THE BLOG

'Shaikh,' Shortreals and the New Media

08/02/2013 01:20 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2013

One week ago, NewYorker.com posted a short documentary called "The Brothers Shaikh." I produced and reported "Shaikh," and two very capable filmmakers, Kannan Arunasalam and Ed Perkins, directed it. The documentary is about a man, Nasser Shaikh, who travels from his home, in Manchester, England, to the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka to find the hotel where his brother, Khuram Shaikh, was murdered and his brother's girlfriend, Victoria Tkacheva, was gang-raped. It is meant to leave viewers with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness because that is what it is like for people seeking justice in Sri Lanka's criminal-justice system. Like the parliament and the media, the courts in Sri Lanka are an extension of executive power, an organ of the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sampath Pushpa Vidanapathirana, the suspected ringleader of the pack of eight men who attacked Khuram and Victoria, is a local political fixture, and he is close to Rajapaksa. It was not surprising that, several months after the suspects were arrested, they were quietly set free on bail.

What is surprising is that, four days after "The Brothers Shaikh" went live, the government, which had been stonewalling for a year-and-a-half, suddenly announced it would indict Vidanapthirana and his fellow suspects. The indictment has yet to materialize, and there is no guarantee that a real trial will take place, but this is progress. This is evidence that an authoritarian regime can be moved to act.

It is also evidence of the power of the "shortreal." A shortreal is what we call the mini-movies that we make at Stateless Media, which I recently launched. To state the obvious, these movies are short and real -- under 15 minutes and 100 percent true. They are news features with a cinematic gloss, powerful windows into the lives and stories of fascinating people across the globe. We are now producing two more shortreals, in New York and Berlin, and we will soon start production of five more, in the United States, southeast Asia and the Middle East. There is nowhere we won't go.

There is a simple reason for that: Shortreals are not imposed from on high. They are generated by the interests, fears, longings and aspirations of the people who watch them. The stories we tell are the stories that people want told. You might call this shortreal-generation via crowdsourcing. Our storytellers -- reporters, filmmakers, editors -- are not based in bureaus or offices. They live in apartments and airplanes and work very late at night, and they usually keep their laptops and external hard drives in their backpacks. When we say our media is stateless, we are referring to something that is not political or geopolitical so much as psychological. This is how we look at the world, the media, the news. News should not come from a handful of journalists who supposedly know what you need to know; it should percolate up through email and social-media channels into tablets and handheld devices and into the public discourse. That is a discourse that cannot be controlled by anyone. It simply is.

The story of Khuram Shaikh and his brother, Nasser, who has battled for so long to see that Khuram's death does not go unpunished, is a story that people in Sri Lanka have been talking about for a long time. It is a story that needs to be told to as many people as possible, starting with the 2 million-plus tourists expected to visit Sri Lanka next year.

It is also a template for future Stateless Media shortreals, which will be filled with complicated characters, plots, subplots, intrigue, uncertainty and emotion. Shortreals will not be hatched in editorial meetings or spun through the lens of a media complex. They will not toe any lines or be born of any agendas. They will be raw and, at times, jarring. They will disturb. And they will seek, always, to do what "The Brothers Shaikh" has done -- to move seemingly immoveable forces, and to generate a bigger, more robust and long overdue conversation.

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