3.5 stars

Picture Character (2020)

Documentary Feature
Directors: Ian Cheney, Martha Shane
Producers: Ian Cheney, Martha Shane, Jennifer 8. Lee
Executive Producers: Fred Benenson, Peter Friedland
Cast: Rayouf Alhumedhi, Florencia Coelho, Daniela Guini, Carmen Barlow, Francis Mason

Premise: “Picture Character” explores the complex, conflict-prone, and often hilarious world of the creators, lovers, and arbiters of emoji, our world’s newest pictorial language. How do you create a global language on the fly? This film charts the evolution of emojis, and investigates what they may reveal about our increasingly technological world.

It’s hard to imagine modern daily conversations without the ever-present emoji. What emerged after the technological takeover of smartphones as a way to express a wide variety of emotions in a simplistic manner quickly spread outside our phones and became inescapable. Socks, pillows, Happy Meal toys, and bumper stickers are only a sliver of the countless products available that have cashed in on the emoji craze in recent years, with no end in sight. Emojis have largely been viewed as a force for good in the world (we can now order pizza with one simple pizza emoji sent via text message). The “face with tears of joy” emoji was named as Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2015. They’ve even withstood the release of The Emoji Movie in 2017.

Picture Character (which is what “emoji” translates to from Japanese) serves to explore the history of the texting tool, as well as an inside look at the process to create new emojis. The documentary follows a handful of people and teams all around the world as they seek to make the case for the symbols they believe in. These moments are the most impactful of the film because they offer the most personal stories. They have emotional stakes, and we’re invested in each person’s successes and failures. One segment follows a high school-aged Muslim girl in Berlin, who wants to see a “woman in a hijab” emoji. One takes place in Argentina, as a designer seeks to create a mate emoji. One advocacy group in London aims to create a symbol for women’s menstruation.

At first glance, some of the pitches may seem silly or self-indulgent. Why does the world need a mate emoji to have at the ready on their mobile keyboards? But their creators’ pitches are convincing in their sincerity. It becomes easier to understand when we begin to think of emoji not only as a way of communicating a feeling or object in a condensed manner, but also as a method of progressive inclusion. “We have four different mailbox emojis, but none of people wearing hijabs”, the high-schooler rightfully posits. You may only use a handful of emojis in your daily life, but imagine how impactful it can be to any subset of culture to see themselves represented and recognized on a global scale. Mate may just be seen as a common drink around the world, but in Argentina, it’s a social cue, a way to bring people together, akin to tea in Britain or coffee in America.

In-between these segments, Picture Character explores the history of emojis, and the conversation around their cultural impact today. The documentary goes so far as to interview Shigetaka Kurita, who is credited as designing the first emojis in 1997, to receive his thoughts on the current state of his creation. You may scoff at the idea of “emoji experts”, or people studying emoji as a new emerging language, but the film’s talking heads make a convincing argument by using historical references, including examples from ancient Chinese characters and the Book of Kells. Indeed, Picture Character may be considered a triggering event for the older generation, as one segment explores an emoji exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Perhaps the most enlightening moments come from interviews done with members of Unicode, the team that is the deciding body which decides the fate of every emoji proposal. Each member has their own views on the positives and negatives of the omniscience of emoji, and the belief that they’ll eventually replace written language, along with their role in facilitating that outcome.

Picture Character works best when it focuses more on the people, and slightly less so when serving as a conversation piece on an emerging language. Still, the information given is well thought out and comes from educated sources. Perhaps it’s exaggerating to argue whether emojis will replace common languages entirely. I’m sure the majority of people use emojis simply as an enjoyable shorthand for people, places, or things, rather than a means to communicate thoughts or feelings. Just like emojis themselves, Picture Character is a light, breezy film that has more beneath its shiny, colorful surface. [Smiley face].

Picture Character is screening virtually at the 29th Heartland Film Festival from Oct. 8-18.

Ben headshotAbout the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography ( and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.


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