Filmmaker Tamara Shogaolu and PBS’ ‘FRONTLINE’ collaborate on an animated, immersive web and interactive installation that shares the lives and histories of 151 victims from unsolved civil rights-era murder cases; premieres June 9 at the Tribeca Film Festival.
151 names, all unresolved civil rights-era murder cases, revived through animation and immersive media.
Tamara Shogaolu, award-winning filmmaker and creative director at Ado Ato Pictures, a studio focusing on film and immersive media, has collaborated with the minds behind PBS’ investigative journalism series FRONTLINE, to tell the stories behind 151 racially-motivated crimes where the perpetrators were never brought to justice.
For many years, the journalists at FRONTLINE had been investigating these murder cases, reopened under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, before reaching out to Shogaolu to help create the multi-platform experience of Un(re)solved, premiering Wednesday, June 9 at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.
“They approached me about how to present this investigative project in a way that could be interactive, because they had so much content,” Shogaolu explains. “There are more than 150 names on this list, but I didn't want them to just be names. I feel like sometimes there's a normalization of crimes or violence against people of color. And I wanted us to not just focus on the death of these people or how they were murdered, but on their life.”
Known for her innovative storytelling methods, like combining live-action and 3D animation in her 2015 short film, Dian, or using 2D animation to illustrate her documentary on Egyptian LGBT rights movements, Half a Life, Shogaolu was tasked with directing the interactive web experience and augmented reality installation portions of Un(re)solved. The whole project, produced in collaboration with Ado Ato Pictures, StoryCorps, Northeastern University’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, and Black Public Media, also includes a live-action documentary film and podcast.
Watch as Shogaolu talks about the Un(re)solved project:
Un(re)solved’s interactive web experience is animated like a quilted forest, allowing users to self-navigate through the dark thickets, eventually coming to lighted, colorful, flowered sanctuaries featuring details of each individual case. The augmented reality installation is made up of 13 quilted panels encased in glass, each etched with names and a tree design; the trees’ branches feature an AR marker that participants can scan with their phones to get started. The names of the individuals must be said out loud to access their life history and interviews with their families. The cases span over 40 years, from the early 1930s to the late 1970s, all still unresolved.
“Having the opportunity to highlight these stories with living individuals, being able to emotionally connect to how these peoples’ deaths impacted their relatives, and visualizing that through animation, was really powerful,” says Shogaolu. “With tech, there's always a fear that users could become frustrated, and it could prevent them from connecting with the stories. But these immersive technologies allow you to create a physical space in which these narratives live, where audiences get to be agents in the storytelling and not just passive observers.”
She adds, “I love designing these types of experiences, and creating ways of having audiences engaged with the information.”
But, for Shogaolu, this project was about more than just educating and engaging an audience. It was also about healing and reclaiming that which was lost. “When I first started, I just got handed all of these case summaries and I basically spent the weekend just reading through pretty horrible murders of people who look like me, who remind me of relatives of mine,” she remembers. “And then I started reflecting on how, unfortunately, there's also this strong relationship between trees and racial terror in America. I thought it was really sad that, for generations of people, trees were a symbol of trauma, where, in other cultures, trees are seen as a symbol of longevity.”
So, the director began the process of what she calls, “reclaiming the forest,” using trees in the interactive web experience not only to represent the family trees of those who were murdered, but also create beautiful sanctuaries within each pocket of the forest, the flora and fauna of each individual’s section representing the local wildlife of their own homes.
“There are some Native American individuals on the list as well, so I wanted to make sure that different cultures were represented in this project,” Shogaolu notes. “There are a lot of hidden gems in there and motifs in the trees. It became like a memorial.”
The forest sanctuaries, each featuring its own unique color palette and texture, also include quotes, real photos, and cultural traditions of each person. Though trees are a central theme, the big-picture inspiration for the project’s design came from American quilting traditions. “I started looking at the history of quilting in the U.S. and how, in times of slavery, when enslaved African Americans weren't allowed to write or read, quilting was their way of documenting their family history,” Shogaolu reveals. “In the web experience, you’re like a source of light, walking and weaving through a living quilt, utilizing technology to explore different patches of this quilt, and hear the audio and the story of the individuals and their next of kin.”
“Looking at these cases, it can seem like these crimes are never ending," she continues. "But I wanted to make something that was really beautiful, that didn't just focus on the pain and cycle of terror but focused on the resilience and strength of these communities of color that continue to be terrorized but push forward. Even though their cases weren't solved, or the murderers got away without the families getting any sense of justice, I wanted to give something back to these families and celebrate the lives of the people they lost.”
For Shogaolu, the experience of highlighting so many voices - from the FBI to the families of victims - both journalistically and emotionally, designing such extensive, detailed layouts, and formatting designs to be compatible with cell phones and slow Internet, has been an unforgettable, growing experience for her as an animator and storyteller. “FRONTLINE looked at everything from a journalistic perspective and I looked at it from an artistic and emotional perspective,” she shares. “But that's what was cool about this collaboration, presenting different sides constantly. I don't think I've really seen many heavily journalistic experiences that are grounded in animation. Using animation to uplift those stories and bring some of the archival material to life, I think that aspect is really great.”
After years of extensive research, leaving no stone unturned when it came to representing the cases, lives, and cultures of these victims, Shogaolu says “this is the fun part,” getting to see hers, FRONTLINE’s and the rest of the team’s work come together in one, large, quilted masterpiece.
“When we started testing the installation, we had a few people there saying the names of the individuals to activate the AR, and it almost felt like we were bringing these people back to life, like a revival,” Shogaolu concludes. “I’m excited for others to get to be active participants in that experience.”