Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

A reality TV show aims to create an utopian society, but instead becomes a dystopian experience for its participants

Last Year in Utopia (Letztes Jahr in Utopia)

Jana Magdalena Keuchel & Katharina Knust

Germany, 2017 72 minutes

Fifteen people left their lives behind to start all over again, building a home and a garden together and creating a new society in the middle of a forest away from civilization. Or this is what they set out to do when they applied to be part of a so-called “media experiment” that required participants to do all of the above over the period of one year. Tatiana, Hans, Auri and L. are four of the fifteen participants that were selected from 9000 applications, but what promised to be one year of adventure creating an idyllic community soon turned out to be a nightmare.

The Experiment

The very idea of an idyllic society suggests peace and a supportive community based on understanding, but all this is the very opposite of what a reality show can be. It doesn’t become clear from the very beginning of the film, but the so-called “media experiment” was one in front of millions of viewers: a TV show that was supposed to last one year, but ended sooner after the participants realized they were guinea pigs and not builders of a community. Some of them decided to leave the show no matter what.

«By definition, every reality TV show is based on conflict.»

By definition every reality TV show is based on conflict. Good behaviours, collaboration and smooth understanding are not encouraged because the audiences are not arrested by shows in which everything goes perfectly well. If that were to happen there would actually be no story. Something has to happen and if nothing happens, the producers will manipulate facts and recordings to either cause something to happen or to make it seem like it does. The entertainment version of Utopia therefore cannot exist.

Last Year in Utopia by Jana Magdalena Keuchel & Katharina Knus

Yet Tatiana, Hans, Auri and L. seem to have entered the project with genuine hopes of fulfilment. A year later now, they reunite in the space where the whole setting used to be. The place was cleaned up so well and nature reclaimed the land so fast, that hardly any traces were left of the TV setting where the lights never went off and 160 cameras kept watch 24/7, making a “zum” sound at every detected move.

The Re-Enactment

The participants reconstruct the place from memory, remembering what it looked like but also how they felt, what they did and what the producers made them do. The décor is symbolically reconstructed and some of the moments that had the most emotional impact on them are re-enacted by actors. The minimalist décor is white, the actors are dressed in white, even the actors’ faces are painted white, and combined it all creates an unsettling dream-like vision of what happened.

«All ideals are wasted in the hands of the wrong people with the wrong approach and it is everyone’s duty to keep active watch and question what they see in society.»

Exploring the truth behind reality TV is not a new topic, but what is new is the way Last Year in Utopia explores it. The film is somewhere at the border between documentary, theatre and art and the combination works surprisingly well on many levels. It taps into our fascination towards unusual life settings. In many ways the experiment is akin to living in a sect and trying to escape, and the film explores that with an emotional and artistic approach rather than a sensationalist one. Besides this, without purposefully wanting to, it also conveys a sense of injustice from what happened to the participants–from the manipulation and lies they were subjected to. And last, the creative story format of the film that goes back and forth between memory and reflection and the re-enactment of the scenes, to which the participants are now witnesses, adds depth and invites the viewer to reflect. What does the ideal society look like? What is the limit of what is acceptable for creating a TV show? What would I be willing to accept? And what responsibility lies on the side of the viewers?

Last Year in Utopia by Jana Magdalena Keuchel & Katharina Knus

The Lesson

In fact everyone in the audience gave up their critical sense for the easy thrill of entertainment. What happened to the participants happened in front of millions of eyes that forgot that the people in the show were real people. The constant surveillance, their censored behaviours and the elimination where every four weeks someone was being voted out, all this made the show a vivid representation of a totalitarian society based on ideals gone wrong.

Perhaps that is the most important point to take away from this film: that all ideals are wasted in the hands of the wrong people with the wrong approach and it is everyone’s duty to keep active watch and question what they see in society. And if things do go fundamentally wrong, sometimes the only way to stop the madness it is to refuse to participate and step out, just like Tatiana, Hans, Auri and L. did. Stepping out can mean different things. In some cases it only means turning off the TV.