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(The 2019 Tribeca Film Festival ran April 24-May 5 in New York City. HtN has writers Matt Delman, Chris Reed and Mike S. Ryan at the fest to get ready for our always deep coverage! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

If it sometimes seems like there are emojis for everything, know that there are not. Until recently, there was no symbol for a hijab, nor one for a drop of blood or a drink of mate, though for some reason mermaids, mermen and genies are available, as are water drops (and a single water drop, too) and a glass of milk. Who decides what enters the visual lexicon of our day? Why, the Unicode Consortium, that’s who! Made up mostly of representatives from Silicon Valley tech companies, the group votes on new designs, submitted from around the world, approving 60 a year. Want to submit your own? Just check out the proposal guidelines.

Directors Ian Cheney (The Search for General Tso) and Martha Shane (After Tiller), in their new documentary Picture Character, take us through first the history and then the current approval process, interviewing experts and aspirants along the way. First designed for Japanese cell phones in 1997 by Shigetaka Kurita (emoji means “picture character in Japanese), the little ideograms proved popular even in their original 12×12 pixel format, and gradually currency around the world. Imagine texting without them now (and if you can, then perhaps you won’t this movie as interesting as I did). One day something new will surely come along – perhaps pure telepathy – but for now they form part of the 21st-century’s lingua franca.

Indeed, Cheney and Shane talk to linguists like Michael Everson, Susan Herring and Tyler Schnoebelin to probe just how much of a new language – like modern-day hieroglyphics – emoji might represent. Opinions in the film diverge, with some touting a glorious new international form of communication, others dismissing emoji as silly and inconsequential, and still others in between. And yet we all text on, using emoji for complete sentences or merely as punctuation or evocative illustrations. At the very least, they’re fun, and where’s the harm in that?

But are they inclusive of all points of view, cultures, races, genders, ethnicities and more? Not really, though recent efforts have improved the collection, with Katrina Parrot leading the way with her iDiversicons initiative that resulted in the recently adopted multiple skin-tone options for all human-based emoji. Cheney and Shane also follow the efforts of a variety of people and groups pushing new characters, such as the hijab, mate and drop of blood I mentioned, above. It all makes for fascinating viewing, perfect for watching on either ? or ?, or maybe even ??…

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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