Trust, Society, and Manipulated Video

Trust, Society, and Manipulated Video


Trust, Society, and Manipulated Video

Karno Dasgupta

September 2019

“A total and complete dipshit.” That’s what Barack Obama seemingly called President Trump when he appeared in a short clip for BuzzFeed Video’s YouTube channel in April 2018. Here was a sharp gibe, uncharacteristic of the ex-President. Except, as Jordan Peele’s appearance soon revealed, it wasn’t Obama who was speaking. Instead, a vocal impersonation had been layered over a computer-generated image of his face – one which moved to eerily mimic the words being said. Here was a new genre of fabricated video, where pre-existing visuals of a targeted face are inputted into a create a realistic reproduction that can be manipulated for the creator’s ends. A deepfake.

While some people noticed that something was off about the way Obama looked and sounded, many others were initially fooled or at least confused by the clip. The incident demonstrates how good the generative algorithmic subset of the artificial intelligence used to create a deepfake is. And, scarily, the machine learning processes that help synthesize them are just getting better and more accessible, progressively requiring fewer source materials and extending to manufactured voices too. Every day, it becomes easier to forge people. And these forgeries can damage individual lives (as in cases of targeted pornography), but can also pose risks on the global-scale by undermining public trust in information sources generally considered to be reliable. 

Jordan Peele’s Obama deepfake on BuzzFeed Video.

Today, we’re at a point where experts are playing catch-up to identify what’s real and what’s not. When the Gabonese President appeared to the public in a video-address to quell reports about his ill-health on New Year’s Day 2019, for example, many citizens and critics questioned its authenticity. A definitive answer on whether or not it is a deepfake remains elusive. And yet, its uncertain origins spurred a failed coup a week later. In any other time in history, a recording would be undeniable proof of something, just as the photograph had promised at its inception. But human innovation has transformed yet another medium of communication for the worse. What Photoshop did to photography, deepfakes do to film. And suddenly, a source and sphere of information is heavily compromised.

No doubt, deepfakes are a tremendous feat of human intelligence, showing how much of what we perceive can be influenced by others. Their rapid proliferation also represents the wonders of a democratized digital world. However, in developers’ quest to enhance our ability to control older audio-visual technologies with more sophisticated tools, they create dangerous, false information that threatens society. This is because people either believe a fabricated product and are influenced negatively by it, or they don’t and turn skeptical towards all products, losing their trust in the institution of production itself. Essentially, this maps onto the idea that people make decisions based on some collection of information, but deepfakes delegitimize a fundamental mode of information-collection.

 There is a strong connection between this and the value of trust in our lives. In Trust in Society, Karen S. Cook notes that “trust plays a significant role in the functioning of social groups and societies,” and also links trust to order and stability. Trust is foundational to relationships within and with an organized collective. In a sense, we need to trust people and institutions to both preserve ourselves, and the democratic society we inhabit. If lost, instability and a loss of connections ensue. For example, in a simplified hypothetical, if you called the police while your house was getting burgled and they did not show up you would suddenly doubt the institution that promises you safety in a city. Repeated failures would make you lose faith in the promise of security implicit in many societies today. You might move to a different location, and definitely buy yourself a weapon for protection. In short, you would try disentangling from one area of your interaction with society.

Now, as people who turn to the media to locate ourselves in a social space, we are strongly influenced by the books we read, the songs we hear, and the news we view. A newspaper is a good source of information about a politician’s opinions, a voice recording of her is better, but a live feed of her saying something is closest to the best basis for trusting that she actually said it. Why? Because our eyes and ears combine to form the primary points of input for our experiences, and short of actually interacting with people face-to-face, videos are the best simulations of “being there.” That is not to say that skepticism and critical thinking are not important to being educated consumers – we should question the truth and implications of a politician’s position. But, historically, we could distrust an equivocator without qualms about the way we heard her hedging. Our faith in the medium remained.

