By Emily Pearce
For Inland 360
The Webby Awards honor international excellence on the internet. When this year’s 24th annual awards were announced, the winners included well-known names like Jimmy Fallon, Greta Thunberg and NASA. It also included the little-known Seattle-based media studio CaravanLab, co-founded by Moscow native Jennifer Moslemi, who took the online stage and accepted the award with five words, “Nature is waking up. Listen.”
Winning a recognized award is exciting, said Moslemi, whose team won the Webby Award for Science for “Lost Cities: The Hidden World of Corals,” an interactive documentary.
“Lost Cities” is a 2019 film about coral reefs and ocean marine life. The film pushes the boundaries of a traditional nature documentary by incorporating engaging elements like interactive audience features and a nonlinear narrative voiced by Ruth Gates, a late professor at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology in Kane’ohe on the island of Oʻahu. She was a leader in her field.
“One asset we had was Dr. Ruth Gates. She has a compelling voice. It’s a warm, precise narrative. She takes you by the hand and she leads you through this amazing visual, and these stunning visuals of these coral reefs,” Moslemi said.
The film creates a participatory experience that takes people to an alternate reality, which was “Lost Cities” ultimate goal.
Moslemi grew up in Moscow, graduating from Moscow High School in 1996. Her father was a professor at the University of Idaho, and her mother was an account manager at Gritman Medical Center. She always felt connected to the city. My roots are there, Moslemi said.
During undergraduate studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, she became interested in science and biology. She worked with a professor researching penguins and cemented her love for ecology and the natural world.
In graduate school, Moslemi studied ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University in New York and noticed a disconnect between academics and the rest of the world. She wanted to become a part of the movement of doing a better job translating science for the public. Moslemi co-founded CaravanLab after she graduated and began delving into telling stories about the natural world. Moscow’s creativity and curiosity stuck with her and influenced her projects.
“I think about my time growing up in Moscow, I felt surrounded by a lot of creative and interesting people that were curious about the world around them and were smart. We weren’t in a big city, and people got creative about coming up with ways to entertain themselves.” Moslemi said.
A goal of “Lost Cities” was to make science more relevant to people who don’t think about science every day.
“There’s a whole group of people who are not going to be interested, but they may be curious about something like this interactive experience that has an immersive feel to it.”
Film narrator Gates was featured in the 2017 Netflix documentary, “Chasing Coral.” Inspired by that film, Moslemi sat down with Gates and dreamed up the idea for “Lost Cities.”
In the middle of the project, Gates was diagnosed with brain cancer and died while the film was still being made. She was an amazing communicator of science and a visionary scientist, Moslemi said. The film is dedicated to Gates, her work and the people she touched.
Gates’ health proved to be a challenge in making the documentary. They needed to be careful about her time, and that is one reason she doesn’t appear much in the documentary.
Winning a Webby was exciting, Moslemi said. Normally there is a big event in which all the winners give a five-word acceptance speech. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s event took place online. Winners prerecorded acceptance speeches.
“Lost Cities” also won the new visions category at the International Wildlife Film Festival based in Missoula, Mont. Judges of Webby Awards and the International Wildlife Film Festival noted the documentary’s approach was a new and an interesting way to engage audiences.
Big establishments like NASA and National Geographic also were in the running for Webby Awards this year. CaravanLab’s team was surprised to win. They felt “Lost Cities” was different from other projects because it brought the experience of watching a passive nature film to life. Usually, in a documentary, you sit and absorb the messages. When taking a passive experience and making it into an active one, people can be participants, Moslemi said.
“You need to dive into this different world, and you make your way through it,” Moslemi said. “You decide how deep you want to go into the content. And so it’s a new and unusual way of moving to a story. It’s nonlinear, you can enter the stories in any way.”
Coral reefs are vital to the planet, Moslemi said. We call them an important ecosystem for many different reasons but, because they’re largely out of sight for most of us, they can easily be forgotten.
Human lives are intertwined with coral. Food corals create an enormous nursery for fish that we rely upon for food. There are also a surprising amount of medicines that come out of coral reefs. It’s widely believed discoveries like medications for cancer could be found in coral reefs, Moslemi said. Coral provides coastal protection and protects people who live near the ocean from storms and floods that would decimate the communities without them.
Scientists are predicting a dire future for coral reefs if the climate continues to warm at its current rate. When water is too warm, coral colonies expel algae in a process called coral bleaching. Algae gives coral its color and is crucial to its health. As the climate continues to warm, it will reach a certain point where they won’t be able to thrive in those conditions.
“It’s an all-hands-on-deck feeling now among the science community and others who understand the threat that corals are under,” Moslemi said.
CaravanLab also is working on projects with the Nature Conservancy to help keep Puget Sound clean, she said.
The next step for CaravanLab is taking its storytelling technique to another level. The staff would like to take their framework to large cities and make it available to classrooms and other spaces like airports and shopping malls, she said.
“Lost Cities” can be viewed free online at lostcities.org.