Eduardo Williams's debut feature takes us around the world on an ethnographic tour of labor, leisure, and logins.
Barely conscious, stumbling through dark warrens, a young man lit only by his glowing smartphone suddenly reveals a natural force startling to the viewer, mundane to himself. This opening shot of Eduardo Williams's The Human Surge not only sets up the film to come, but encapsulates the young filmmaker's working method. With minimal preparation, cross-language collaboration with non-actors, and spontaneous incorporation, Williams operates semi-consciously—call it automatic filmmaking. Rhythm and environment supersede conventional narrative, with dialogue an additional layer of texture rather than propellant.
The resulting film imbues a concrete world with dream logic as it flows through three sections: Argentinean suburbs, Mozambique's limnal grasslands, and the dense green of a Philippine jungle. Williams tries (and mostly succeeds) in keeping the viewer drifting along a constant stream of interaction, with young people meeting up, chatting on their phones or over the Internet, and text messaging. Peru's Videofilia, released the same year, tackles similar topics of interconnectivity, but its blatant layering of memes and digital glitches over the physical world feels false, more aesthetic than meaningful. The miracle of Human Surge is that in maintaining distance, we feel closer; its vagueness and fragmentary information draw us in, shedding usual audience omniscience to mimic real-life eavesdropping. The camera follows at a discrete distance as young protagonists wander through their lives, relaxing and working.
But work isn't stable or guaranteed, though that doesn't seem to weigh too heavily on anyone. For these young people, jobs are merely means to an end; money's useful for pleasure. In Mozambique, after a night of house partying, a young man walks up to his narrow office to join his equally listless coworkers. Their task remains enigmatic, more so after a coworker pulls out an odd black cone to observe another mystery object. His other means of income is "camming" with friends—performing stripteases for paying online customers. This is the nexus of work and pleasure, interacting digitally on their own terms for cash. Despite mild aversion to some of the sexual requests, they're playful, maintaining their machismo while goofing around, leaving when they're bored. One of their voyeurs is an Argentinean protagonist from the first section, himself a cam boy; and it's over his shoulder that we pass from the one locale to the next, pushing through a computer screen to video filmed off a monitor. This and other reminders we're watching a movie pop against the film's naturalistic pretenses, adding a light surreality.
The jittery, constant camera movement and wide framing give the film's locations more screen presence than the actors walking through them. Argentina's vast suburbs offer numerous hideouts—a young man escapes family dinner in a cramped, messy bedroom; friends cram into a tree hollow, musing about the future from a natural womb. In Mozambique we transition from crowded city to an otherworldly veldt, but the surroundings are secondary to people occupied by the digital plane. We move through an anthill to the Philippines, where siblings gently rib one another by a pond deep in the verdure. This total immersion in nature feels claustrophobic, amplified by the segment's HD quality, and it's almost a relief when the sister leaves, seeking an Internet café in the nearby village.
Her segment is the most tense—unlike other protagonists, she disappears for long stretches; we hear but can't see as she wanders into strangers' homes seeking a signal. Walking into the darkness still seeking web access, a stream of townspeople follow her as if heralding a sacrifice.
The camera only holds still for the final scene, a sterile assembly line of hand-soldered electronic devices. This is work for others' play, drudgery rendered meaningful after watching its effects. Machine and human work together—a woman's voice softly intones monosyllables, followed by a nasal, computerized "Okay." The film's present feels like a William Gibson prediction; screens, wires, disarray, outages. The Internet is a concurrent reality, when the wifi's working, and technology's fallibility makes it seem human, even as it leaves characters isolated. Repeating a moment from Williams' short Could See a Puma, a girl dreams of the sky filling with advertisements—indeed, in a world of capitalist connection, is it surprising people dream identically?
The Human Surge opens today, March 3, at Metrograph in New York City, followed by runs in Chicago, Cleveland, and elsewhere throughout spring 2017.
Danielle Burgos is an editor, animator, and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She's contributed to Screen Slate, Hopes&Fears, and is currently writing the Over The Garden Wall comic series. She programs regularly at Spectacle in Williamsburg.