“The main idea is to make the viewer feel that he’s involved, that he’s engaged with the drama that is being unveiled.” – Zygar
1968.Digital is the world’s first smartphone-only documentary show brought to you by Future History Lab (FH). FH believes that history matters because it defines the way we live and think and because historical knowledge gives us the power to improve our world today. That’s why they’re bringing historical storytelling into the modern age through new narrative formats. Their mission is to change the future by bringing the past closer to the present.
“With the help of this new cinema language, we tried to reduce the distance between spectators and characters who lived half a century ago.” – Zygar
In 2018 they did a documentary series called 1968.digital that lets you witness one of the wildest years in history the way you witness the news now – through an array of social media platforms. A new episode was posted every week.
“I always wanted not just to bring the audience back to history but to take the historical figures and bring them to the present — to make them alive so they could be really communicating with us.” – Zygar
There are 40 eight-minute-long episodes that appear in English, French and Russian throughout the course of 2018. They have been released on the project’s web-site, as well as in Apple News and BuzzFeed. In Russia they can also be viewed through the local Netflix-like service, Amediateka.
“We wanted to make a truly international project in several languages to show that people in 1968 in different countries had the same difficulties, made the same mistakes, or on the contrary, achieved beautiful things.” – Shainyan.
Mikhail Zygar and Karen Shainyan presenting 1968.Digital in Cannes on May 10, 2018:
“The year is 1968. Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes his new novel in iPhone Notes; the Beatles chat with each other on WhatsApp; Andy Warhol posts photos from his exhibitions on Instagram.”
“In the first episode, the popular American singer Eartha Kitt dares to criticize the U.S. president and his wife, and has to leave the country because of ensuing harassment. In the second episode, the confrontation between the USSR and the U.S. in outer space turns into tragedy. The third episode is dedicated to the murder of American civil rights activist Martin Luther King.”
The experience of watching this show is as fast-moving and immersive as your daily social media activity. It is presented in a vertical format so even though you can see it from a desktop screen or whatnot, it is intended to be viewed from a phone held vertically.
“We wanted to make it specifically to watch on a phone screen — not a desktop or TV. We’re following the characters through the lenses of their smartphones.” – Zygar
“The bulk of contemporary life takes place in virtual reality – there is a huge world behind the screens of mobile phones.” – Shainyan
Karen Shainyan, one of the show’s creators, together with another famous Russian journalist, Mikhail Zygar, and the famous filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, decided to use this method of storytelling to show the life of real historical personalities through the screens of their would-be smartphones. It’s like as if things like messengers, social networks, YouTube videos and Google Maps existed in 1968. Mikhail Zygar, the man behind the idea for the show explains why they chose that year:
“1968 is the most important year of the 20th century, which made the world the way we now know it. In 1968 the Internet was invented, and the sexual revolution, the revolution in music and fashion finally took form. In the USSR, the dissident movement was born, the human rights activism of Andrei Sakharov, the harassment of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, started. After the Prague Spring, the authority in the international arena that the USSR had previously was lost.”
“Even though a lot of things are political, the most important things about 1968 were cultural — particularly the idea of human rights, which became a mainstream concept as a result of that year. It was also the most important year of the sexual revolution, of second-wave feminism and women’s rights.”
Each episode tells the story of one key hero or event in 1968 that influenced the life and values of people around the world to the present day. Some of the characters include famous personalities such as John Lennon, Mohammed Ali, Janis Joplin, William Burroughs, Hunter Thompson, Yves Saint Laurent and many others. It also draws parallels between the events in the Soviet Union, the U.S., Europe, Asia and Latin America revealing how on it was a revolutionary year worldwide.
“Western Europeans remember 1968 as eventful for France, because of its student uprising. In Eastern Europe, most people would say the year was about the Prague Spring. In Russia, it was the year of the Soviet dissident movement. It was also the last year that the USSR was ideologically powerful, because after the Prague Spring, it lost popularity among European cultural elites. In China, 1968 is remembered as the peak of the Cultural Revolution.” – Zygar
The first project Zygar did that combined social media and history was the website Project1917. It was launched in November 2016 to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Zygar elaborates on his inspiration for this project to Ted:
“I’d started reading the diaries of people who lived 100 years ago. As a journalist, I wanted to get acquainted with them, so I was ‘interviewing’ them via their diaries, their memoirs. They sounded like they were written today, and they would be totally understandable for today’s audience — because all their problems are today’s problems. I decided to transform that information into a social media format.”
He had been going through hundreds of primary historical sources that he found while researching his book The Empire Must Die: Russia’s Revolutionary Collapse 1900–1917. He took all his research and with the help of 20 editors, Zygar took more than 3,000 archival documents and turned them into a daily Facebook feed that unfolded over an entire year.
“The idea was to show any user on any single day of 2017 what was happening exactly 100 years before. So if the date was April 11, 2017, you’d see a Facebook feed for 11 April 1917, with quotes from various characters…Besides sharing history in an engaging format, we wanted to show that the Revolution was not made up of unknown, nameless and faceless Reds against Whites. They were real, ordinary people like us, who used the same language and who were trying to solve the problems of democracy or dictatorship. It’s as though they were discussing their problems next door, and we were there with them.” – Zygar
This Project1917 is what inspired 1968.Digital. After it was done he wanted to do another project like it but one with a topic of broader interest. Zygar says:
“It was very important for me to address a more universal subject next. While 1917 was an important era to cover for Russia, it was mostly of interest to Russian audiences. We wanted to use the abilities and techniques we’d developed to make an even more ambitious art project, covering a more globally relevant history.”
According to Zygar, people should care about 1968 today because it was a moment of political and cultural upheaval that gave us the world as we now know it.
“History is just a rehearsal of what’s happening now.” – Zygar
So if we take some time to reflect on 1968 and how far we’ve come since then (or not) we can get some long-term perspective on where we are now, and how we might proceed into the future.
“If we take history as a pretext, we can think more clearly about possible future scenarios. If we see we still have similar problems as we did 50 years ago, we must learn from the successes and failures of our predecessors.” – Zygar
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