Eduardo Williams’ roaming docudrama THE HUMAN SURGE (2016) follows young people across three continents as they spend aimless hours in search of connectivity. His title may suggest an ascendant species but any “grandiosity”* is swiftly undermined by the futility of lived existence. Humans could easily be replaced by the ants that occupy one of a series of audacious black holes the camera zooms through, connecting the world’s disaffected youth across time and space.
In Williams’ world view, the human race has found precious little of worth to occupy itself with. Work is mundane, baffling and exploitative, whether it is labouring in a supermarket or selling sexual favours in internet chat rooms. The explicit chat scene is possibly this excellent film’s only misstep. A group of young men plays rock-paper-scissors to decide who should administer an on-demand blow job. It gets audience laughs but leaves a slight unease that Williams is casually exploiting the youths he is seeking to document.
Connectivity is a root cause of movement throughout the film with Williams’ cameras tracking his cast repeatedly as they seek each other and a reliable internet connection. We rarely see what’s on their digital screens, suggesting further futility, but the greater meaning is of a series of shared and constantly connected networks. The film also hints at a virtual alternate reality, one featured in the characters’ stories and dreams.
Despite its hauntingly distant tone – much is filmed mid-shot, keeping us adrift from characters as they roam through anonymous environments – it’s far from a cold film. We might never connect with individual characters, nor be given any plot, but Williams exhibits considerable empathy for his cast. Their interrelationships are warm and familial, particularly in the final swimming sequence set in the Philippines.
Rather than a passionate political uprising, the solidarity of youth is here shown to be a networked state in perpetual motion. The final cautionary jump cut to a sterile tech factory sees the film’s multiple resolutions resolve into crystal clarity. The ultimate digital abstraction, humanity is bleached from the image as a gadget-testing device repeatedly bleats the one word: “OK”.
IN MOVING PICTURES?
- The camera burrows deep into the soil in Mozambique, pausing to observe ants at work, before emerging above ground in the Philippines.
The excellent UK premiere of THE HUMAN SURGE at Tate Modern (24.02.17) featured a discussion between Eduardo Williams and Tate’s film team. What did we learn?
- From a brief script treatment, the three sections of the film – shot in Argentina, Mozambique and the Philippines – evolved over the course of a year. Breaks between filming gave Williams the time to edit, rewrite and reshoot.
- Williams chose the three locations to focus on untold stories in countries that “aren’t seen as central”. He spent as much time as possible in each location, meeting his cast, hanging out with them and becoming familiar with their worlds.
- Each section was filmed using a different camera: Argentina in 16mm, Mozambique digitally on a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera with footage then re-shot on a 16mm camera pointing at a digital screen and the Philippines using RED digital.
- Different cameras and fluctuating budgets resulted in different sized crews, with Williams changing role – working as Director of a large crew in his native Argentina but as Director/Cinematographer with a much more intimate crew in Mozambique.
- The changing camera and crew combinations gave rise to different creative restrictions, affecting relationships between filmmakers, cast and onlookers alike.
- Williams is a self-confessed digital magpie, using google earth for location scouting, Facebook, internet chatrooms and google translate for casting and content ideas. The film is a collage of these search results, reinforcing its core themes.
- The potential futility of modern life drives Williams as a filmmaker, motivating his own search for rewarding alternatives to work: “it would change everything if people were to confront yourself with what you are going to do with your time.”
And that’s the meat of it.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
Eduardo Williams will be back in the UK later in the year delivering a masterclass at ICA.
Try pairing THE HUMAN SURGE with:
- IT FOLLOWS (2014) – socially connected teens die at the hands of a supernatural enemy akin to weaponised chlamydia.
- ELEPHANT (2003) – another film that follows its cast, repeatedly refolding time and space as the constant expectation of terrifying violence amplifies our unease.
- AVATAR (2009) – another world grown from interconnected natural technologies.
* Eduardo Williams in conversation, Tate Modern, 24.02.17
Featured image: THE HUMAN SURGE (2016).