SHORT DOCUMENTARIES

From 2011 to 2020, Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg created and oversaw The Atlantic magazine’s award-winning production division, Atlantic Studios. The work below represents a small selection of the hundreds of original projects she executive produced.

For the feature film, see White Noise. 

THE SEPARATED

On June 13, 2018, Honduran asylum-seeker Anita and her five-year-old son, Jenri, were forcibly separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. Thanks to a pro bono lawyer, Jodi Goodwin, who aggressively advocates for their release from their respective ICE detention centers, Anita and Jenri are reunited after a month apart. But the damage has been done. The Separated, a documentary from The Atlantic, is an intimate window into the chaos and trauma caused by the separation. "You don't love me anymore,” Jenri says to Anita after they arrive at a temporary shelter. “You're not my mom anymore."

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SXSW premiere 2019 

Murrow Award for Excellence in Video 2019

National Magazine Award Finalist in Video 2019

International Documentary Awards Shortlist 2019

Featured on This American Life

Featured on HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

ANGOLA FOR LIFE

There are more than 6,000 men currently imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola—three-quarters of them are there for life, and nearly 80 percent are African American. It's the end of the line for many convicted criminals in Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the U.S. In this Atlantic original documentary, national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg goes inside Angola to speak with inmates and with warden Burl Cain, who has managed the prison for two decades. Cain and his colleagues grapple with the crucial question: What does rehabilitation look like when you're locked away for life?

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Webby Award Finalist for Best Documentary 2016

WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO UNDOCUMENTED DOCTORS?

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is an Obama-era policy that granted a work permit and temporary protection from deportation to children that came to the U.S. with unregistered parents. Now, the fate of more than 750,000 people is unclear. Donald Trump said he would repeal the policy during his campaign. He later promised something “that’s going to make people happy and proud.” DACA recipients are now pursuing advanced degrees and full-fledged careers. Sixty-five are in medical school in the United States, and approximately half of them are enrolled in the Loyola-Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago. The Atlantic spoke with these medical students and residents about the anxiety surrounding the future. “I think about it for about five seconds, I find it a little unbearable to think about, and then I forget about it because it just doesn’t fit in my brain,” says Marina DiBartolo, a medical resident at the University of Pennsylvania. “Right now, there’s no path to legalization.”

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RTDNA Kaleidoscope Award 2018

National Magazine Award Finalist in Video 2018

THE CONTRACT BUYERS LEAGUE

When Clyde Ross, Mattie Lewis, and Ethel Weatherspoon settled in the West-side neighborhood of North Lawndale, they hoped to achieve the American dream of owning a home. At the time, however, federal policies known as redlining prevented blacks from getting real mortgages, forcing them to buy from real-estate speculators "on contract." The contracts, homeowners soon discovered, turned out to be a scam. In this short documentary, Ross, Lewis, Weatherspoon, and a community organizer named Jack Macnamara recount the story of how they formed the Contract Buyers League and fought back.

Read "The Case for Reparations"

National Magazine Award Finalist in Video 2015

THE GUARDIAN OF NORTH LAWNDALE

In a Chicago neighborhood where 43 percent of residents live below the poverty line, Billy Lamar Brooks Sr. is trying to help kids build a future. Brooks grew up in North Lawndale and has spent his adult life working as an activist and educator in the community. In this short documentary, Brooks reflects on his philosophy of supporting young people through tough love.

Read "The Case for Reparations"

National Magazine Award Finalist in Video 2015


THE NO-MAN'S LAND BENEATH THE BORDER WALL

There's a small stretch of soil north of the Rio Grande river that's still part of the United States, but exists below the Mexican border wall. The Atlantic went inside this no-man’s-land to uncover what life is like in a place that feels like not-quite America, but not-quite Mexico.

Murrow Award for Feature Reporting 2017

National Headliner Award 2017

KEVIN'S HOUSE

Kevin Simmers is a former police sergeant in Hagerstown, Maryland. During his tenure as a narcotics officer, he aggressively pursued drug arrests—especially those related to heroin. “I believed my entire life that incarceration was the answer to this drug war,” Simmers says in a documentary from The Atlantic. Then his 18-year-old daughter, Brooke, became addicted to opioids. In the short film, Simmers shares the personal tragedy that led to a radical transformation in his ideology. “I did everything wrong here,” he admits. “I now think the whole drug war is total bullshit.”

