Saatchi & Saatchi New Creators' Showcase: The next generation of storytellers

New Creators' Showcase: The next generation of storytellers

For the past 29 years, Saatchi & Saatchi's New Directors' Showcase (now renamed New Creators' Showcase) has shone a spotlight on the best emerging directorial talent from around the world. The class of 2019 demonstrates both how the craft of filmmaking is changing and how a good story can come from anywhere: Instagram Stories; a comic strip; an empty jail cell in London. Campaign picks out some highlights and shares the stories behind the films.

1 'Eva Stories'

Directed by Mati and Maya Kochavi

Before anyone watched "Eva Stories", the film provoked a nationwide debate. The controversy started with giant billboards erected over busy roads in Israel, splashed in neon colours with copy that read: "What if a girl in the Holocaust had Instagram?" The illustration depicted a hand holding a smartphone behind barbed wire.

In Israel, there are few topics seen as more sacred than the memory of the Holocaust. The backlash to "Eva Stories", which chronicles the last days of a real 13-year-old Hungarian Jew in 1944 through Instagram Stories, poured in as soon as the project’s promotional campaign began. Critics said it was impossible to treat the tragedy with the sensitivity and gravity it required on a platform better known for vapid memes and influencers.

"We are talking about a display of bad taste," commentator Yuval Mendelson wrote in a scathing piece in Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "There will be consequences. The path from ‘Eva Stories’ to selfie-taking at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau is short and steep."

"A cheapening of the Holocaust compressed into Boomerang," Instagram user Dor Levi commented in response to the trailer, adding sarcastically that "the place for commemorating the Holocaust and getting the message across is on Instagram, between the butt of a random model and a video of a chocolate cake".

Even Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in on the debate, urging his social media followers to watch the film to gain a different perspective on the Holocaust. The @Eva.Stories Instagram account amassed more than 180,000 followers before the series debuted.

When it finally aired on 1 May 2019, Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, "Eva Stories" became an international phenomenon. Across 70 Instagram Stories chapters, the film received more than 300 million views in less than 48 hours – to put this in perspective, Israel has a population of 8.7 million. The creators of "Eva Stories" have since been courted by leading media companies and social media platforms that are hungry for the secret to their success.

So what is it about this tale that captivated such a vast audience? For one thing, "Eva Stories" represents a new era of storytelling, and there will soon be a wave of copycats in its wake.

"Eva Stories" was created by a father and daughter who bridge a generational divide. Mati Kochavi is a 56-year-old billionaire tech and media entrepreneur who founded companies including Vocativ and AGT International. He comes from a family of Holocaust victims and survivors. His daughter Maya, 27, previously launched the platform StelloGirls, which generated thousands of Instagram and Facebook followers for its blog featuring digital characters that served as positive role models for tween girls.

The idea for their venture came from a discussion Mati had with some of his peers on the disappearing collective memory of the Holocaust. While the last generation of survivors is dying out, a 2018 survey in the US found 66% of millennials could not identify what Auschwitz was, and a 2019 CNN poll showed that about one-third of European respondents knew "just a little or nothing at all" about the Holocaust. Because of Mati’s family history, this is a problem that hits close to home.

Yet he realised that there needed to be a different approach to educate younger people. "The biggest museum today is actually our phone. So maybe we should all think about how we create content, not in a physical museum, but on the phone that would be meaningful," he says.

Mati and Maya teamed up to develop a story that would combine his first-hand experience with Holocaust survivors and her expertise in creating content for Generation Z. "The connection between his education and my experience with the young generation is what made this so tangible and powerful," Maya says.

With the help of researchers, they sifted through diaries from the Holocaust period until they found one belonging to Eva Heyman, who chronicled her daily life before and after the 1944 German invasion of Hungary. Beginning with her 13th birthday, the diary covers events such as her parents’ divorce, an unrequited crush, her aspirations to become a photojournalist, and how her life changes during the occupation. Eva’s diary ends on 30 May 1944, just days before her deportation, and she died at Auschwitz on 17 October 1944.

