Cracked Screens, Lost Phones and Unconnected WiFi: Close-Up on Eduardo Williams’ “The Human Surge”

"The Human Surge," a film constantly in movement that follows a world obsessed with connectivity, is a true document of our times.
Bedatri D.Choudhury

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Eduardo Williams' The Human Surge (2016) is playing August 11 - September 10, 2017 on MUBI in most countries around the world as part of the series Direct from Locarno.

The Human Surge

In the beginning, Eduardo Williams’ The Human Surge (2016) feels like a womb—dark, watery, with something moving very quietly within it. It is difficult to know where we really are or what we are being shown until the camera suddenly emerges into daylight and we are then swaying through flooded streets before entering what turns out to be a dimly lit storage room of a supermarket.

The film is constantly in movement—it travels from a dark room to a park, it traverses continents, houses, rooms, open spaces, underground spaces, waterfalls and into the darkest private spaces of family homes. There is a constant flux and one doesn’t know whether that is comforting or not. One doesn't know if this is a utopia or a dystopia. This uncertainty of never quite knowing is the essence of the film. 

The world we see is a world obsessed with connectivity. People are trying to log on to the WiFi, trying to make a call, walking in the dark to find a cyber cafe, while there is that incessant, foreboding doom of a complete breakdown of communication—someone’s phone gets wet, the WiFi won't connect, the phone screen is cracked, nobody really knows which cyber cafe is open and someone’s phone is stolen. The whole film is like that; like you’re holding your breath, too scared to let go lest you lose something forever. 

While watching the film, you feel like you are always eavesdropping. We listen to people talk, but only from the middle of their conversations; we listen to in-jokes and half-laugh because we don't really get it but everyone else in the film is laughing. There is always an all-encompassing feeling of “should I even be here?”, especially when we see lovers almost kissing or young boys posing naked in front of webcams for money. For me, it is a film that is a testament of the times we live in—we never know when we cross a line when it comes to other people’s spaces, and we can barely discern when enquiries become interference.

Williams does not give us answers: he doesn't want to. The film is not about answers, anyway. It is about knowledge systems that we are constantly excluded from; we are never aware of contexts or situations from which the dialogues emerge. It is about making do with what we have at hand and making sense of it. It’s about taking refuge in voyeurism to know more and more just so we can claim to know better: we read other people’s texts, listen to their phone calls and follow them silently. 

As the filmmaker and film theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha argues, a documentary film is not meant to be a knowledge system that one can consume in totality and then claim to possess an objective knowledge about the subject. Within a post-modernist world, one may argue, meanings only make sense in parts and uncertainty is perhaps the only certainty we live with. The Human Surge embraces this uncertainty. The film becomes the true document of our times that we can leave behind for the future. A future that a character from the film describes as a time where silence will be the sounds of a food court, a time when clamor for overpriced food in an air conditioned sitting space will be the default sound.

There is always some commerce underway, the film always talks of money. There is always some transaction, some bargain going on. There is a supermarket where a woman is trying to buy cheese but can't find a price tag; there are two men being overcharged for something (we never know what) they saw on the Internet; there are the young men with their pants down pretending to have sex and bargaining for money with people watching them over a webcam. Sex continues to be a constant consumption and a source of easy money through the film. Someone loses his job and doesn't know how to get by. Money underlines most conversations. 

Then, suddenly, there is an oasis-like waterfall where women swim and talk of spiders, where there is a little boy who rattles off facts and numbers like a broken search engine. It is a space where people convene, talk and just when you think you’ve stumbled upon a space where people don't need cellular networks to connect, someone leaves it all behind searching for a cyber cafe. Do you then get anxious for her search or do you look back wistfully at the waterfall you’re leaving behind? Do you risk getting lost in a neighborhood you don't know or do you listen to the little boy who says, “When you’re lost on the street, follow the most beautiful person you can find on the street”? Only, these streets are dark and you can barely see people’s faces. 

While there is that world of screens, money and people constantly afraid of losing touch through technology while feverishly tapping away, there is also that quieter sub-dermal world where ants scurry along in perfect straight lines without ever needing the aid of screens. This is the world of the light buzz of crickets and a quietness so still that we can hear the rustle of grass. This world exists almost invisibly as a reminder of the many worlds that exist beyond our screens. A world where things get done in certainties, a world that exists against our world of perennial uncertainties. This is the world where dreams live.

The womb that we started with, reaches a full circle inside a cold cellphone factory lit by a sudden and stark white light. With the light and the people in masks, one could perhaps think one is in an operation theater, prematurely anxious to see a surgery underway. But all we see are fingers operating on motherboards, laying down an intense networks of circuits that are both intriguing and unsettling in their alien-ness. The soundscape is taken over by machines and their robotic “OK”s before the camera finally rests on a screen—we don't know what it is; a strange pattern is taking shape, almost like a sonogram.

It is probably the world we birthed.

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