There’s a segment midway through Ivory Wars that epitomizes the best of the short documentaries produced by the New York-based production studio MediaStorm. In a series of close-up still photographs, we see rifle-toting soldiers and camera-toting National Geographic personnel affix a GPS-tracking “collar” to an elephant in Chad’s Zakouma National Park, where, the previous year, poachers patrolling beyond the edge of the park had slaughtered at least 100 of the animals for their ivory. The elephant wearing the GPS device is dubbed Annie, and as soon as she is tagged, as one of the filmmakers narrates: “She starts giving up information that’s unbelievable.”
An Indiana Jones-style map of her movements appears onscreen, and a path of red dots indicates that the elephant quickly leaves the boundaries of the national park to make a beeline for an area of better vegetation — only to realize, just as the National Geographic staffers following her did, that the rains have come unusually early to the region. So Annie returns to the park after a couple of weeks to prowl the borders of its protected preserve until the real rains arrive. When they do, about four weeks into her GPS-tracked journey, something truly remarkable happens: Annie, again leaving the park, runs all night in a straight line until she gets to within a kilometer of a road. And then she waits, pausing as abruptly as she’d galloped the previous evening, until darkness falls again, clearly unwilling to cross the highway — and possibly encounter poachers — during daylight. As the filmmaker notes, “She’s telling us, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about this whole thing. I know where I’m going. I know what trees I’m looking for to eat, and I know where the roads are.’”
Over a three-month period, Annie travels more than 1,000 miles back and forth to the national park, until suddenly, in mid-August, the red dots stop appearing on the map. Annie has been shot and killed.
The stunningly produced films hosted on MediaStorm’s Web site feel as immediate and intimate as following in Annie’s footsteps, but they inevitably have a wider context, a background beyond the news stories, wars and personal sagas they depict. In the case of Ivory Wars, a nine-minute documentary by the National Geographic Society’s explorer-in-residence J. Michael Fay, the backdrop is Chad’s plummeting elephant population, which fell from more than 300,000 around 1970 to about 10,000 in 2006, much of the decline a result of instability in nearby Darfur. (At one point, Fay’s helicopter comes under rifle fire from a poacher’s camp, and a photographer narrating the film wryly observes: “Everybody in Chad seems to have a Kalashnikov.”) The documentary video footage and crisp still images, succinctly paced and edited, make Ivory Wars seem much more substantial than nine minutes. Indeed, MediaStorm’s documentaries are doubly effective because they juxtapose a stark, photograph-fueled style with a slick multimedia presentation and interface. For instance, users can follow Annie’s journey — and the poachers’ trail of wanton killing — through a separate interactive map. It all adds up to something much more than a digital curiosity: MediaStorm is a genuine multimedia experience that leaves you wanting not only to learn more but also to do more. And you can, by exploring the links to government groups and aid organizations that MediaStorm lists alongside its films.
MediaStorm is the brainchild of Brian Storm, who launched the Web site and production studio in 2005 after spending two years as a vice president at Corbis, a digital media agency founded by Bill Gates, and several years as a pioneering director of multimedia at MSNBC.com. The site has earned its share of plaudits; in 2007, MediaStorm won an Emmy for Outstanding Broadband Documentary, took first place in both the Best of Photojournalism contest and Pictures of the Year, and won the Webby Award for magazines.
The still photographs in MediaStorm’s documentaries are simply stunning. In the opening of Rape of a Nation — a 12-minute multimedia presentation about the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 45,000 people die each month and 5.4 million have perished since 1998 — photographer Marcus Bleasdale juxtaposes the steadily rising death toll with his black-and-white snapshots of a country in chaos: A group of ammo-laden soldiers nonchalantly smokes cigarettes; hands hover over bundles of cash; a bullet-cracked windshield reveals a tank up the road; a young man’s corpse rots face-down in the street; a boy looks mournfully over his shoulder from the depths of a shallow grave while a coffin is laid to rest below.
The resource-rich Congo has a long history of exploitation, the latest decades of which have utterly devastated the country’s economy and health care system. Bleasdale’s photographs show the extent of the suffering, as does his interview with a young woman at a center for victims of sexual violence in Goma, who recounts how militants stormed her village and ripped her infant from her womb with their bare hands. Another harrowing sequence, this time in video, catches government soldiers attacking a convoy of vehicles from the point of view of the cowering ambushed; a tight shot on a frightened face fills the screen, his heavy breathing the only soundtrack, as bullets whiz and ping around the ditch. That the bullets actually sound different, depending on how closely they hit, speaks volumes about MediaStorm’s ability to put the viewer in the midst of a subject.
Those subjects tend toward the sad and profound. One documentary follows junkies in New York. Another provides the post-traumatic postscript to the tale of Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, whose iconic portrait after the Battle of Fallujah as the “Marlboro Marine,” with a cigarette dangling from his muddy, bloody, cracked lips, bears little resemblance to the life he’d return to in the United States.
In one of the saddest of MediaStorm’s offerings, Black Market, photographer Patrick Brown charts the third-largest illegal trade in the world (after guns and drugs): wildlife. Every year as many as 30,000 primates, 5 million birds and 10 million reptile skins are traded, mostly because of the strong beliefs in traditional Chinese medicine that still persist throughout Asia and the Middle East. Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, ancient customs maintain that animal parts have magical or healing properties; eating a tiger’s flesh, for example, gives you its power. A rhinoceros horn is especially valued for its alleged aid to sexual potency because the animal mates for two hours; if you eat a horn, according to superstition, you will have the same stamina. Illegal wildlife traders have even begun soaking horns in Viagra, because the porous material absorbs the liquid and the fibrous hair becomes saturated. As a result, Brown says, rhino horn is five times more valuable than gold, once it gets to Hong Kong, Singapore or the Middle East. Brown’s high-contrast style of photography weds perfectly with the somber scenes inherent in the subject matter; harshly lit warehouses and laboratories compete for attention with bazaar and street scenes of smugglers peddling their wares.
Like most of MediaStorm’s content, Black Market examines a corner of life where public policy, journalism and groundbreaking academic research intersect. And the film itself is only the beginning, should you wish to know or do more. By connecting talented filmmakers, photojournalists and multimedia storytellers with a like-minded publishing resource and production facility, MediaStorm has provided a model for serious documentary journalism in an era when traditional media and news outlets seem to be looking in another, far less substantive direction. If they don’t look back soon, MediaStorm will have passed them by, perhaps for good.
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