Besides her circumstances, Eva’s story stood out because "she’s dealing with many of the same issues that kids are dealing with today", Maya says. She points to the scene when Eva first puts on the yellow Star of David badge that Jews were forced to wear throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, which summoned some familiar emotions when presented to students in Israeli classrooms.

"She has this identity crisis in that moment, where she questions why she has to wear this and why she is branded by someone else," Maya explains. "You can tell the anger she’s projecting on her family is displaced, but it’s an identity crisis that a lot of kids have today when they’re at school or being bullied by their peers. You can relate to that feeling."

"Eva Stories" was filmed over three weeks in Ukraine, with a multimillion-dollar budget – funded by Mati – and a team of 400 production staff, actors and extras. The crew built detailed sets and sourced tanks and train carriages from the 1940s to recreate the time period. But the project differed from a traditional movie production because it allowed for improvisation. The script changed at various points during the shoot to make the portrayal feel more authentic to Eva’s life and how it might have appeared on social media. Maya says they were constantly asking themselves: "Would Eva share this on Instagram? How do we show that?"

They developed a special camera that the actress playing Eva, Mia Quiney, could hold like a smartphone. This perspective opened up another avenue of storytelling because it gave a more personal view of historic events, Mati says: "The powerful thing about social media is that it gives you a different angle to a regular camera. When you look at pictures of people [from that period], you don’t see what they see. You can see their misery and fear, but you can only see them. Through the smartphone angle, you understand why they’re so afraid."

Once the shoot wrapped, Mati and Maya decided to turn the premiere of "Eva Stories" into a national media event, which would capture a large live audience much like a sports match. They set up a social media war room where they spent 24 hours uploading the 300 different videos that made up the 50-minute film and monitoring reactions in real time. The marketing campaign, created by Leo Burnett Israel, had built enough buzz that the response was instant. "The second we uploaded one video, we’d immediately get 100,000 views. It was insane," Maya recalls.

The film invited engagement through Instagram Stories’ questions feature, which Eva used to ask questions such as how to cheer up her grandfather or get the boy she fancies to notice her. "We got such a crazy amount of engagement from that and realised how connected people were to the story," Maya says. "They were really responding to her as if she were alive and asking for guidance."

The audience’s feedback also dictated the order in which the story played out. Maya and Mati used social media monitoring tools to analyse viewers’ emotions and determine when to release certain chapters. "We tried to evaluate how the audience was going to react in the time they weren’t watching it. Part of storytelling is something we don’t see, in how people continue to talk among themselves about it," Mati says.

Originally, Mati and Maya intended the last episode to show Eva and her loved ones boarding a train headed for Auschwitz. But through their monitoring, they realised "people wanted some hope", Maya says. So, instead, the final scene that they released takes place on the train, where Eva asks her best friend Annie if people will remember them. "Yes Eva, your journal – everyone will remember us," Annie answers. Then, a challenge is posed to viewers: "Write a message in memory of Eva."

Within a few minutes, hundreds of thousands of messages flooded into the Instagram account’s inbox, Maya says. "We will always love you and remember you," one user wrote.

"We wanted to create a new name in the memory of the people who died in the Holocaust. There’s Anne Frank, and now there’s Eva," Mati says.

Mati and Maya understood the risk involved in choosing Instagram to tell Eva’s story. The interactive nature of the platform meant "people can say this is a bad movie and kill it instantly", Mati says. And they weighed carefully the dilemma over whether social media is an appropriate place to preserve the Holocaust’s memory.

Yet the overwhelming response to "Eva Stories" validated their decision. Surprisingly, they found that it was not just youth who watched and interacted with the film, but many older people as well. One Israeli journalist observed that Eva "brought the Holocaust to the young generation and the old generation to Instagram", Mati recalls.

Mati and Maya have since founded K’s Galleries, a media organisation that develops content and media technologies. They have five films in the works that will explore historic moments from a young person’s point of view in the same format as "Eva Stories".