The moment we reach manipulation technologies like deepfakes, however, a gateway into a world where no one can ever know if someone said something or not opens up. Suddenly, our trust in social institutions of communication begins to evaporate.

Hence, lawmakers in America are scrambling to regulate deepfake technologies. Why, inductively, notable figures across science and programming are worrying about the numerous ways artificial intelligence could harm society. Because they have the potential to fundamentally alter our experience of reality on an unprecedented scale, with unbelievable speed – in fact, the term “deepfake” is only a few years old and the technology has only existed for five years. And the fear everyone has of progress pursued without conscience or broader consideration is amplified in the interconnected present, where rapid, mass consequences arise from limited, specialist development. It is the same fear that made Plato distrust the memory-weakening potential for writing in Phaedrus or the Luddites destroy the job-stealing industrial machines – that of the price of progress. For technology to change lives, it must bury the way life was once lived.

 Deepfakes, on a philosophical level, destabilize the trust in truth essential for us to know things or even believe in our ability to know things. They give people the power to make anyone say anything. And if anyone can say anything, then we might as well say nothing at all – or stop listening, at the least. Because a functioning society needs people to trust people. It needs some truth. And that is getting harder to find with each passing day. In this sadder sense, deepfakes are a natural extension of the post-truth world of alternative facts, a rabbit-hole that goes all the way down to artificially intelligent robots that can look like your favorite pop star or a notorious demagogue, spewing hate or inciting violence in-person. A sorry sight indeed. Regardless, it is unlikely technology will slow down. Between progress and the past, we only look back, never turn.

In such tumultuous times, the only way to resist a breakdown of social order is to build defenses. Governments should incentivize the development of programs that identify deepfakes, the masses must be educated about the existing misinformation threat, and corporations must invest in checks that filter potential fake content before it goes live. The end goal is a practicable ethical framework that preserves people’s faith in the institutions of communication. We must fight the good fight, or risk losing it all.


Karno Dasgupta is a student at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing.





What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?

What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?


What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?

Ria Golovakova

September 2019

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between the categories of “work” and “labor.” She differentiates between two types of human worker: the “homo faber who makes and literally ‘works upon’” and the “animal laborans which labors and ‘mixes with.’” In this conception, work is the creation of some product “which outlasts its own activity and forms a durable addition to the human artifice,” while labor “needs to be reproduced again and again in order to remain within the human world at all.” Arendt concludes this meditation on the nature of work by arguing that art, in her opinion, is the most durable creation that humans can make, and thus the best form of work

How then, might Arendt classify work done by someone like Jing Zi, a young Chinese woman whose job is to live stream herself for 7 hours a day? In a 5-minute documentary video about her done by Noah Sheldon, Jing Zi goes through the motions of her typical content. She puts on makeup, plays with cute video filters, sings karaoke, and eats lunch that one of her fans ordered in for her. The woman is an employee of a media company in Beijing, that hosts other live streamers like her, and provides them with individualized filming sets and promotions in exchange for a percentage of the profit. Jing Zi regularly makes more than 10,000RMB ($1454) a day.

In fact, Chinese live streaming is one of the world’s fastest growing industries: in 2018 the number of users reached 456 million people and Deloitte valued market at $4.4 billion. The Chinese are dedicating their time, love, and money to their favorite streamers in extents that are unfathomable within the Western framework of internet celebrity.

Hannah Arendt in the classroom

Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University

In the West, internet concept creators often follow the “influencer” model of internet celebrity. They post some content on a variety of internet platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, and attract a large following of people who engage with their content through comments, likes, and shares. None of these interactions, however, directly earn money for the content creator. Instead, their stream of income is usually a combination of merchandise sales, paid subscriptions on platforms like Patreon, and sponsored advertisements, in which companies reach out to them and provide a flat rate per post based on the number of followers.

