it’s no wonder that Evan Spiegel’s social media giant Snapchat is to Kylie Jenner what Instagram is to her big sister Kim Kardashian — which makes it marketing gold for brands targeting that most desirable demographic. Burberry was the first luxury brand to launch a Discover channel (for the release of its Mr. Burberry fragrance) and Valentino tapped blogger Bryanboy to takeover its account during the men’s fashion weeks. Meanwhile, media companies from Vice Media to the Economist exploit Snapchat to make news more animated and digestible.

The notoriously private Spiegel, a handsome 26-year-old Angelino currently engaged to Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr, began developing his ephemeral messaging app at Stanford. While other social media platforms emphasise photographs as a way of preserving memories, Spiegel and his co-founders, fellow frat boys Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown, had a different vision of the future, where young people would use photos and videos as a visual language for communication. At first the shared photos vanished after 10 seconds, but Snapchat quickly evolved to include videos and snaps now last 24 hours.

The company rebranded as Snap Inc. in September 2016, enjoying around $350 million in advertising revenue last year, both through brands buying Geofilters and Lenses and through more traditional advertising that appears between snaps. Such is Snapchat’s power that Facebook aped the communication tool in 2016 by adding Stories to Instagram. But not one to be outpaced and with a purported IPO looming, Spiegel masterminded the launch of the company’s first hardware product, Spectacles, glasses (think Google Glass but better) that give a more accurate first-person perspective with their 115-degree-angle lens in 10 seconds or less, in November of last year. And they don’t look half-bad either — after all, Spiegel did study product design.


Ban Ki-moon and Emma Watson at the UN, 2014. Photo by Steve Sands/Getty Images

Ban Ki-moon and Emma Watson at the UN, 2014. Photo by Steve Sands/Getty Images

Emma Watson

FEMINIST CRUSADER. LONDON, ENGLAND

Since she stepped on to the stage at the United Nations headquarters in New York in 2014 to launch the UN’s HeForShe campaign with a personal and impassioned speech, Emma Watson has repeatedly spoken out to promote gender equality, galvanising young people worldwide, including her 23.6 million Twitter followers. The actress who headed off to the co-ed dorms of Brown University to study English literature at the height of her Harry Potter fame has defiantly navigated her own path out of Hermione Granger’s long shadow. Whether addressing the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, her monthly feminist book club (for which she secretly plants books on the London Tube) or in outspoken interviews about sexism in Hollywood, she doesn’t squander the platform she’s been given as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador.

So it is entirely fitting that the now-26-year-old has updated her starring role in Disney’s Beauty in the Beast by giving her character Belle a job of her own and consulting with the film’s costume designer on ballgowns that free the fairytale princess from the restrictions of corsetry. A discarded corset might seem a small gesture on the face of it, but consider that Watson’s gigantic fan base ensured the trailer for Beauty and the Beast trumped Star Wars: The Force Awakens to win an all-time record number of views — 127.6 million in its first 24 hours — and it’s clear the statements Watson makes wield serious influence. Following her turn as Belle, she’ll next star in dystopian thriller The Circle (based on Dave Eggers’ excellent book), playing an ambitious employee at a sinister tech company that encourages total transparency to discomfiting and possibly portentous extremes.


Bryce Dallas Howard in “Nosedive” from Black Mirror, 2016. Courtesy of David Dettmann/Netflix

Bryce Dallas Howard in “Nosedive” from Black Mirror, 2016. Courtesy of David Dettmann/Netflix

Charlie Brooker

DIGITAL-AGE ORWELL. LONDON, ENGLAND

Imagine a world where every random interaction can earn you a rating out of five, and every rating influences not just your social standing but also your access to health treatments and commercial travel. This is the premise of “Nosedive”, the series three opener of the Netflix-nabbed Black Mirror, the satirical anthology show from creator Charlie Brooker that acts as an alarm bell for techno-dystopia. Now in its third season (Netflix outbid previous home Channel 4 with a purported $40 million), Black Mirror trades on deeply disconcerting, not-that-implausible scenarios that make twisted use of existing technology and social media, or invent near-future iterations. A software programme allows a mourner to communicate with the deceased via an avatar in “Be Right Back”; in “The Entire History of You,” people have a microchip embedded in their necks that records their lives and allows them to replay memories at any time. Brooker, 45, began his career in print writing for The Guardian, where he still contributes occasionally, as well as penning comic scripts for the small screen.

