‘Lost Cities’: Interactive documentary dives into coral reefs at virtual International Wildlife Film Fest


Apr 17, 2020

Revealing the hidden, mysterious world of coral reefs, a new interactive film is pushing the boundaries of what defines a nature documentary. Through the lens of one of the world’s leading coral biologists, Dr. Ruth Gates, “Lost Cities” is an experiential dive into the current state of the ancient and unique marine invertebrates.

The user-driven interface is a finalist in the New Vision category at the now-virtual International Wildlife Film Festival starting on Saturday and is the brainchild of Gates and directors Marita Davison and Jennifer Moslemi.

“We started talking about the possibility of interactive technology as a way to meet people where they are in a different way than a traditional documentary can,” Moslemi said. She and Davison had been working on a television program with Gates, who was interested in new ways to tell the story of coral.

“She was a very visionary coral biologist who had a lot of great ideas about how we might find solutions for these dire predictions that were coming out about the fate of corals over the next 25 to 50 years,” Moslemi said.
Part website, part documentary and part online classroom, “Lost Cities” features stunning footage of colorful coral reefs and microscopic views of the species’ fascinating functions.

“The ‘Lost Cities’ website is something I’ve never seen,” said Carrie Richer, IWFF artistic director. “It’s so accessible and it’s such a different way of telling stories right now.”

“We tried to isolate what were the main bites of the story of coral — the overall story, what they are, how they relate to our lives and how things are changing for them now,” Moslemi said.

The episodes, or “bites,” are meant to be viewed in any order, allowing for more flexibility in learning. Each episode includes additional items you can click on to learn more about a specific topic or question.

“Ruth really wanted something that put the power in the hands of the user. Your pathway is completely unique to where you want to go,” Moslemi said, adding they did include an option to take a somewhat ordered path.
“Some people are going to love that nonlinearity and some people might feel a little bit lost in it, so we tried to create what we call the ‘curated path.’”
She compared navigating the website to visiting a museum, where you might choose to peruse your own path, but might be nudged in a certain direction through the exhibits.

“We tried to cover the bases for the different viewer preferences,” she said.

They hope the interactive film can be used by teachers and educators to encourage families at home to get excited about the science of corals.

One of their hopes for the future is to set up mobile exhibits of “Lost Cities” in the form of kiosks or stations in places where people gather, such as airports, hotel lobbies and shopping malls.

“This was one thing Ruth really wanted to do and we’re really hoping we can still do that, is get it into places and spaces where people are where they might be interested in picking it up and playing with it a little bit,” Moslemi said.

The film is narrated by Gates and focuses on her research, now an homage to a pillar in the marine biology community who is no longer with us. The coral expert passed away in October 2018, while “Lost Cities” was still in production.

“As we were filming, Ruth had been diagnosed with brain cancer and was sort of already dealing with the ramifications of that,” Moslemi said, adding a good portion of the footage of Gates in the field came from other organizations that had worked with her.

Gates was able to see the first draft of “Lost Cities” before she passed away and Moslemi said she was pleased with the way it was headed. Now they hope they can carry her legacy on by spreading the film far and wide, reaching people outside the world of science.

“Losing her felt like a big loss and so for us, it just became so important to take this as far as we could in her name. It still pains us that she didn’t get to see this, that she’s not here, but we hope it would have been something that she would have been proud of.”

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