Chinese live-streamers, while also trying to amass a large following and often working with advertisers, are in a very different position. Their main source of income is directly built into the platform: viewers during a live stream can buy “gifts” for the streamer, which appear as little animations on the screen in real time, and are purchased with actual currency deposited onto the app account. The streamers tend to respond to the gifts in real time, engaging with the users who pay larger sums and thanking them directly. In some platforms, there are added benefits, such as gaining the host’s contact information after reaching a certain monetary threshold in gifts.

“Live Streamer” is a short documentary by Noah Sheldon, exploring the industry through the example of live streamer Jing Zi.

Incomes of the most popular streamers can reach over $100,000 dollars a month, and even the less successful hosts earn many times the average salaries of college graduates in China. Many of these internet celebrities originally come from the working class, but through their popularity are able to obtain rich and lavish lifestyles. Their situation is in stark contrast to the rest of China’s population, as there is very little social mobility in terms of wealth, as the working class do not have the same educational and professional opportunities as the wealthy, who have stayed rich for generations. In fact, many of these working class viewers even impede their financial prospects, as they donate significant portions or even the entirety of their salaries to their favorite live streamers.

This seemingly irrational behavior is caused by the desire to keep one of their own rich, since the working class audiences are well aware that they could never reach those levels of financial success themselves. Furthermore, they are drawn to the live streams to feel less lonely: the changing economic and geo-social makeup of China, especially through increasing urbanization, has left many young people disconnected from their families and communities, and isolated in large but lonesome cities.

The live streams are an attractive form of escapism: hosts mostly stream boring content, like eating on camera, chatting, or simply going about their daily commute. Nonetheless, in some cases viewers tune in for up to 8 hours at a time, spending their entire day in virtual company with likeable hosts.

This particular medium, however, is very unique compared to other popular forms of internet content. Live streams are transient: the video is not recorded or uploaded for potential later viewing, all that exists is the here and now. In Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online, Crystal Abidin writes that such “always-transient content” is “largely motivated by the followers’ cultivations of perpetual ‘FOMO,’ or the ‘fear of missing out.’” The immediacy creates a sense of exclusivity, and heightens the effect of virtual connection between the audience and the hosts.

Can Arendt’s conception of work and labor be applied to this occupation? Live streams do not have inherent market value or practical use. Instead, they are an evolution of other kinds of internet visual content (pictures and videos), which can be viewed as art and are often judged to aesthetic standards that resemble the approach to artistic products. In this case, lack of usability can also be viewed as proof of artistic status. However, the transience of live streams complicates this category. While the hosts technically create something new, the durability lies not in the content itself but in the audience that the content generates. The direct product, the stream, gets consumed in its very process of creation. There is no “true reification,” so this supposedly artistic project becomes a labor process of toiling every day on the clock, the live stream both becoming the means to an end and an end itself that must be repeated ad infinitum.

In this vein, the categories of “labor” and “work” appear insufficient. Perhaps, we should take the new types of vocations that the internet has brought about, such as live streamers, seriously. A different conception of work may be in order.

Ria Golovakova is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is interested in exploring and writing about the many manifestations of modern culture and how the forces that shape society today may differ from those of the past.





Migration in Bury Me, My Love

Migration in Bury Me, My Love


Migration in Bury Me, My Love

Julián Carrera 

August 2019

Your phone rings. It’s a text message. “Majd …” it says. It is from your wife, Nour. “Do you remember the time we visited Harasta with Adnan and Qamar?” A few seconds later, an image appears on your phone: the ruins of a city, half-standing, through the window of a car. After Nour sends the image of the ruins of Harasta, the messenger layout rises, revealing three options of emojis: a disappointed one, a surprised one, and one with X eyes.

Bury Me, My Love, a video game by The Pixel Hunt, Figs, and ARTE France, follows Nour as she leaves Syria to find a better life in Europe. The player is cast as Majd, Nour’s husband who stays in Homs, and must communicate with Nour through the game’s WhatsApp-like interface. As Nour moves on her way to Europe, she must make decisions, often turning to Majd for reassurance or opinion. The play aspect of Bury Me, My Love thus relies on making choices. Alhough the action of choosing which emoji to send seems at first to be inconsequential, the choice may end up profoundly affecting Nour’s journey.