His inimitable cynical style led to his increasing presence in front of the camera hosting his Wipe series — acerbic topical shows commenting on television and the news and produced mainly by Annabel Jones, his partner in the production company House of Tomorrow. Raised in Oxfordshire as a Quaker by parents who were engaged in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Brooker clearly retains a kind of day-after paranoia that has contagious appeal. Black Mirror, which launched in 2011, inspired in part by classic 1960s phenomenon The Twilight Zone, has amassed fans including Stephen King, Robert Downey Jr (who optioned one of the episodes), Zadie Smith and Jodie Foster, who will direct an episode of series four. Indeed, some of the episodes seem eerily prescient: during the American election cycle last year there were many comparisons made between Donald Trump and ‘Waldo’, a crude anti-establishment animated figure that rises to political power in “The Waldo Effect”. But as Black Mirror tweeted of Trump’s victory: “This isn’t an episode. This isn’t marketing. This is reality.”


Anna Godas and Andy Whittaker of Dogwoof

PURVEYORS OF TRUTH. LONDON, ENGLAND

Dogwoof logo. Courtesy of Dogwoof

Dogwoof logo. Courtesy of Dogwoof

At a moment when fact is often proving far stranger than fiction,it’s not surprising that cinema audiences are craving onscreen reality — however disquieting — more
than ever before. The surge in films delivering that kind of truth can be credited in no small part to Anna Godas and Andy Whittaker of theatrical distributor Dogwoof, with its slate of documentaries as riveting as any thriller. Their films have picked up Emmys, BAFTAs and Oscars for unflinching social and political investigations, including explosive Edward Snowden documentary CitizenFour and Weiner, the fly-on-the wall chronicle of compulsive sexter Anthony Weiner’s ill-starred campaign for New York mayor.

Godas, a former script doctor, and Whittaker, formerly at eBay, met at Cannes in 2004 and founded the London-based company the same year on a shoestring. Today, Dogwoof is the only distributor in the world to specialise solely in non-fiction stories, and the pair’s joint faith in ensuring theatrical releases for their films has attracted the leading luminaries of documentary cinema, including Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. Their films have also built a reputation for producing tangible social change: Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish, a heartrending exposé on the treatment of captive orcas at SeaWorld, directly resulted in the theme park’s pledge last year to end its breeding programme.

This year, Dogwoof ’s subjects will include polka dot-obsessed Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and Ukrainian ballet phenomenon Sergei Polunin. Godas and Whittaker have recently expanded their empire into production, with a film investment fund for the development of feature documentaries and series. That should drive more fascinating real-life stories on to our screens.


Photo by Frank Micelotta/Parkwood Entertainment via Getty Images

Photo by Frank Micelotta/Parkwood Entertainment via Getty Images

Beyoncé

MAGNIFICENT WOMANIST. NEW YORK, NY

Who else but Beyoncé could rule over the cultural phenomenon that is Lemonade, igniting a worldwide debate on feminism and race that extended far beyond the Beyhive. Trailed by her spectacular performance at the Super Bowl, which turned halftime into a radical political statement accompanied by dancers in Black Panther berets raising their fists in black power salutes, the stunning ‘visual album’ Lemonade — unleashed last year with barely any warning — tackled the multidimensional experiences and sheer endurance of black women. It’s a celebration that places generations of them front and centre, from 15-year-old actress and activist Amandla Stenberg to 94-year-old chef Leah Chase, via tennis champion Serena Williams, Jay Z’s venerable grandmother Hattie White and Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden and Gwen Carr, holding photographs of their murdered sons.

