Peering for Nonfiction in the Erotic Webcam Milieu of ‘The Human Surge’

This bold new experimental feature is a documentary of its own making.

Jacques Rivette once said that every film is a documentary about its own making, an observation that has become quite the convenient cliche. It serves as a dynamic tool for interpreting everything from Hollywood star vehicles to hybrid experimentations, a peeling back of artistic surfaces. But it also frequently feels like an academic exercise, a head game played by a critic. Rarely does the fact of a film’s production leap from the screen of its own accord.

Enter The Human Surge, an international journey through cinematic time and space that gazes deeply into its own construction. It’s not a documentary. It’s made up of three loosely scripted segments, performed by nonprofessional actors in three countries: Argentina, Mozambique, and the Philippines. Each features the wanderings of loosely developed characters, simply staged scenes that could easily fit into the otherwise supernatural scripts of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

As to whether these fragmented narratives feel fictional, that doesn’t quite matter. This is the sort of movie currently beloved by European documentary festivals, made by filmmakers who are transparently bored by the blunt distinction between narrative and documentary cinemas. These projects are neither explicitly fictional nor nonfictional. Instead, they emerge from the resurgent knowledge that no image is entirely false, nor utterly true.

What makes The Human Surge especially intriguing even within this recent trend, however, is director Eduardo Williams’s equally apparent interest in foregrounding the presence of an aesthetic project. Each segment, despite the narrative similarities, looks quite different. The first was shot on 16mm, the second on a tiny Blackmagic Pocket, and the third on the high-definition RED Scarlet. This structure offers many visual nuances, of course, but it also quite bluntly calls attention to the presence of a more schematic project.

The transitions between sections are especially showy, the editing equivalent of a high-scoring jump in figure skating. The switch from the Blackmagic to the RED is a breathtaking trip into the tunnels of an ant colony, using fluctuations of focus to disguise the journey. The leap from 16mm to Blackmagic, on the other hand, takes place with the use of a stationary shot. A character in Argentina pulls up a live webcam video of a group of young Mozambican men. Williams zooms in, resting on this single frame while imperceptibly shifting to the next format.

Yet while the precise moment of transition is obscured, the sequence as a whole is no less flashy. Williams announces the transition by following his Mozambican subjects out of the room without breaking the shot, as if the webcam has become sentient and detached itself from the computer. It’s a tremendous flourish, a 21st century cinematic innovation borne out of the aesthetics of the Internet.

These aren’t the only elements in The Human Surge that call attention to its own artifice, either. There are prominent scenes of group webcam performance in both Argentina and Mozambique, the former being significantly more lived-in and sexually explicit than the latter. And unsimulated sexual activity, no matter the context, always introduces the question of its own fictionality.

On the one hand, this breaks the veneer of documentary distance between filmmaker and subject. It’s not a “fly-on-the-wall” scene because the actors likely gave permission to Williams to shoot. Besides, the computer screen in this particular sequence is never shown. There’s no proof the webcam is even live. Yet if the sex is real, it’s real to the audience of The Human Surge, even if there was no online audience at the time of filming.

This tension between fiction and nonfiction can be found throughout the film. Williams doesn’t use close-ups or other shots that are typically a privilege afforded only to fiction filmmakers. The cinematography draws much from documentary. Characters are frequently observed from behind as they walk down the street, creating distance between them and the audience while simultaneously calling attention to the person holding the camera.

Emphatically, then, The Human Surge is a documentary about its own making. But it is also about the making of images more generally. The film ends at a factory in the Philippines where tablets are manufactured. The “surge” of the title may not be the global population surge, but perhaps the surge of self-documentation and cinematic production brought about by the proliferation of 21st century technology.

Everyone is now a maker of documentary images, as well as a constant consumer of those made by others. We live our lives through video, images that are not entirely truthful. The film’s use of webcam performance underlines this. True, a group of young men may broadcast themselves cheerfully having sex for the benefit of paying customers, thousands of miles away. But this real sex also invites fantasies, fictions that occupy the imaginations of their audience. Do they do this when the camera is off? Or do they otherwise live straight lives?

How does this reflect on their identities, and are those identities still private in a world of constant video? Williams plays this game as well, following his cast as they head off together to play somewhere else. Or is that just the soundtrack of the film, replaying earlier sounds to suggest something that isn’t really happening?

Veracity, at the end of the day, doesn’t matter. But the absence of certainty is what makes The Human Surge interesting, a scripted film that calls attention to its own documentary aesthetics. This conundrum that can be found all over the Internet, to be sure, but rarely with such enigmatic eroticism or breathtaking technique. Like the best nonfiction work of the past few years, it encourages us to look differently at every moving image we see, no matter the context.

The Human Surge is now playing at the Metrograph in New York City.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.