Midcoast Maine filmmaker Ian Cheney was last featured in this column for his documentary about a deceptively empty plot of land, “Thirteen Ways.” There, Cheney simply took a dozen people out to a field in Maine and let them – all with their unique viewpoints and areas of expertise – define something that, to the glance of anyone driving by an unremarkable field in Waterboro, hardly seemed worthy of the effort. 

Some great documentaries are like that. Sure, if you’re telling the true story of an elfin French guy walking a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center (2008’s “Man on Wire”), or staging a series of illuminating and incriminating confessionals for perpetrators of ethnic genocide (2012’s “The Act of Killing”), then you’ve got a movie there. But some of my favorite nonfiction films find a way to make the mundane fascinating. Errol Morris’ 1978 film “Gates of Heaven” delves into the everyday realities of the people running a California pet cemetery so nimbly that what emerges is as insightful and touching a portrait of America as I’ve ever seen. So why not a field in Maine? 

Or an emoji?

Those ubiquitous, irritating-to-some little pictograms littering your smartphone are, indeed, the subject of “The Emoji Story,” the 2019 documentary from co-directors Ian Cheney and Martha Shane, currently streaming through PMA Films. And, to be honest, it’s hard to imagine anything I found more inessential than emoji going in. Sure, they’re handy shorthand if you want to send a quick “I love you” (red heart) or tell someone why you’re not going out tonight. (Tired face + baby + vomiting face should get the point across). 

But a whole, 79-minute movie? I mean, at least a Maine meadow has bugs and stuff. Still, good documentarians dig into their subject, and you don’t have to dig too deeply into the proliferating use of emoji (or “emojis”– nobody’s settled on the plural definitively as yet) to see that there’s more to these little iPhone doodles than your grumpiest instincts tell you. 

“The Emoji Story,” already feted at the Tribeca Film Festival and HotDocs, is framed by three stories of people or individuals attempting to pitch a new emoji to the Unicode Consortium, which is a real Silicon Valley organization tasked with, among other things, approving some 60 new emoji each year. (You, too, can submit your pitch in a handy online form.) Big deal, right? Well, as Cheney and Shane show, it sort of is. 

The family of the creator of the hijab emoji, Rayouf Alhumedhi, holds a celebration for the emoji’s arrival on the iPhone in fall 2017. Photo by Lucy Martens

A 15-year-old Muslim girl in Germany, wondering why there are currently four different mailbox emoji designs but none depicting a woman in a hijab, is shown practicing her proposal to her supportive family. A girls’ rights organization in Britain juggles a screenful of carefully crafted proposed emoji to describe menstruation. And a pair of enthusiastic Argentinian women team up over endless cups of maté to rectify the lack of an internationally recognized emoji for their country’s national tea drink. For each, the battle for representation is a genuine and serious one, a position the filmmakers honor with a briskly witty examination of what has become, like it or grumpily not, a worldwide evolution of human communication. 

How we speak defines our world. As one linguist explains, the average vocabulary consists of anywhere from 50,000-100,000 words, while the officially sanctioned emoji vocab sits at just over 1,000. Yet, as the half-beleaguered, half-bemused officials of the Unicode Consortium concede, those thousand or so hieroglyphs have become, in the ever-tapping thumbs of smartphone users the globe ‘round, increasingly complex in practice. (And, yes, they cover the eggplant.) And as emoji are used more and more, more people discover what world cultures have always known – the gatekeepers of language have blind spots, agendas and arbitrary rules that impact how we relate to each other in often insidious ways. 

Emoji were invented in 1997 by Shigetaka Kurita, a whimsical idea that the creator hoped “would make people happy” and help people who spoke different languages “understand each other better.” To his original 176 low-res images, more were added, although, as one emoji activist points out, until 2016, the only images available for women were of a princess, bride, dancer or playboy bunny. So that’s a problem. All human figures were a cartoonish, Simpsons-yellow Caucasian until 2015, when a motivated Black woman in Texas had no answer to her daughter’s question of why there were no emoji that looked like her. Along the way, we see some new emoji accepted (Maine’s own Senator Angus King is seen pitching for the eventual 2018 addition of the lobster), while some get a pass. (Sorry, triceratops fans.) 

Now, the Unicode Consortium (which sounds more sinister the more you write it) fields hundreds if not thousands of requests a year. Apart from a few blanket rules (no deities, celebrities or brands), users’ options are decided in no-cameras-allowed SCOTUS-like secret meetings, which the filmmakers dutifully skip, waiting out the results along with their hopeful subjects. In the end, most are happy, mostly. But the creation and evolution of an entire, pictogram-based offshoot of human communication right under our thumbs is certainly much more interesting than it might appear. Especially in the hands of a pair of documentarians who recognize that the best stories are sometimes made from the least likely pieces. 

“The Emoji Story” is playing at PMA Films socially distanced “virtual video store.” You can find out more on your phone. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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