The innovative, hour-long visual extravaganza by directors including Kahlil Joseph and Melina Matsoukas is an education in African-American history and an indictment of American society, tackling the ghosts of slavery in the South, Hurricane Katrina, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. If the 35-year-old’s status as a black female icon needed confirming, the epic feat of Lemonade cements Bey in a league of her own, comprising a sumptuous series of vignettes full of both pain and hope that has made her a powerful lightning rod for civil rights activism — and a serious force at this year’s Grammys, with multiple wins and another of her paradigm-altering performances.


"Scare PewDiePie", 2016. Courtesy of YouTube

"Scare PewDiePie", 2016. Courtesy of YouTube

Pewdiepie

CLOWNISH VLOGGER. BRIGHTON, ENGLAND

Vacillating between inane internet-related chat, Jackass-style pranks and puerile commentary on gaming, Swedish vlogger Pewdiepie, with his boy-band looks, is a YouTube sensation. Although their celebrity is more or less contained to the under-25s, video bloggers sharing their diarised interests have become major commercial forces, alongside the ubiquitous cat videos, since YouTube’s launch in 2005. Their influence on Generation Z is said to be greater than that of Hollywood A-listers. Pewdiepie, the alias of Felix Kjellberg, is reigning king of this set, claiming the most subscribed channel for the past three years with over 52 million subscribers and counting (his recent threat to delete his account upon reaching 50 million garnered international headlines but turned out to be a joke). Pewdiepie— the name is derived from the sound of lasers in computer games (pew) and death (die) — came on the scene in 2010.

Gothenburg-born Kjellberg dropped out of Chalmers University of Technology in his hometown to concentrate on his online career and moonlighted as a hot-dog salesman before his channel, then mostly featuring his gaming exploits, began to attract an audience that quickly snowballed. Although Pewdiepie’s daily posts now incorporate much more than just gaming, it remains central to his cause, featuring his rogue interpretations of, for example, The Walking Dead: Final Frontier, The Last Guardian and Japan’s Gal*Gun: Double Peace. Now based in Brighton, along with a clutch of other YouTube stars including his girlfriend Marzia Bisognin, Kjellberg reputedly earned over $12 million last year and can induce near-hysteria with a public appearance. And he is showing signs of crossing generations, having been a guest on Stephen Colbert and appearing in two episodes of that reliable barometer of the zeitgeist, Southpark.


CLAIRE FOY

REGAL CONDUIT. LONDON, ENGLAND

It’s a select group of actresses who have been cast as multiple queens of England but Brit Claire Foy is among the exalted few, having bewitched in 2015 as Anne Boleyn in the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall and last year ably stepping into the shoes of our reigning monarch for The Crown. It’s a job that’s going to keep on giving, with a reported six series planned of the sumptuous Netflix production, one for each decade of Elizabeth’s reign, that sees its writer, Peter Morgan, who created The Queen and The Audience, returning to his favourite topic. As a fictionalised portrait of the real people behind the throne, exploring the politics and emotions that rule their lives and decisions, the show holds endless appeal, not least because most of the protagonists are still alive, still fodder for endless gossip and media speculation and still relatively mysterious in terms of their private lives. To recreate the opulence of palace life, Morgan has capitalised on the Netflix budget — this is the most expensive television production ever at £100 million — and has nailed the casting, placing Matt Smith, all lanky, angular petulance, as Foy’s consort, and a padded John Lithgow mumbling and shuffling as an aged Churchill. As for Stockport-born Foy, she not only looks the part, emulating Her Majesty at 25 ascending to the throne, but has also mastered her famously-old-fashioned cut-glass accent. And the preparations have paid off: the refined sensitivity she brings to this imagining of tensions behind closed doors won her a Golden Globe earlier this year.