The success of "Eva Stories" proves social media is maturing as a form of storytelling, and there will be a new wave of filmmaking that experiments with how to use those platforms, Mati predicts: "We’re going to see a new genre where people are going to teach themselves how to create a social media film."

Eva’s tale helped make the Holocaust, which "feels more distant" to a young generation, more personal, Maya says. And it makes tangible the threats posed by a rise of nationalist politics around the world, Mati adds.

Months after the film debuted, people are still writing to Eva. The Instagram account for a girl who died 75 years ago receives a new message nearly every minute from someone who says they love her and will never forget her, Maya says.

"They’re not speaking to me or my father or anyone who created this movie," she says. "They’re really just speaking to Eva. It’s incredible because you feel she’s alive in their minds."

2 'Woke'

Directed by Nothing Lost (Chas and Junior)

Most rap videos feature a lot of "people twerking and guys jumping on cars", Junior says. But he and his creative partner, Chas, wanted to create something "honest" with "Woke", a hard-hitting music video about knife crime for British rapper Big Tobz.

The subject of "Woke", which stands for "We only kill each other", is deeply personal for Big Tobz, who was himself a victim of knife crime. Amid a spike in violence in London, Chas and Junior aimed to tackle the story without preaching to viewers.

"The lyrics and narrative were very real to Big Tobz. He always wanted the story to be a truthful one," Junior says. "We felt that the visuals had to match that as well. We didn’t want to sensationalise it at all."

Chas and Junior shot the film over one intense 14-hour day in London at locations including a council estate and an abandoned police station. The empty jail cell there "was mad eerie", Junior recalls. "When you think about all the people who had been there, and the energy reverberating around those four walls, it had a very profound feeling."

The directing duo tried to invoke the true emotions of knife-crime victims and perpetrators, and after the shoot the "cast left with heavy hearts", Junior says. "Woke" sets a precedent for the duo’s raw approach to filmmaking.

"A lot of stories that people see are very Hollywood and glossy, but there are a lot of things that happen underneath the story that you don’t know about," Chas says. "We’re trying to tell the stories of the other side."

For Chas and Junior, there is no better place to do this than in London. "It’s a very honest place. It’s not like Tinseltown," Junior says.

The pair, who are now working on a TV series, met while on set for another music video. They shared in common their upbringings in London as the youngest children of their families, but their creative connection was also immediately obvious. "You’ll meet 100 people in a day, and maybe just one or two will spark off a different kind of reaction in yourself and you’ll resonate with them on a different level. With Chas it was that scenario. From there the creativity just flows."

The name they have given themselves, Nothing Lost, comes from the idea that no energy is ever lost in the world.

"The energy that was there at the start of the universe is the same energy that is going around now. I saw we’re putting energy into the universe with our work," Junior says, adding: "Everyone’s a creative in a certain way. You’ve just got to be bold enough to follow that path."

3 'Heroes'

Directed by BRBR

"Heroes" is a short film about Jesse Owens, one of the 18 African-American athletes who competed at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Ominous black-and-white shots follow Owens as he arrives in Germany and faces an onslaught of racist abuse from passers-by. But when he enters the stadium, it is revealed that the poisonous dialogue of the characters is lifted directly from present-day tweets – exposing continued intolerance in modern society.

Spanish directing collective BRBR (Luis Rojo, Michal Babinec, Clara Alonso, Nacho A Villar and David Rancel) explain their motivations behind the film: "The main character playing Jesse Owens is a friend of ours; he’s not an actor. He is a fashion model who is active in Spain in the queer and racial equality movements. He has suffered a lot of racist situations that are still happening today. We didn’t have to explain to him how to react in this film because he was actually feeling it.

"For this piece, we wanted him to be weak and for the audience to empathise with him, but to also be strong and be the hero of the film. We didn’t want him just as a victim but more as a fighter. He is human and shows this bit of fragility. Then there is this little evolution as he enters the stadium and becomes empowered as he gets to the field.

