A documentary about emoji all but demands a (heart-eyed emoji) reaction. First created by Shigetaka Kurita in 1999, emoji have slowly infiltrated our modes of communications. Hearts, winky faces, eggplants and even a smiling poop are now part of our everyday conversations — on Twitter, on WhatsApp, our text messages, and every other app that has a keyboard. Their ubiquity owes a lot to the Unicode Consortium. This nonprofit organization is the one responsible for keeping up the standards for encoding typed characters: they’re the reason why, if you send your friend a ? emoji from your iPhone, they’ll be able to see it (albeit with a slightly different design) on an Android or even on their computer. Unicode is, in a way, the gatekeeper for the current collection of emoji on your keyboard. They’re the ones who decide what new emoji get added annually. And this year, Martha Shane and Ian Cheney‘s documentary Picture Character, which is all about those titular images, shows viewers what it takes to get your idea for a new emoji to become a reality.
In between fascinating interviews with linguists, designers, emoji activists (yes, it’s a thing!) and Unicode board members, Picture Character follows the attempts to get three new emoji accepted, including the successful bid from a group of Argentines to get their beloved mate their very own place in everyone’s keyboards around the world. As Flor Coelho explains in the film, the caffeine-rich yerba mate drink is such a staple in her country that not a day went by when she and her friends would wish they could just text a “mate emoji” to one another. And so, as anyone in the world can do, she set about submitting an official proposal where she had to outline the need, the uses, and the value in adding the drink to the existing emoji roster.
Coelho’s roller coaster of an experience — from designing the emoji and giving a presentation in Silicon Valley to worrying about internet commenters who suggest users would just use the mate emoji as a substitute for a bong and eventually screaming in celebration when she found out her proposal had been approved — is one of the many joys in Shane and Cheney’s documentary. Moreover, just as the journey of the young girl who pushed for a Hijab emoji and the advocacy group who lobbied for a Period emoji, Coelho’s story opens up questions about the universalizing potential of these small pictorial representations: the language we use not only reflects but helps shape the world we live in. At heart of the doc is an examination of the value of seeing one’s identity and culture represented in this still-growing new language. In a global community that can now freely connect despite linguistic differences via emoji, it matters that young Muslim girls can have faithful avatars to use and that Argentines can now accurately point to their favorite drink.
Or, will be able to, as the mate emoji is still slowly being rolled out across platforms this year.
Picture Character screened as part of 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.