Claire Foy in The Crown, 2016. Courtesy of Netflix

Claire Foy in The Crown, 2016. Courtesy of Netflix


Oren Yakobovich

STEALTH PROTECTOR. LONDON, ENGLAND

“It’s great to get something broadcast by a big TV channel but it’s most effective when it goes out on local stations,” Oren Yakobovich of Videre said in a recent interview. “It makes it very clear to the perpetrators that they are being watched — and that’s powerful.” The perpetrators could be anyone in the many countries in which Yakobovich’s secretive organisation Videre manoeuvres, capturing human rights abuses via hidden cameras wielded by a squad of activists whose identities are carefully guarded. Inspired to become an undercover advocate during his stint in the Israeli Defence Forces after seeing behaviours that he felt inflamed emotions in the region, Yakobovich eventually refused to go to the West Bank, earning himself a spell in prison. Upon his discharge from the army, the native of Tel Aviv turned to documentary filmmaking before joining Jerusalem-based human rights group B’Tselem in 2005.

In 2008 Yakobovich teamed up with fellow Israeli filmmaker Uri Fruchtmann to set up Videre est Credere, training more than 600 operatives and furnishing them with spy cameras that their staff alter and re-appropriate — former prototypes include watches and a rubberised crucifix. The resulting video footage, some of the only film coming out of these conflict zones, which include a number of countries in Africa (details are protected), is distributed to a network that includes the BBC, CNN and YouTube as well as to local media. In 2016 Yakobovich and Videre were awarded $1.25 million by the Skoll Foundation, the philanthropic organisation set up by former eBay President and Participant Media Founder and Chairman Jeff Skoll to reward social entrepreneurs. As Yakobovich told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of receiving the award: “Our vision is that no human rights violation anywhere should go unnoticed, no matter how remote and dangerous a place is.”


Jill Soloway

TRANSFEMINIST. LOS ANGELES, CA

Transparent creator Jill Soloway took the old adage to ‘write what you know’ to heart when she created the character of Maura for the ground-breaking Amazon series soon after her own father, a London-raised psychiatrist, came out as Carrie. Jeffrey Tambor’s sensitive and much-lauded portrayal of “Moppa” (the male-to-female counterpart to “mum” and “dad”) came at a time in 2014 when the way transgender people were viewed was undergoing an enormous shift. Trans actresses like Laverne Cox were landing plum roles, models such as Lea T and Andreja Pejic stalked catwalks and landed sought-after campaigns, and the patriarch of America’s most famous reality television family was undergoing her own transformation: Bruce became Caitlyn. Chicago-native Soloway worked as a television writer and producer in LA for nearly 20 years on shows such as Six Feet Under and Diablo Cody’s United States of Tara before her father’s announcement. We spoke to her about diversity, imperfection and flogging.

Why do you think audiences connected so well with Maura and the rest of the characters in the show?
I think audiences engage with the Pfeffermans because their humanity and flaws make them genuine. On top of that, no matter how selfishly they might act, the love they have for each other can always be felt. Plus, their family dinners heavily feature Canter’s Deli. If quality lox doesn’t make you relatable, nothing will.

Jeffrey Tambor and Gaby Hoffman in Transparent. Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Jeffrey Tambor and Gaby Hoffman in Transparent. Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

You have hired transgender people behind the scenes — such as producers Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst — as well as actors. How do you feel that has impacted the show?
Yes, our ‘transformative’ action program! Having trans bodies on screen is an ethical obligation when telling trans stories — not only to the trans community, but to viewers as well. Being able to identify with authentic trans characters who are normally marginalised is a big motivator for social change. Our transformative casting has also led us to discover trans superstars like Hari Nef, Trace Lysette, and Alexandra Billings. Imagine how much more talent would be unearthed if more shows implemented these hiring practices.