A still from Bury Me, My Love on the Nintendo Switch, taken during gameplay.

Some choices are more consequential than picking emojis: should Nour stay in Damascus and wait for a bus to Beirut, or go to Aleppo to try to cross the border to Turkey; join a refugee march that will walk from Serbia to Hungary, or spend what limited money she has to take a train instead. There are also some more light-hearted choices, like Majd telling Nour he remembers his mom’s way of fixing a zipper or he doesn’t. Sometimes, the player can choose between dialogues and emojis, showcasing the different approaches to one single situation that can alter how the story plays out. The last way that Majd can respond to Nour is by taking a picture and sending it to her, though the points where Majd sends a picture are limited, and there is no choice to be made: only the picture can be selected, but there is a small minigame where the picture must be focused. In instances where there is no choice to be made, Majd texts on his own. Since the player interacts when there is a choice to be made, it seems that taking pictures is more of a formality to give the player agency beyond words and emojis.

Bury Me, My Love’s interactive method of storytelling places it within the genre of the visual novel, a form characterized by the player’s control over the story through available choices. Thus, players read through the story and are then prompted to pick an option, making decision trees a defining feature of the genre. Bury Me, My Love, however, does not provide the sort of visuals one would expect from a “visual novel” (compare, for example, the still image of Bury Me, My Love with that of Ace Attorney shown below).

A still from Ace Attorney, Capcom’s popular Visual Novel


It would be more accurate to call it interactive fiction like one of its inspirations, the game Lifeline, in which the player receives a message out of the blue. It is from an astronaut, lost on a strange moon after their ship crash-lands. After a first introduction to what happened, the astronaut says their name is Taylor (it is never specified whether Taylor is a he or a she). From there on, it is the player’s role to help them survive and find out what happened. Given the decision tree, however, there are multiple endings to Taylor’s story. A handful of them result in death, a couple result in survival, and fewer yet result in answers to the questions Taylor has about what happened. Though both Bury Me, My Love and Lifeline feature an interface made to resemble texting and rely on an abundance of choices to move the game forward, the one aspect that Bury Me, My Love borrowed the most from Lifeline was its use of time. In Lifeline, the player gets messages from Taylor on a real-time (or pseudo real-time) basis: if Taylor is doing something, they won’t reply until they can get in contact again.

Bury Me, My Love uses this same concept of (pseudo) real-time to its advantage to add realism to Nour’s journey. Sometimes, the player must wait a couple minutes. Sometimes an hour. When she’s sleeping, eight to ten. There is a point in the game the player can reach where Nour goes silent for almost three whole days. By limiting Nour’s responses on a timed basis, the game shows the power that comes from being in contact and the anxiety that comes when a loved one goes silent.

A still from Lifeline, taken from the game’s listing on the Play Store.

Apart from Lifeline, another inspiration for Bury Me, My Love is the article “Le voyage d’une migrante syrienne à travers son fil WhatsApp,” published in Le Monde by Lucie Soullier and Madjid Zerrouky. The article tells the story of Dana, a Syrian refugee whose journey from Damascus to Germany is chronicled through Dana’s WhatsApp conversations with her family. “Bury me, my love” (from the Arabic phrase of affection and endearment تقبريني يا حبي) is what Dana’s mom tells her for good luck. Both Dana and Lucie Soullier are part of Bury Me, My Love’s editorial team, though the game aims to tell a variety of stories about Syrian refugees. The website for the game states:

“Our two main characters, Nour and Majd, are fictional. They do not exist, or rather, they exist collectively. They are a multitude of men, women, and children. Dana, her mother, her brother-in-law… as well as thousands of others who flee their country —or watch their relatives flee— all in hopes of finding a better life in Europe.”

