George Saunders: on story

7 minutes

Solos

5 minutes

The meaning of a monument

16 minutes

Oppy: the life of a rover

2 minutes

All inclusive

10 minutes

A story is like a black box – you put the reader in there: George Saunders on storytelling

The US writer George Saunders is celebrated both for his masterful prose and empathic storytelling. A MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award finalist, Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was released in 2017 to wide acclaim. In this short video, the author deconstructs what makes for an effective story, and describes his personal strategies for writing, revealing the importance of conversing with your characters, the pitfalls of fixing your intentions in place, and why good storytelling is a bit like being in love.

Directors: Tom Mason, Sarah Klein

Executive Producer: Ken Burns

Website: Redglass Pictures

Sketches from a Barcelona square offer an elegant celebration of people-watching

Barcelona’s squares (plaças in Catalan, plazas in Spanish) are the beating heart of the Catalonian capital – beloved to residents and tourists alike. Breaking the monotony of the city’s gridded streets, these open outdoor areas percolate with the comings and goings of al fresco diners, makeshift football matches and all iterations of art and commerce. Formed from sketches made while the London-based filmmaker Gabriella Marsh was living in Barcelona, the brief animation Solos captures daily life in a small square in the historic Gràcia neighbourhood. Streets are swept, families squabble and friendly greetings are exchanged. And yet these mostly mundane scenes transform into something quite remarkable via Marsh’s stylish hand-drawn images and composer Joe Bush’s gentle piano score. What emerges is an elegant meditation on the intersections of streets, stories and social forces that give shape to a city block.

Director: Gabriella Marsh

Composer: Joe Bush

The American Museum of Natural History grapples with its most controversial piece

The ‘Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt’ was commissioned by the City of New York to stand in front of the American Museum of Natural History in 1925, and was finally unveiled to the public in 1940. A co-founder of the museum and avid outdoorsman, Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation was reflected in many of his policies as president, including the vast expansion of national parks, forests and monuments. But despite his contributions to the field of natural history, the statue – depicting a horseback Roosevelt flanked by a Native American figure and an African figure – has been controversial for decades, with detractors arguing that it’s a monument to white supremacy. Further complicating its symbolism are Roosevelt’s recorded views on race, which were in some ways progressive for a white man of his time, but would today be condemned as unequivocally racist.

Released by the American Museum of Natural History in 2019 – prior to the institution’s decision to remove the statue in the wake of the George Floyd protests in June 2020 – this short film was created to help contextualise the work for museum visitors. Leading scholars in the fields of art, history and African and Native American studies weigh in on the sculpture’s intended and perceived meanings – alongside museum visitors, many of whom are relaying their first impressions of the monument. The resulting short is captivating both as a history and as a reading of the wider cultural moment, in which institutions are being forced to grapple with their legacies, and governments are reassessing who and what should be celebrated in public spaces.

What the Martian surface looked like to Oppy – humanity’s most resilient rover

When NASA successfully landed the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity – nicknamed ‘Oppy’ – in 2004, the plan was to explore the Martian terrain for 90 days. Through expert engineering and careful handling, Oppy was able to exceed its designed lifespan 60 times over, exploring the planet for nearly 15 years. Over the course of its impressive expedition, Oppy made a number of key geological discoveries and broke several records, including longest off-world distance travelled at 28 miles. Then, in 2018, following one of the most intense dust storms ever recorded on Mars, Oppy relayed its final message to Earth: ‘My battery is low and it’s getting dark.’ This short video from the US filmmaker John D Boswell, also known as melodysheep, uses images captured by Oppy and music composed using the sounds of Martian winds to pay anthropomorphic tribute to the resilient rover – and by extension, those responsible for its awe-inspiring journey.

Video by John D Boswell

Website: melodysheep

The ritualised excess of life aboard a cruise ship is tragic and parodic by turns

The cruise industry as it exists today – somewhat affordable, aggressively fun, indulgent by design – is a relatively new phenomenon, rooted in the 1960s, when passenger ships struggled to compete with air travel. After a pivot to all-inclusive pleasure voyages, cruising is now a $45 billion industry, beloved by some for its budget-friendly luxuries and amenities, and bemoaned by others for its environmental toll, treatment of workers, and – as highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic – health risks.

The observational documentary All Inclusive drops viewers head-first into the strange rituals of tableside conga lines, captain meet-and-greets and pool cannonball contests that characterise the cruise experience. While the Swiss director Corina Schwingruber Ilić’s tongue-in-cheek tone permeates throughout, the film offers more than just an invitation to gawk, as ‘fun’ plays out in a series of over-the-top pastimes, hinting at the economic and social stratification between guests and workers.

Director: Corina Schwingruber Ilić

Producer: Stella Händler

Website: Freihändler Film Production

A story is like a black box – you put the reader in there: George Saunders on storytelling

The US writer George Saunders is celebrated both for his masterful prose and empathic storytelling. A MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award finalist, Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was released in 2017 to wide acclaim. In this short video, the author deconstructs what makes for an effective story, and describes his personal strategies for writing, revealing the importance of conversing with your characters, the pitfalls of fixing your intentions in place, and why good storytelling is a bit like being in love.

Directors: Tom Mason, Sarah Klein

Executive Producer: Ken Burns

Website: Redglass Pictures

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Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos

Essay/
Language and linguistics
The space between our heads

Brain-to-brain interfaces promise to bypass language. But do we really want access to one another’s unmediated thoughts?

Mark Dingemanse

Map of the Port of Alexandria, Egypt, from Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation) by Piri Reis, first published 1521, map taken from the revised 17th-century edition. Courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Essay/
Cities
The city is a lie

From Ancient Egypt’s deltas to Edinburgh’s crags and peaks, the city pushes back against the dream of human separateness

Sam Grinsell