How have you seen the issues around being transgender change since the first series?
The timing of the show’s debut was an unplanned convergence with the tipping point of the trans-rights movement. There had been decades of activism within the trans community that led to this point, but it’s really the first time we’ve seen it in the mainstream media. We hope that the show has been a vehicle to deliver the community’s activism into the households of people who wouldn’t have necessarily had access to these kinds of stories. That kind of connection, in effect, will further fuel social justice for the movement.

Why did you feel it was important to explore sexuality as well as gender in the show?
Even though gender and sexuality are two different realms of identity, it’s impossible to talk about one without addressing the other. Society has such black-and-white notions on what constitutes gender and sexuality, so Transparent steps in to show audiences all the grey in-between spaces that exist. It dares you to take your own ideas of gender/sexuality, play with them, and ask the important question: Do I want to be the flogger or the flogged?

What do you think the biggest challenge will be with Trump as President?
As storytellers in the media, we’ll be working twice as hard to drown out his hate speech with our message of love. That and protesting to ensure Maura gets proper access to caftans!


Damien Chazelle

MAESTRO OF THE MOMENT. LOS ANGELES, CA

La La Land opening scene. Dale Robinette, courtesy of Lionsgate

La La Land opening scene. Dale Robinette, courtesy of Lionsgate

In years to come, Damien Chazelle may be credited as the man who singlehandedly saved the Hollywood musical, which is something of a Marmite genre. His new hit La La Land is an homage to classic musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but with decidedly 21st-century visual effects and an unforgettable opening scene that turns sitting in freeway traffic into an irresistible ensemble song-and-dance number. Pairing Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as star-crossed lovers attempting to live out their dreams in Los Angeles, the film has made hundred of millions at the box office, set a record for the number of Golden Globes won by a single film after it triumphed in all seven categories it was nominated for, and cleaned up at the Oscars (despite the mishap in the final moments of the ceremony). At just 31, Chazelle, a Harvard Film School graduate, has written and directed three acclaimed musicals with his frequent collaborator and former classmate Justin Hurwitz and is clearly on a roll. Chazelle’s first feature, the basis for his thesis, was the jazz-inspired Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and got the director noticed on the festival circuit. Whiplash, his breakout film, riffed on the Rhode Island-native’s high-school experiences as a jazz drummer and won the grand prize at Sundance in 2014 — after winning the US fiction short film award the previous year, which enabled him to raise the finances to complete the project. Whiplash scored three Academy Awards including Best Supporting Actor for JK Simmons. By casting Gosling and Stone, actors who have appeared together several times, Chazelle has tapped into the Hollywood Golden Era idea of recurring couples but updated it with the realism of contemporary romance — and a (spoiler alert) not-so-happy ending.


Barry Jenkins

FEARLESS AUTEUR. LOS ANGELES, CA

In 2008, director Barry Jenkins released Medicine for Melancholy, a lyrical under-seen gem tracing a 24-hour romance between an African-American couple amid a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. In the ensuing years, there were shorts and aborted projects — one involving Stevie Wonder, time-travel and Solange Knowles — before Jenkins came across the play In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Jenkins instantly recognised elements of his own story in its pages: both director and playwright grew up in Liberty City, a deprived, mostly African-American neighbourhood in north Miami devastated by the crack epidemic of the 1980s. The pair had even attended the same school. Jenkins’ resulting adaptation, Moonlight, won a Golden Globe and three Oscars, stealing the show with its penultimate, corrected Best Picture win. The storyline follows gay black man Chiron from his boyhood with a neglectful, drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and a drug-dealer mentor (Mahershala Ali), through a skinny, withdrawn adolescence into a haunted adulthood. The issue of gay black masculinity in America is so rarely discussed, let alone explored onscreen with such unflinching honesty, that Moonlight feels like a watershed moment in the history of black cinema. It has provoked some extreme reactions — from angry claims that the film threatens black manhood to a 65-year-old straight white man crying in Jenkins’ arms. Given that the US has seen increasing violence by the police against young black men and attacks on people of colour and the LGBT community, Moonlight’s message of tolerance feels exceptionally pertinent. Beyond its deeply personal exploration and social resonance, the film is just plain beautiful to look at. Jenkins has pointed to influences including Claire Denis and Wong Kar Wai, but the LA-based 37-year-old has found a singular voice. He’s now working on an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s fantastical tale of escape from slavery, The Underground Railroad.