The story that Bury Me, My Love tells, paired with the way it tells it, shines a light on how the movement of people works in the cases of forced migration by focusing not just on those who left, but also telling the story of those who stay behind. Bury Me, My Love challenges conceptions of what stories video games can tell while giving the player an experience to learn that is not often presented in the medium.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
Community Reading: The Great Gatsby and Gatz

Community Reading: The Great Gatsby and Gatz


The Great Gatsby and Gatz

Electra Street Editorial Staff

September 2018

“Forget great,” writes Maureen Corrigan in So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (2014). “The Great Gatsby is the greatest—even if you didn’t think so when you had to read it in high school.” 

For Corrigan, “Gatsby’s magic emanates not only from its powerhouse poetic style—in which ordinary American language becomes unearthly—but from the authority with which it nails who we want to be as Americans. Not who we are; who we want to be. It’s that wanting that runs through every page of Gatsby, making it our Greatest American Novel.”

At the recent Community Reading event held at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery and co-sponsored by the Gallery, Electra Street, and the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi, it became clear that the novel resonated deeply not just for Americans, but also for readers from around the world—and, in fact, had a particular resonance for readers who had come to Abu Dhabi from somewhere else, not unlike Gatsby, Nick, Tom, Daisy, and Myrtle coming East in the novel.

NYUAD Literature professor Cyrus Patell asked whether the real love story at the heart of the novel might not be Gatsby’s infatuation with Daisy, but rather Nick’s infatuation with Gatsby, who emerges as “great,” after all, only because Nick’s narrative portrays him that way. Novelist Siobhan Fallon noted that each of the several times that she read the book, it changed for her, with different elements coming to the fore depending on whether she was a teenager, a college student, or a mature, practicing writer. Novelist and journalist Miguel Syjuco recounted how the novel moved him as an aspiring young writer in the Philippines, giving him insight into the privileged milieu in which he had been raised. NYUAD Literature and Creative Writing student Ayah Rashid noted that both the movie and the 2013 film adaptation directed by Baz Luhrmann brought alive the excesses of the Jazz Age, while offering us ways of thinking about the ways of life we experience in Abu Dhabi today. And NYUAD Literature professor Deborah Williams, who served as moderator, described the book as a novel of the Emirates, because it is a novel about self-reinvention and mobility, in which the major characters have all come to New York’s “East Egg” and “West Egg” from somewhere else. The wide-ranging conversation that ensued touched on the “universal” aspects of the novel and the ways in which Fitzgerald draws on old literary forms like epic and tragedy, as well as the ways in which The Great Gatsby (and its re-presentation in the form of the Elevator Repair Service’s theatrical piece Gatz) resonates with the current #MeToo moment in the United States.

We’d like to keep the conversation going, here on line, and we invite Electra Street readers who have read the novel, seen one of the film adaptations, or attended a production of Gatz here in Abu Dhabi or elsewhere in the world, to leave a comment below.

What is it about Gatsby’s story, as told in novel, film, or stage production, that resonates with you? What did you see in it that you’d like others to see?

To prime the pump, we invite you to look at one of these pieces:

  • Electra Street editor Deborah Williams’s 2016 column on the novel from the pages of The National.
  • Electra Street managing editor Chiran Pandey’s discussion of the ways in which Gatz offers up a model of literature as a deeply communal experience.


Interview with Joanne Savio

Interview with Joanne Savio

February 2017
Joanne Savio talks with her former student Roland Folkmayer about the retrospective of her dance photography and about what she seeks to achieve in a photographic portrait.

RF: What does it feel like having a retrospective of your work?

JS: It’s a very emotional experience. Each of those images have some kind of memory, some more than others. As I looked at the negatives down in my basement—surrounded by, you know, the washer, the dryer, the water tank–working on this very tiny, light table with an old magnifying glass—it wasn’t just picking out images for a show from thousands of negatives of dance, but it was also a visual memoir. I shed tears over some of those images. Some of these subjects are not with us anymore. Some of the assistants that helped me create this work are not here anymore. Awam Amkpa, a friend of mine who is a scholar and artist here, said, “Don’t think of it as a retrospective. Think of it as an introspective,” which I thought was excellent, you know, a good way to look at it.

