Tech changes so fast that it seems futile to even make movies about it. Filmmaking is a laborious, time-consuming process — wouldn’t any tech be outdated by the time the film came out?
But what movies do — in ways that many daily websites and news outlets don’t — are tell stories that are visceral, personal and intimate.
With sound and image, documentaries make the sometimes abstract information and facts that dominate discussions on tech into emotional realities. They shed light on consequences of seemingly obscure policies. They tie together past, present and future in a way that most writing about science and technology doesn’t. Tech comes alive on the TV or movie screen.
We already examined films like last year’s “Love Child,” but these documentaries taken together offer a broad view of why technology matters, how it’s changing the way we live, think, communicate and even experience emotion — and what may be coming down the pike in the future.
Cool, cerebral and sophisticated, Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary will help you understand the full extent of U.S. surveillance upon its citizens, and how and why such power was granted in the first place. But Citizenfour is most riveting as an understated character study of Edward Snowden, the now-exiled whistleblower who unveiled the extent of government information spying to begin with.
Poitras’ doc offers an intimate behind-the-scenes view as the Snowden story breaks in the media, interviewing Snowden in a bland, claustrophobic Hong Kong hotel room as events unfold. Poitras also gives a glimpse behind the human motives underlying Snowden’s actions, as well as the reporters who broke the story.
The film’s understated style — with subtle editing and barebones, minimal images — gives viewers room to come to terms with Snowden and his motives. The importance and impact of his actions emerges slowly as the pressure to hunt him down ratchets up.
If you can’t decide if Snowden is a hero or traitor, the film won’t help, but it offers a voice for a mysterious media figure who reveals himself as thoughtful, intelligent, articulate, meticulous — and even sensitive about the impact his actions would have on the people he loves, and the world around him.
Indie Game (2012)
If you’ve ever wondered about the creative process video games, this movie offers a painstaking glimpse into the scrappy, obsessive world of independent video game development. We get a close-up POV on the small teams who make the games Fez, Super Meat Boy and Braid as they work round the clock to accomplish the same amount of work that bigger companies accomplish with much larger resources.
The film offers a peek at the pressures and challenges indie game makers face — both industry and self-imposed — as well as what makes indie games unique compared to their blockbuster counterparts. Directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot peppers the movie with interviews with the eccentric personalities that make up the world of indie gaming, who collectively prove themselves to be a passionate, outspoken colorful lot.
You don’t have to be a game geek to appreciate the hard work and artistry that Indie Game captures. In fact, you might come away convinced that games may be the art form of the 21st century, complete with its own auteurs and geniuses.
Terms and Conditions May Apply (2013)
Directed by Cullen Hoback, this documentary engagingly combines pop culture footage, news archives and talking head interviews with academics and activists to trace the gradual erosion of privacy in the U.S. It’s a big topic, but the film breaks it down in a way that is accessible, fast-moving and even fun.
Many will already know a lot of the information presented here, which focuses on the confluence of U.S. laws and policy with the rise of profitable data-gathering businesses. But the film’s gift is how it synthesizes the “confetti” of facts into a fluid, fast-moving dystopian story that alarms us as we take it in as a whole.
Terms and Conditions is entertaining and fast-paced, but don’t let that fool you from taking its premise seriously: privacy is dead, or at least truly endangered, and that’s something we should all worry about and hold our lawmakers accountable for.
Legendary car maker and business tycoon Henry Ford once said, “Every object tells a story if you know how to read it.” Objectified helps viewers decode the secret language of everyday objects that surround us in our lives — the ordinary things like toothbrushes, toothpicks, chairs and eating utencils.
The movie isn’t ostensibly about tech, per se — though the movie features a rare inside look into the process of Apple mastermind Jonathan Ive, as well as new Apple associate Marc Newsom. But it does showcase how our increasingly digitized lives have re-shaped and reinvented the physical objects that fill up the spaces of our lives.
When an object’s function is increasingly virtual, what kind of shape should it take? Why does a smartphone, for instance, need to be a rectangle? Objectified helps us understand why tech companies like Apple aren’t just innovative for the functions they enable, but very look and feel of our lives.
Generation Like (2014)
This PBS documentary traces the rise of social media among teens on the surface, transforming a whole generation Of consumers into marketers.