Moonlight, 2016. Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of Altitude Films

Moonlight, 2016. Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of Altitude Films


Hassan Akkad

REFUGEE ON A MISSION. LONDON, ENGLAND

His material included the now-infamous scene in a crowded dinghy that begins to sink somewhere between Turkey and Greece — in this instance everyone was saved, but we have seen the alternative all too often on the news during the past few years. Coupled with more traditionally shot film, the resulting three-part series is an affecting and often nail-biting drama that humanises the crisis in which more than a million people battled to get into Europe over the course of a year. A second series, focusing on how Europe is dealing with last year’s influx, is in the works, with Akkad working as an assistant producer alongside his new role as a speaker and activist. But talking to him it’s clear how the voyage that ended happily in his instance has affected him. “Filming a young woman crying while carefully putting a lifejacket on her six-month-old baby was extremely difficult,” he says. “Filming our sinking dinghy, the armed people-smugglers, and the thousands of men, women and children walking for miles into unknown lands for them, and for me, was extremely difficult.”

 

“Whenever my camera was recording, I wasn’t a refugee fleeing war and seeking sanctuary, I was a filmmaker,” explains Hassan Akkad of the empowering choice he made to film his 87-day-long voyage from Turkey to the UK using a GoPro camera. Akkad’s film was one thread of the narrative in BBC documentary Exodus: Our Journey to Europe about the refugee crisis that told the story from the migrants’ own perspective. The production company, KEO Films, began to give cameras to refugees a year before this series aired in July 2016 in order to get footage unobtainable by ordinary film crews. “I met the filmmakers of Exodus by coincidence in Calais,” explained Akkad, a Damascus-born former English teacher who fled Syria after being imprisoned and tortured for peacefully protesting against the Assad regime. “They told me about the documentary, and I told them that I already had four hours of footage from my journey.”


Hailey Gates, 2016. Courtesy of Hailey Gates/Instagram

Hailey Gates, 2016. Courtesy of Hailey Gates/Instagram

Hailey Gates

UNDRESSED INVESTIGATOR. NEW YORK, NY

Prior to this, the theatre-programme graduate had appeared in a Jonathan Demme film with Meryl Streep and fronted campaigns for brands such as Miu Miu. Gates’ pluckiness and willingness to push subjects as far as comfort levels allow, combined with an authenticity on camera (worry often clouds her face when faced with possible danger), makes her a compelling journalist. The first season of State of Undress took her around the world from Gaza, where she surfed in a burka, to Pakistan, where she encountered Abdul Aziz Ghazi, a cleric with ties to Al Qaeda, and on to the Congo, where she and her crew were detained for nearly two days while trying to leave the country. With next season’s shooting well underway, expect to find Gates in Liberia, Lebanon and Bolivia when the show airs later this year.

There’s a moment during Hailey Gates’ visit to Venezuela for her Viceland show States of Undress where she gets her period and has to do an effectively illicit deal to secure much-needed tampons. This kind of unvarnished and relatable moment is what sets apart the storytelling on the disruptive television channel launched in 2016 by youth publishing giant Vice Media. With Spike Jonze as creative director, Viceland has capitalised on the success of its digital arm in making non-traditional and immersionist films that allow journalists to gain access to locations that are usually off limits. After a post-NYU spell at the Paris Review, Gates, who was born and raised in Los Angeles to a film-world family, was approached by Vice to front the doc series that uses style as a lens to discuss the social implications of the fashion and beauty industries in political hotspots.