Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill are at the cutting edge. Earlier this year they won the inaugural Tim Hetherington Trust Visionary Award. Their virtual reality film The Ark is about the last four northern white rhinoceros, and the race to save them by researchers in Kenya and California.
Emily: On its face, the story of The Ark looks like one about preservation, but you also intend to explore technology and wealth in the parallel stories of researchers in Africa and California. Can you begin by describing the project?
Kel O’Neill: Sure, with the caveat that the project doesn’t exist yet. We’re at the stage where we’re halfway through shooting and marshaling forces to shoot the other half, and get everything edited and beautiful.
Basically The Ark is the story of two communities of people on opposite sides of the world who share a single goal: to save the northern white rhino. Now, the northern white rhino is most endangered animal on the planet. There are only four of them left — one in San Diego and three in Kenya — so the quest to save them is simultaneously noble and Sisyphean. It really fits into the wheelhouse of the kind of “push-me, pull-me” subject matter we’re interested in.
E: The title inevitably evokes the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, which in its most recent telling became an explicitly environmental tale. Can you explain the title, and whether spirituality (yours or otherwise) plays a role in this story?
Eline Jongsma: That’s funny. Somebody wrote us an angry message on Kickstarter today saying that he wanted to back us, but would only do it if we changed the name of the project to something without the religious overtones. But no, we’re not coming at this from a spiritual place, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s called The Ark because of the Frozen Zoo, which is the official name of the lab in San Diego where they keep the rhino cells that started this whole “genetic rescue” effort. There are frozen skin cells from 2000 different animals in there, including many that are endangered, and some that are extinct. It’s the biotech version of Noah’s Ark.
E: What are some examples of the contradictions and connections you find between the cultures of researchers working to save the rhinoceros?
KO: Just take the methods that the two communities are using in their conservation efforts. It’s conservation by petri dish in one society, and by gun in the other.
KO: In San Diego, which is one of the global capitals of scientific and medical innovation, scientists are using cells from the frozen zoo to create stem cells in the hopes of creating new animals. It’s a prosperous place, and the conservation methods are very high tech. Meanwhile, in Kenya, the economic landscape is very different, and the conservation efforts are very different. Rangers with guns shadow the last herd of northern white rhinos 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and keep them safe from poachers.
Historically, the two biggest threats to the northern white rhino have been poaching and habitat destruction. Both of these threats have economic roots. People in difficult economic positions with limited employment options are often willing to do damage to the environment in order to survive, or to provide for their families. We saw it in Suriname, where the artisanal gold rush has basically gutted the interior of the country and poured mercury into the rivers. The gold miners should be held accountable — as the poachers should be punished — for what they’ve done to the land. At the same time, it’s demand for gold in more prosperous areas of the world that drives that destruction.
KO: So in a sense rich places like California are inextricably connected to poorer places like rural Kenya by the global economy, and by our shared responsibility for the ecosystem. How that’s reflected in The Ark remains to be seen. In our work, we rarely deal with these issues explicitly, but they lurk under the surface.
E: You’ve said that you want this to be a ‘science fiction documentary.’ What does that that mean, and where did you get the inspiration for the project?
KO: Eline got on a Frozen Zoo research binge, and then we discovered the stem cell research they were doing in San Diego. It seemed like a SciFi story, so we decided to use the most SciFi storytelling tech we could think of, and that was VR. I don’t know if you’ve put on a headset and watched any of the 360° footage we put up on our Kickstarter campaign page, but it feels very futuristic in there. The wide lenses from the GoPros help get that effect as well.
EJ: But the Kenya section’s SciFi too, just a different kind of SciFi. There’s dystopia and utopia in both story-lines.
E: You’ve said that using technology in your work can be terrifying, because it is constantly challenging your assumptions about how storytelling should work. Can you tell me more about that?
EJ: I’m really not a tech person. It’s a funny contradiction, because we work in these mediums that people think of as advanced or cutting edge, but the equipment we use is really cheap most of the time. When we show people the camera we used to shoot most of Empire, they think we’re kidding.
KO: I think I said that thing about assumptions. When I hear it back now, I don’t remember what I meant. Sure sounds smart though. Maybe I was just saying it to sound smart.
E: Did the story or the technology come first for this project? (i.e., did you begin with the idea that you wanted to use VR, or did the project’s goals strike you as complex enough to require it?)
EJ: We’re interested in the intersection of form and content. They’re part of the same thing. Obviously, the research came before everything else, but we decided that live-action VR was right for this story early on in the process. There’s something about how VR puts you right in the middle of these environments, but you’re not able to touch, you don’t have a body. The process puts you in a dreamlike state and you absorb information in an almost subliminal way.
E: Your other work has also dealt with environmental themes by telling human stories — Empire addresses the “contemporary aftershocks of the world’s first brush with global capitalism” via Dutch colonialism, and shows devastation by resource extraction. Another current project (Exit) sounds bored with the extension of those themes, which have dominated popular fiction and movies lately in the form of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic dramas. Yet another project, Minimum Viable Product, examines technology as a tool for artists to say something “about society, about culture, or even just about themselves.” So I’m curious to hear how these reflect your personal attitudes — are you more hopeful or despondent about humans, tech, and the planet?
KO: Wow, I love that you brought up Minimum Viable Product. Nobody in the US watched those because we made them for De Correspondent, and it’s a pay-walled site.
I’m trying to be hopeful right now. We have a 17-month-old daughter, and she’s really been the inspiration for The Ark and Exit.I don’t want her to live like we live, you know? Essentially comfortable, but totally terrified that some apocalyptic scenario is right around the corner. Like our species is living on borrowed time. It requires hope to think your way out of the situation we’re all in.
EJ: On the outside we may seem like a gloomy pair but we’re actually very idealistic and live accordingly. We’d love to start a tribe with like-minded people.
E: Can you share some storytellers or artists whose work inspires you, or whom you’re enjoying right now?
KO: There are two groups for me. There are our friends or professional associates who are making awesome work in the interactive space, so that’s people like Danny and Samantha from Tenderclaws, Gabo Arora and Socrates Kakoulides, Oscar Raby and Katy Morrison, Ziv Schneider. Then there are people we don’t know personally who work in other fields, like Emily Kai Bock, who makes great music videos, and Marshall Curry, who absolutely killed it with “Point and Shoot.”
EJ: Ana Lily Amirpour is inspiring. I loved “A Girl Walks Home at Night.”