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National Headliner Award 2019  

I CAN'T STAY HOME

Billy Yulfo has worked at Zabar’s, a gourmet grocery store in Manhattan, for 17 years. He worked his way up from cashier to assistant manager. When the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City, he had to grapple with a new identity: that of an essential worker.

“I can’t stay at home, because I have two kids,” Yulfo says. “I won’t get paid if I don’t work, so I have to work. I have to put my health at risk every day out of necessity.” In a documentary from The Atlantic, Yulfo invites us into his daily life at Zabar’s—a changed universe characterized by constant anxiety. “You can’t go anywhere and not think about it,” Yulfo says. “You can’t go to the bathroom and not think about it.”

Yulfo lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his wife and two young children. He worries about taking the virus home; if he falls ill, he will have nowhere to isolate himself. While filming at Zabar’s, several employees told The Atlantic that a fellow grocery-store worker had died from COVID-19. Union Local 338 confirmed that the employee had worked at Zabar’s for 32 years. Zabar’s declined to comment on the death.

THE FIRST LADY OF ISIS

Just a few years ago, Tania Georgelas was living in Syria and married to John Georgelas, who would become the most influential American member of ISIS. Together, they traveled the globe, befriending jihadis and grooming their children to become “assassins.” But after ten years of living on the run, Tania began to fear for her family’s safety. That’s when she says her husband abandoned her "to become the next Osama bin Laden.” In a documentary from The Atlantic, based on original reporting from Graeme Wood, the former extremist details her experience returning to the United States and building a new life in Plano, Texas.


“I told the little ones, ‘Your dad joined the dark side of the force,’” Tania reveals in the film. “I told them, ‘Mommy was part of the dark side of the force, but now I’m a dark Jedi.’"

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HOW BLACK AMERICANS WERE ROBBED OF THEIR LAND

Over the course of the 20th century, black Americans have lost approximately 12 million acres of land. This mass land dispossession—a war waged by deed of title, which has affected 98 percent of black farmers—can only be called theft, says Atlantic writer Vann R. Newkirk II in a documentary.

The Scott family, from Mound Bayou, Mississippi, can trace their land ownership back to 1938, when the family’s agriculturally gifted patriarch began amassing more than 1,000 acres. By the late ‘80s, the Scotts had all but lost their land entirely. What happened in those intervening years is a complex story of systematic discrimination that’s emblematic of the experience of many black families in America.

“If you look at the Scotts, what the land meant to them wasn't just money,” Newkirk says in the film. “It was destiny. It was something to hold onto. It was a purpose and something that held their family together through generations.”

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BLOOD ON THE ICE

Todd Ewen, a former professional hockey player, took his own life in September 2015 in the basement of his St. Louis home. Ewen had been suffering from depression and memory loss since his retirement from the NHL, in 1998. Before his death, he confided in his wife, Kelli, that he feared he may have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE—a neurodegenerative disease that most experts agree is linked to repetitive head trauma.

After a grueling decade-plus career in the NHL, Ewen exhibited all the tell-tale symptoms. Kelli sent his brain to the neuropathologist Lili-Naz Hazrati to be analyzed for signs of CTE. Six months later, Hazrati called with shocking results: Ewen did not have CTE. The NHL seized on these results in its defense against a class-action suit brought by former players for the league’s negligence regarding head injuries. Hazrati went on to act as an expert witness for the NHL and pointed to Ewen’s case as an example of the inconsistency in CTE pathology. In her expert report and a subsequent deposition, she claimed that there was no link between CTE and head trauma and that CTE was not a disease at all.

Despite Hazrati’s diagnosis, Kelli was convinced that her husband had had CTE. She had sections of Ewen’s brain sent from the Canadian Concussion Centre to Boston, so a world-leading expert on CTE, Ann McKee, could retest them. In late 2018, McKee announced her own conclusions from the tests: Todd had, in fact, had CTE.

In this short documentary from The Atlantic, Kelli Ewen recounts the role her late husband played in the sport of hockey before and after his death.

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THE LAST OF A SPECIES

Once, snails decorated the forests of Hawaii like Christmas ornaments. There were more than 750 unique species, which descended from ancestral mollusks that arrived on the islands millions of years ago. Hawaii’s snails were exemplars of evolution’s generative prowess.

But in recent decades, Hawaii’s snails have become notorious for the opposite force: extinction. Due to habitat loss and invasive predators, more than half of the snail species on the islands have gone extinct. Of those that remain, many have only a few dozen members left in their total populations. Some are endlings, the last of their kind.

