AS THE CULTURAL CONVERSATION breaks down into spasms of splenetic indignation, the fear of being misunderstood runs to epidemic levels. In such an atmosphere, it is an increasing rarity to encounter artworks that come packaged without an instruction manual meant to clear up any potential confusion. And if you, like me, are bored to the point of catalepsy by the resulting parade of self-defining artwork that stretches limitlessly toward the horizon, perhaps you’ll make the ideal viewer for Argentinian director Eduardo Williams’s crackling The Human Surge, a dense snarl of a movie that only gets more spectacularly tangled as you try to unravel it.
Williams, who turns thirty this year, had already made a name for himself on the festival circuit with a series of distinctive, globe-trotting shorts when this, his feature debut, took the main prize in the Filmmakers of the Present competition at the Locarno International Film Festival. (The jury included Dario Argento, who knows a thing or two about formal bravura.) The Human Surge is a maverick work, the most obvious of its distinguishing traits being its triptych form, which individuates each section through location and visual texture. The first part, set in a flooded neighborhood in Buenos Aires, is shot on 16 mm. The second, in Maputo, Mozambique, achieves a unique palette with footage originally captured with a Blackmagic pocket camera that has been filmed off of a computer screen onto Super 16. In the final section, Williams takes a RED Scarlet digital camera to the Philippine province of Bohol.
None of these abrupt location changes are announced by signposting, and Williams takes no pains to keep a sluggish viewer abreast of what’s going on. Each section trots out new “protagonists”—I use scare quotes because it took me a second viewing to get a handle on the narrative elements, in no small part because I was gobsmacked by the total audacity of the thing the first time around. Even Williams’s cameraman doesn’t always seem to be clear on whom he’s supposed to be following, as subjects are picked up and dropped as if by caprice. A bit of dialogue that occurs late in the film—“Have you tried following a beautiful girl when you’re lost?”—seems close to the logic of the camerawork, which feels responsive, alive, unmoored, quixotic, erratic, obedient to whim. The film’s signature move is a wavering handheld sequence shot trailing behind or alongside a character or characters—not the intimate shoulder-perch shot familiar from the Dardenne brothers or a hundred Hubert Bals Fund movies, but one that instead keeps the camera carefully at an uncomfortable distance, where facial features, if visible at all, are just on the cusp of legibility, a distance that stirs a certain tension in the viewer, makes you feel like if you just squint and lean in a little you might get it. This is frequently combined with murky, grainy low-light or even pitch-dark settings, reducing the subjects to disembodied voices, as in a scene where the Argentinian kids pile into the hollow of a tree trunk.
Williams and his dual DPs, Joaquin Neira and Julien Guillery, have found their style and tone in part by pulling from the lexicon of amateur videography, from cell-phone video to pornographic webcam—as early as his 2011 short Could See a Puma, Williams can be found experimenting with similar free-floating cinematographic peregrinations. It’s an aesthetic appropriate to the film’s subjects: roving bands of twentysomethings, mostly male, mostly seen at leisure, on their way to nowhere in particular at a rambling, ambling pace, talking about nothing much at all. The dialogue is of tossed-off observations, frequently overdubbed, which occasionally veer into the territory of the poetic-philosophical. “Did you know the future’s silence is going to sound just like a crowded food court?” asks one boy. “I dreamt the sky was covered in advertisements,” muses another. The Argentine section revolves around Exe, one of the film’s more clearly delineated characters, living in his cramped family home, fired from a job as a supermarket stock boy, and keeping up a sideline in webcam exhibitionism with friends—there is an unstimulated sex act, startling precisely for how casually it occurs, for the sheer banality of the thing. In Mozambique, we pick up with another group of boys seen doing the same burlesque with less commitment, a way to make a quick buck between odd jobs—desultory office work, migrant labor, hanging out behind the counter at some kind of arcade. Finally, we surface on the other side of the world, in Bohol, where a cache of characters whose previous acquaintance is difficult to gauge wander through jungle undergrowth, congregating around a swimming hole, where they splash about while discussing, among other things, the possible location of a cyber café.
Up until a tripod-stabilized postscript inside an antiseptic Philippine factory that manufactures tablet devices, the film’s abiding aesthetic is ramshackle, slipshod, and willfully off-key, though Williams is very capable of creating very precise coup de cinema effects, reserved for the transitions between sections. Passing from Argentina to Mozambique, we seem to travel seamlessly through a computer screen to arrive on the other side, while the leap from Mozambique to the Philippines follows a stream of urine falling on an anthill to plunge into the underground tunnels, mingling in close quarters with the shiny black bodies of the teeming insects. (There are shades here of the dive beneath the manicured lawn in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet .)
Williams endeavors to pass through the wiring of intricate networks in the case of both the internet and the anthill. The casual air disguises The Human Surge’s thematic coherency, beginning with the title’s invocation of organic-technological hybridity, as echoed in the analog-to-digital progression of its format shift, or in a moment where a child is heard measuring the human genome in gigabytes. While precious few filmmakers have seriously attempted to address the enormous cognitive earthquake represented by the internet’s colonization of daily life, Williams dares and is actually up for the challenge. From an interview last year:
“My brain and practice have been transformed by technology. For example, by the video games that I played when I was young. In video games, you have these different levels that you advance to, moving through multiple spaces. And then the chats—at many points in my life, it seemed like online chatting was my only means of communication. It is a different way of speaking, of connecting. I didn’t think of it at first, but this is why I structure my films the way I do. It’s about how I see and relate to the world.”
Inasmuch as his film’s subjects have a single unifying purpose, it is to get themselves online—cadging working cell phones from friends or ranging around in search of a wifi signal. Binaries are invoked only to be busted wide open. Williams shows us ways of life at once state of the art and primitive, borderless and highly parochial, under the sway of both science and superstition. In a discursive conversation about “Black Magic,” two of the Mozambique youths muse over “people controlling one another from afar”—which, of course, is exactly what happens on the Chaturbate site they log onto. And while a sense of threatening environmental cataclysm hangs over the movie from the early images of streets flooded by an unspoken catastrophe, the film is also suffused with moments of bucolic natural beauty, of unspoiled beaches and forests and open fields in what seems like a perpetual gloaming. The mood of The Human Surge is mostly one of repose, but repose haunted by the prospect of work, the threat of which is felt throughout the film—shirking it, submitting to it, dreading waking up to it, getting fired, walking off of the job. (And yes, those are worker ants.) It makes for an exhilarating, boldly paradoxical experience—a headlong dive into the rich, knotty, sticky undergrowth amid a proliferation of tidy, well-lit paths.