"This kind of racism is still happening. Everybody knows that being racist is bad, but some people are still making these jokes and commentaries. Also on the internet, there is this thing where you sometimes forget you are human and don’t have people in front of you, so you feel more comfortable to make these commentaries and display this behaviour. We want to be part of the change – we believe this film has that power.

"With all of our films, we do a lot of casting from our friends, family and people who are close to us. We just cast people who fit the characters. When you work with non-actors, the most important thing is to make them feel comfortable. We don’t like theatrical acting. That also helps, because the character has to contain the emotions and play them in a subtle way.

"As a collective we’ve been together for about four years and are split between Madrid and London. We try to bring to screen what we’re going through and what our friends are facing. We feel empowered when we are together and don’t feel this typical loneliness of the creator."

4 '__/__/__' ('Places')

Directed by Claudia Barral

Spanish filmmaker Claudia Barral discusses "__/__/__", her experimental short film that explores the relationship between time and space. Barral was inspired by Richard McGuire’s comic strip turned graphic novel Here, which tells the story of one corner of a room and its inhabitants over time. 

What kind of story were you trying to tell with this film?

Nostalgia is an emotion that has always moved me. When I discovered Here last year, everything fell into place. I had just come up with the precise format to describe this universal sensation. I wanted to develop a concept, not a story. Visually it was already powerful and I wanted most of the attention to be focused on this aspect. That is why I worked on the concepts of space and time while letting the images themselves tell their own story.

Why were you compelled to investigate the themes of place and time?

"Place is where the past meets the present": this is the sentence that opens the film and the one that best defines its argument. They are the spaces that enclose history within its walls, where yesterday, today and tomorrow converge. And it’s something that fascinates me; how a place can hold so many lives, how it observes them, and how it prevails.

The project house was a house for rent. We found it empty, with dust and furniture covered by huge sheets. When we visited it for the first time, its owners (two sisters in their sixties) showed us around. As we passed through each of the spaces, they reminisced about the stories from the building itself. They had grown up there with six brothers and were unable to sell it. They held events there, took care of the garden and their grandchildren used the pool in summer. Without knowing it, locating the building was a really inspiring part of the process.

How have the places where you have lived influenced your work?

My roots are in Asturias [in north-west Spain]. I was lucky enough to grow up in a very natural environment and that is something that is now reflected in my work, which is narrative, photographic and musical. Simplicity, humanity in the stories and the purity of the ingredients that surround them, plus the locations and natural light sources, are also influenced by that environment. 

On the other hand, Madrid and Paris are the two cities where I was artistically trained. Before studying film, I did fine arts and that has determined my style towards much more plastic and aesthetic worlds in the cinematographic field.

What was it like to grow up in an artistic family, with a grandfather who was a painter and a father who was a poet? Did it influence your approach as a filmmaker?

Absolutely. I grew up surrounded by art. My grandfather, besides painting, had a bakery. He was (and still is) an absolute magician of chocolate. He built huge impossible buildings, from Oviedo Cathedral to the Eiffel Tower, all in chocolate. They were displayed in shop windows and are in some way etched in my retinas.

Some years later, I began to make collages with my father. We took spare copies of painted postcards that he had made as a young man and painted over them, we looked for cuts in magazines and we mixed everything to give them a new life.

On a metaphorical level, my father is my reference point from afar. I grew up reading his texts and poetry, listening to him speak and admiring him. If I had to find an explanation for why I opted towards art, it would be him, without a doubt.

What factors in your life or environment do you feel are most essential to foster creativity?

Curiosity is one of the most important properties in a creator: the interest to go out and discover new things every day, whether it be work, people or spaces. In my case these types of stimuli are essential, so that the mind works and does not stop discovering and imagining any day of the year. The root of "__ / __ / __", for example, was a self-publishing fair that I visited a couple of years ago with a friend. Among lots of scrapbooks and photo books, I discovered Here. I was fascinated so I bought it and flipped through the pages hundreds of times… and today we are here.

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