Dave Sischo and his team at the Snail Extinction Prevention Program are spearheading the campaign to save Hawaii’s snails. It’s a valiant effort that is facing ever more sobering odds—Hawaii’s snails are disappearing at a faster rate than any other animal on Earth.

“We’re talking about the collapse of an entire fauna that existed here for millions of years, that evolved here, and doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Sischo says in a short documentary from The Atlantic. “This is happening so fast, it’s as if something really catastrophic is happening in the world right now.”

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KOMPROMAT: THE MAKING OF A DOUBLE AGENT

“For so many years, two persons were inside of me,” says Deniss Metsavas, a former Russian spy. In a documentary from The Atlantic, Metsavas tells the disturbing story of his double identity for the very first time.

Metsavas, who is ethnically Russian, grew up in the U.S.S.R. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he learned the Estonian national anthem for the first time. He joined the Estonian Defense Forces, where he served as a trusted officer for 20 years. Now he is serving 15 years in an Estonian prison for treason.

Everything changed in 2007. On a trip to visit relatives in Russia, Metsavas says he was ensnared by Russian intelligence officers who had collected kompromat, or "compromising material,” on Metsavas, in order to blackmail him into engaging in espionage for the Russian Federation. The officers worked for the GRU, Russia’s largest foreign-intelligence agency.

For years, Metsavas navigated his disparate allegiances. He got married and started a family. But as he grew in prominence in the Estonian Defense Forces, his Russian handlers began to demand highly classified information on Estonia’s involvement with the United States and NATO, specifically with regard to weapons. Metsavas tried to extricate himself, only to find that his handlers would stop at nothing to obtain the intel—including ensnaring a family member in the increasingly dangerous situation.

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THE CARTEL MURDER THAT EXPOSED A ROGUE U.S. BORDER PATROL AGENT

When a headless body washed up in the calm waters of the Texas gulf coast, investigators began to unravel a crime that led first to a drug cartel assassin, then to a locked safe containing more than a kilo of cocaine, methamphetamine, a gold-plated pistol— and U.S. Border Patrol agent Joel Luna’s badge.

At a moment when Border Patrol may relax its hiring standards to meet President Trump's executive order for 5,000 new agents, The Atlantic traveled to south Texas to explore a dark corner of the nation's largest police force. There, investigators discovered that the victim was killed in a tire shop owned by Joel Luna’s two brothers, and that the agent used drug money to buy homes for them. “Whether he did it out of greed or out of love for his family, only he knows,” said Gustavo Garza, the prosecutor who brought murder charges against Luna.

Though the brutality of the crime is uncommon on the U.S. side of the border, corruption in the Border Patrol is widespread enough to “pose a national security threat,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. More than 140 agents have been arrested, charged, or convicted in the last dozen years. Joel Luna "is not one bad apple," said James Tomsheck, a former senior official at Customs and Border Protection, "he's part of a rate of corruption that exceeded that of any other U.S. federal law enforcement agency." This documentary explores Luna's case and its implications for the Border Patrol's new hiring spree.

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Featured on HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

 

DIGITAL SERIES

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IDEA FILE

Produced with support from the Google News Initiative, this explainer series features top stories by a broad range of of Atlantic writers. 

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ANIMALISM

Produced for Facebook Watch, this explainer series is hosted by award-winning science journalist Ed Yong. The series was finalist for a National Academies Communications Award in 2018.

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SCHOOL MYTHS

Produced for Facebook Watch, this explainer series unpacks the myths and misconceptions many of us grew up with.

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TO LIVE DELIBERATELY

A documentary series about people who choose to throw expectations out the window and forge their own paths.

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WOMEN AND LEADERSHIP

A documentary series explores the experiences of women leaders, featuring former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Compton mayor Aja Brown, and more.

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AMERICAN DREAMS

A documentary series explores stories of making it in America.

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IF OUR BODIES COULD TALK

Hosted by Dr. James Hamblin, this dryly comedic series explores the science of healthy living. Hamblin was a finalist for a Webby Award for Best Host in 2015.

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BOLD QUESTIONS

Animated interviews with luminaries including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, Bill Nye, and more.

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HOME SCHOOL

A range of experts share insights on parenting in the modern era in this animated explainer series.

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SATURDAY NIGHT IN AMERICA

This documentary series explores the diverse ways Americans like to spend the best night of the week.