In conversation with: Michelle Mizner

“There was a lot of thought put into why this piece should be presented as an interactive, rather than a traditional film.”

What is it like to grow up in a country that is disappearing because of climate change? This question lies at the heart of The Last Generation, awarded World Press Photo Interactive of the Year in the 2019 Digital Storytelling Contest. Through intimate moments and compelling stories, the film’s young protagonists draw us into the importance and urgency of what is at stake. Michelle Mizner, co-writer/producer of the story, takes us behind the scenes of the project.

FRONTLINE was approached by The GroundTruth Project to partner on a project about how climate change was impacting women and children. My reporting partner, Katie Worth, and I were assigned and began researching possible story and filming locations. Among them was the Marshall Islands, a low-lying nation threatened by sea level rise. Initially, we were considering telling a story about a mother and her children. But one day during our research, we saw a photo caption that briefly mentioned, ‘Kids in the Marshall Islands can tell you all about climate change.’ It occurred to us that maybe we should actually just talk to the kids and hear what they have to say. Sure enough, their stories were extremely compelling, and we are really grateful that they shared them with us,” explains Mizner.

Still from The Last Generation by FRONTLINE, The GroundTruth Project

The narrative of ‘The Last Generation’ is built around three different children they met while reporting: 9-year-old Izerman, 14-year-old Julia and 12-year-old Wilmer.

Izerman impressed us with his ability to speak to the nuanced and complicated relationship humans have with their environment, and could articulate quite a lot about how climate change was impacting his home. In the narrative, he represented the ‘present’. The ‘past’ was illuminated by Julia, a descendant of Bikini Islanders, who were displaced by the U.S. in 1946 in order to use the land to test over 50 atomic bombs. The island remains uninhabitable to this day. Julia and her community now face being displaced yet again by rising seas. Finally, Wilmer – who emphasizes his interest in staying in his home country, and even aspires to be president of the Marshall Islands someday - represented the ‘future’.

The result is a cinematic, seamlessly interactive story that brings audiences into the lives of three children who face losing not just their homes but their entire nation to rising seas.

There was a lot of thought put into why this piece should be presented as an interactive, rather than a traditional film. Climate change is a challenging subject matter to engage with – it’s both scientifically complex and can be existentially overwhelming to many. One of the guiding theories was that involving the audience in this active way might keep them focused and engaged with material that can often be easy for people to turn away from. When you are in the driver’s seat as a viewer, the action of advancing keeps you involved in the story. Some people say it may also help you think about your role within it. It also allows for the user to choose their own pace for moving through the experience and engage with materials at a depth that feels meaningful to them.

Still from The Last Generation by FRONTLINE, The GroundTruth Project

The interactive approach was chosen to complement the voices of the children, and making the climate change topic accessible and meaningful to audiences, without diluting it or oversimplifying it.

Our team spoke with many scientists and researchers along the way to better understand and communicate the impacts of real-life decisions, like the Paris Agreement, on the future of the Marshall Islands. We found that if the world’s carbon emissions continue at their current rate, the Marshall Islands would only have about 38 years before major annual flooding could begin to occur. That is of course within the lifetime of the children in this story. In the end, one scientist told us the project had achieved ‘what is so hard to do with climate change communications – taking abstract, distant concepts and make them personal, relevant and human.’ That meant a lot to us.

Still from The Last Generation by FRONTLINE, The GroundTruth Project

Since its release in 2018, The Last Generation has received international recognition. The production won a News and Documentary Emmy award in the category of ‘Outstanding New Approaches: Documentary,’ and the inaugural World Press Photo Interactive of the Year award.

Winning the Digital Storytelling Contest expanded the reach of the story in a significant way. The project was exhibited in Amsterdam, and then travelled around the globe with the touring exhibition. It created another opportunity for audiences to encounter Izerman, Julia and Wilmer’s stories, and learn about the plight of their country.

Mizner’s team is now working on a new multi-platform investigation about a group of cold cases from the civil rights era in the United States, which will include an interactive experience and installation. “Like ‘The Last Generation,’ this story will illuminate and weave in elements of the past as a way of contextualizing the present,” explains Michelle.

Entries for the Digital Storytelling Contest are open until 14 January 2020. It is free to enter and open to all digital storytellers and visual journalists around the world. To highlight diverse visual stories, the Digital Storytelling Contest awards productions in three categories: Interactive, Long, Short. The winners of the headline prizes ‘World Press Photo Interactive of the Year’ and ‘World Press Photo Online Video of the Year’ both receive a cash prize of €10,000 euros.

Mizner talks about winning the award: “This recognition from World Press Photo was very meaningful to our team and was a first for FRONTLINE PBS. We are a relatively small shop, and innovation is inherently risky and takes time. We are so grateful to have had the latitude and support from our editors to try something new, and happy it paid off in this way.

She encourages visual journalists and digital storytellers to enter the 2020 Digital Storytelling Contest: “Apart from expanding the reach of the story, attending the World Press Photo Festival is an opportunity to connect with an international community of talented visual journalists. The work is of course first class, and the panels and discussions provide space to learn from peers and interrogate our own processes as individual creators and as an industry.”

Enter now and find out more about contest categories, prizes, and dates