By tapping into teens’ natural desire to express their identities, companies transform the act of like and being liked into powerful mechanisms to market and monetize content. In doing so, teens often “work” for free to spread promotional materials for products, shows, brands, stores, media in exchange for recognition and visibility.
While these aren’t necessarily new insights, what’s powerful about this Frontline documentary are the interviews and footage of teens themselves, testifying to how central social media is to their lives and identities. Seeing and hearing with your own eyes and ears just how smart, sophisticated and social these teens helps to realize just what a sea change social media has created in the world, for better or worse.
Directed by Alex Winter — a.k.a. Bill from cult comedy classic Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure — Downloaded chronicles the rise and fall of Napster, the music- and file-sharing service that emerged in the late 90s to allow people to share their digital music collections directly with one another. Napster, of course, went on to disrupt and destroy the existing record industry, but it also pioneered a new model of information-sharing that laid the basis for social networking and changed how we fundamentally use the Internet today.
The doc tells a remarkably full story, getting insider dish from creators and early employees of Napster, as well as technology gurus like Lawrence Lessig and John Perry Barlow. Winter also talks to record industry execs, who candidly admit they made themselves vulnerable once they ceded new tech development of audio technology to the electronics industry.
The result is a riveting David and Goliath story of the push-and-pull of technology, and how solving a small problem — in this case, how to easily share digital music with other music lovers — can lead to fundamental paradigm shifts that destroys industries and changes lives.
Side by Side (2013)/Year Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film (2014)
Yes, Side by Side is directed by Matrix movie star Keanu Reeves — a.k.a. Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure — but it’s a thoughtful examination of the impact of digital upon moviemaking.
Reeves begins with a central question: are the days of celluloid coming to an end? He canvasses prominent directors and cinematographers for their thoughts on the questions, talking to the likes of Steven Soderbergh, James Cameron, David Lynch, Richard Linklater, Martin Scorsese, the Wachowskis, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher and George Lucas. These talks give the film the feel of hanging out at a cafe, talking with incredibly gifted, thoughtful creatives with a diversity of opinions.
Reeves’ conclusion? Film is becoming an increasingly niche proposition, and many filmmakers — particularly younger ones, who are looking for a cheaper, more accessible set of tools to make their work — will propel digital. But others have enough raw passion for traditional film to keep it an option on the table.
The upside, though, is how digital is making possible new kinds of stories and types of storytelling, particularly short-form and serialized narratives.
Film may keep on, but that’s not the case with Polaroid film, as explored in the film Year Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film. This is yet another doc on the way digital media disrupted an industry, but in this case, it’s almost a mystery why a company decided to stop production on Polaroid, which still showed signs of profitability for the company despite the rise of digital cameras.
Much of the film is a love letter to the analog medium, with devotees detailing the color palette and idiosyncratic qualities of Polaroid for posterity. Then Hamilton shifts to a portrayal of the Polaroid company itself, though he doesn’t quite delve into why the company stopped production on the medium.
Then he goes into the attempts of Polaroid lovers to keep the medium going — including giving a team of scientists a year to reformulate the now-depleted chemicals that provide the instant-development process unique to Polaroid film.
If other films on technology chronicle the inexorable forward march, this one is mostly a celebration of those who push back against the tides of so-called progress, in attempts to reserve rapidly disappearing examples of beauty and art that digital culture could erase.
The phenomenon of “catfishing” — being fooled by someone pretending to be someone they’re not — came into the mainstream with the MTV documnary of the same name, which detailed one man’s journey into discovering who his Internet girlfriend really was. But if you’re looking for a genuinely suspenseful story, check out the earlier movie “Talhotblond” instead.
Directed by Barbara Schroeder, the doc outlines an real-life Internet love triangle about a middle-aged former marine named Thomas Montgomery and “Jessi,” a girl he met on the Internet but had never met in real life.
Twists abound: Thomas, who met Jessi in a teen chat room, is pretending to be a teen, an 18-year-old student named Tommy. And Jessi is a real-life girl, but online her persona was commandeered by her mother.
Despite this, “Tommy” and “Jessi” develop a close, intimate relationship online, which only combusts in catastrophic ways once the truth comes out.
Talhotblond is a taut, dramatic film that will have you on the edge of your seats for all of its 83-minute running time. Not one moment is wasted in this movie, and the result is a riveting, ultimately harrowing example of just how deeply we can invest our hearts and emotions through technology — and just how high the stakes can be as a result. ♦