RF: Absolutely. When you were going through your pictures, how did you know what to exclude, and what to include?

JS: In the film department, as you know, we have the expression “Kill the darlings.” And I had to do that for this show. I kept editing, editing, editing, taking things out, and trying to stand back in my mind, to see how these images converse with each other. Do they have something in common? Is there a gesture? Is there something that would make the images live together as a family? [Laughs.] I still mourn some of the images that I couldn’t fit into the show.

RF: So you were looking for—something more like an emotional attachment for you, or some other sort of quality?

JS: I had to say to myself, “Okay. Is this [image in the show] because I’m so attached to this person, and I’m really remembering that moment shooting them? But how will an audience react to this image?”

RF: Why did you choose this twenty-year time frame for your exhibit? Why not shorter, or longer?

JS: That’s a great question. One way to think about it is 1986 was the first dance project I ever photographed, of Merce Cunningham. And there was no budget. I had gone back to school later in my life, at 33, I had already graduated with a degree in English Literature–

RF: Great. [Laughs.]

JS: —and I was then studying at Cooper Union, which is an amazing art school, and engineering, and architecture school in New York. And almost all of the students there were appropriate college age but we became friends. There was one young man there who later became an extremely famous designer and writer, Abbott Miller, who ended up art-directing and designing the beautiful magazine called Dance Ink. He called me and said, “I have this project, a portrait. I think you’d be perfect for it. But there’s really no budget.” When he said the subject was Merce Cunningham, I said, “I’m ready. I’ll go.” And my husband, Jim, went with me as an assistant. So that was the beginning. And even though I didn’t stop shooting dance in 2004, it seemed like the bulk of my work, including my book Vital Grace, as well as most of the work I had done for Brooklyn Academy of Music and Dance Ink., seemed to finish up at around that point. So it seemed like a perfect chapter to try to illustrate. But I intend to continue shooting dance and taking portraits for the rest of my life.

Portrait of Pina Bausch, Italy, 1994.
Photo by Joanne Savio

RF: How does dance keep you inspired? Why do you think it’s an essential and important topic in your life?

JS: Because for one thing I’m so clumsy. And these incredible, beautiful beings can do something that I cannot do. So the ones that are performance based, it was exciting to shoot. There is some kind of gut reaction about when to press that shutter. Someone who came to my opening said, “That’s a perfect moment with Baryshnikov and Trisha Brown. How did you know to shoot that moment?” But it was the instinct of seeing a beautiful form. I would hear myself gasp behind the lens. For that moment in time I also feel like I’m flying through the air, I am these dancers. But when I stop time for that second, it forces the viewer to study that image. So the image appears important, or it appears that it’s something that needs to be looked at.

RF: That’s very interesting. So you weren’t necessarily capturing a particular moment but could, sort of let it happen?

JS: I’m usually working with these people not as they’re performing for an audience. So I can say, “I want to make sure that I got that jump. Can you try it again?” No one’s saying, “Oh, you should get that.” You know, there’s just something inside of you that feels a moment you connect as human beings, something about that person that’s reminding you of yourself. Like, I’m looking at you now, how you’re holding your hands. I’m looking at your gestures, your eyes. If I were taking a portrait of you right now, I’d be looking for those moments where it would feel right to take that picture.

RF: When I look at these pictures, I wonder—how do you bring out the vulnerability in people?

