What: Film Review
Directed and Story by: Beeban Kidron
Featuring: Beeban Kidron, Julian Assange, Jimmy Wales, Andrew Blum, Sherry Turkle, Danah Boyd, Maggie Jackson, Clay Shirky, Nicholas Carr, Luis Von Ahn, Joi Ito
Running Time (in min.): 91 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Official Selection of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival
“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” a great character once said, but few classic quotes have ever felt less relevant. As technology has developed with frightening rapidity these last few decades, late capitalism has morphed countries into globe-spanning, branded regionalities, and mass media has shifted from analog (see: a book) to digital (see: your Netflix account.) We have never been more successful at communicating with one another – literally, that is. At the heart of Beeban Kidron’s didactic new doc, InRealLife, is the nature of that communication and what the current generation’s media literacy will mean for our species.
Cell phones, iPads, and Google Fiber wires have rarely looked so terrifying as when Kidron turns an angry, frightened Kino-eye on them as subjects. As interviewer, storywriter, and director, she crafts a riveting thesis: reliance on new technologies and social media is driving us away from physical intimacy, and towards shaming, bullying, misogyny, and in a peculiar sequence, global warming. From one talking head to another – including such notables as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, and Wikipedia honcho Jimmy Wales – the facts seem to point towards the obliteration of private lives in favor of the algorithmically-determined “real life” shown on our Facebook profiles.
Certainly these concerns are not new, so Kidron wisely turns her attention to the subjects of her concern – digitally literate teens – without condescending to them. The young adults and, in some early cases, children born after the turn of the millennium participate eloquently and authoritatively in the stories of their media experiences. An Oxford student reveals that his dismissal from the university was due to a video game addiction; a woman of similar age, seen in How to Catch a Predator-style facial darkness, reveals that her need to replace her smartphone resulted ultimately in an acute sexual trauma. In the hands of this capable director and editor Andrew Mitchell, the linkages between the various electronic technologies and their equally grim results are clear.
Ben Baird’s tremendous sound design lends a palpable sense of dread to the proceedings, while Mitchell, Kidron, and the graphics team at Fluid Pictures have generated some truly surreal imagery. In one inspired sequence, Newsweek columnist Andrew Blum leads the director through one of the most coveted data storage facilities in the United States, which he deems the, “5th Avenue” of the mass-mediated world. When Blum leaves, though, Kidron and cameraman Neil Harvey walk through a web of yellow, blue, and red wires that cross the frame in disorienting neon patterns. The effect is no less emotional than if it had been part of a dramatic feature, and recalls the neo-noir lighting Errol Morris is so fond of. In fact, as documentary films go, the production team behind this one achieves impressive professional heights.
But the polemic at the heart of InRealLife – which had its World Premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, and is currently available through FilmBuff on Video-on-Demand – only convinces so far as the drama remains taut. By the end of the ninety-minute running time, Kidron’s argument has been made and rehashed to the point of exhaustion, and a slackness creeps in.
That comes as a surprise given that Kidron’s most famous films, the syrupy 2004 rom-com Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and 1995’s groundbreaking To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar knew how to do short-and-sweet better than their peers. One recalls that those films, too, had the boundaries of communication as their subjects. How do we treat one another when we notice people, our Others, behaving differently in society than we’re accustomed to? And how do we find love, intimacy, and closeness when talking to people is becoming harder than writing in your diary? Though admittedly high-minded and effective, Kidron’s touch here is not light enough to be pleasant, nor dark enough to be urgent. Even those seeing her subject matter on film for the first time are, sadly, likely to respond with a mere, “Good point.”