JS: You know, the first thing is that you try to establish a sense of trust and respect between you and your subject. If it’s someone famous I do research before the shoot, because I want them to know that they’re not just another project to me, that I’m interested in who they are, what was there upbringing like, where were they born. I also feel when a camera is on you, you can feel vulnerable. And I want my subjects to know that they’re in good hands. I want them to know that I am going to work with them to make an interesting and beautiful portrait of them, no matter how we define beauty. Also, I don’t rush them. It goes back to the class you took with me [“Sound, Image, Story”], when I tried to stress slowing our world down, looking at tiny moments of light, little gestures, a look in the eye, expressions on a face.

RF: How can we practice slowing our world down?

JS: That’s—I’m still— [Laughs.] I’m still struggling with that myself.

RF: Interesting.

JS: When I slow my world down, I don’t tend to fall as much. [Laughs.]

I want my subjects to know that they’re in good hands. I want them to know that I am going to work with them to make an interesting and beautiful portrait of them, no matter how we define beauty.

RF: Your exhibition is called Grace, and your images were featured in a book called Vital Grace. So I wondered, what is grace to you, in your life?

JS: Even in this context, it’s not just grace in the sense of being graceful, but also in the sense of giving blessings and giving thanks to something. These photos are a way also to honor the people that were willing to sit in front of my camera and willing to show themselves to me. So it’s also a grace in the sense of giving back to these people a blessing of gratitude.

RF: Putting together this exhibit was a long process. What will you take away from this whole exhibition?

JS: I’m still processing it all but it does feel really good to see my work around me. Because it’s like being almost in the company of friends, subjects, memories in my own life. So I walk away from the exhibition feeling very grateful for the life I have.

Joanne Savio’s exhibition Grace: A Retrospective of Dance Portraiture and Performance 1986-2004 continues at the NYUAD Project Space gallery through February 25.

Top photo: Trisha Brown, archival digital print from film negative, 156 x 111.8cm. Choreography, If You Couldn’t See Me, 1994. Images courtesy of the artist.






[EDITORS’ NOTE: If you missed our screenings of Ellis on the NYUAD campus or would like to see it again, you can download a copy for free from iTunes.]

The short film Ellis directed by the artist JR and starring Robert De Niro pays homage to all of the immigrants who entered the United States by passing through the immigration station at Ellis Island outside New York City.

Ellis Island is the stuff of American history and mythology. From 1892 to 1954, it was the threshold through which millions of would-be immigrants were required to pass in order to realize their American. Located in Upper New York Bay near the Statue of Liberty, it was the busiest immigrant inspection station in the United States, and in its peak years — between 1905 and 1914 — an average of 5,000 immigrants per day were processed by immigration officials on the island.

If you were lucky, you spent just a few hours at the island, before receiving permission to proceed to the mainland. You would have had to answer twenty-nine questions, including your name, your occupation, and how much money you were carrying. (You generally needed around $20 to gain approval — about $430 in today’s money —  because the US government wanted new immigrants to have funds to support themselves as they tried to start their new lives.)

Some never made it past that threshold, turned away because they had contagious disease, or criminal records, or seemed to be insane. Some of those who seemed to be sick were sent to the island’s hospital facilities. Many stayed there for quite a while. Some died there.

Today Ellis Island is a museum, but the hospital facilities are still abandoned and in disrepair. The visual artist JR recently mounted an exhibition of contemporary photographies pasted onto the walls of the abandoned building. “Walking around the abandoned hospital on Ellis Island, I could feel the presence of the hundreds of thousands of people who passed through, and of the countless ones who didn’t make it and got turned back.” The exhibition and the short film that it inspired are the artist’s attempt to “to find the story behind each person who left his or her country. I want to know what made them leave everything and everyone behind, even when they knew they’d never be able to come back. It takes so much courage.”

ELLIS – trailer from SOCIAL ANIMALS on Vimeo.


This moving short film looks back to the American past but prompts us to think about todays refugee and migrant crises around the world. As JR puts it, “There were immigrants in Ellis a hundred years ago, there are migrants now, and there will be some in a hundred years, so we have to do what we can to try to relate to each individual story.”

[If you’ve seen the film and have thoughts about it, please share them in the comments section below.]