VIENNA SHORTS: Two short documentaries from Vienna Shorts representing two distinct sides of the modern human experience, one digital and one all too real.

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Neil Young
Young is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: June 12, 2019

Swatted/Black Bus Stop

Ismaël Joffroy ChandoutisKevin Jerome EversonClaudrena Harold

France, USA

«Cyberspace», as William Gibson defined in his seminal science-fiction novel Neuromancer, is «a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters, and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…»

Gibson’s book was published in 1984 when the word «cyberspace» would have been unfamiliar even to the majority of his readers. Spool forward to 2019—a plausible juncture for early-80s speculative fiction to be set, where for billions, it is the place (as Gibson also put it, famously) where banks keep your money, where emails are exchanged, where social-media proliferates — is in effect as much a part of their daily lives as the actual physical environment.

Swatted

The myriad liminal zones where cyberspace and reality intersect, meanwhile, have developed some bizarre and even hazardous anomalies. One particularly troubling fault-line is imaginatively probed in Ismaël Joffroy Chandoutis’s Swatted, a 21-minute artistic documentary which premiered at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) last November, and whose quality has been recognised at numerous subsequent events around the festival circuit.

For billions around the world, cyberspace is in effect as much a part of their daily lives as the actual physical environment.

Swatted, seemingly «filmed» without a camera in the traditional sense, is primarily comprised from two sources: found-footage from internet streaming-sites (in which multiple gamers experience, view and comment upon their shared play) combined with dreamy, hallucinatory «Machinima» animations created by manipulating the software of the popular 2013 computer-game Grand Theft Auto V. The latter conjures spindly quasi-cities populated by militarised cops: SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) divisions engaged in gravity-defying patrols.

Ismaël Joffroy Chandoutis (b.1988) made the film at Le Fresnoy, a French film-school notably open to experimental and radical approaches. He plunges us into the world of «swatting»: an elaborate, dangerous offshoot of cyber-bullying by which gamers surreptitiously obtain their rivals’ addresses and then fake emergency calls, resulting in the hapless victim receiving a visit from gung-ho SWAT personnel.

The film features audio and video extracts of «swatting» incidents dating back to 2014; it begins with a recording of a phoney 911 call from a teenager who has supposedly shot his father, confined his mother and brother in a «closet» and «poured gasoline all over the house. I might just set it on fire». It’s an arresting opening for a work that provides a chilling snapshot of an activity that combines prankishness with near-psychopathic disregard for others. We’re into a dark realm of «games without frontiers,» as players of GTA and similar entertainments (several of those depicted are «first-person shooters» including SWAT-based scenarios) find edgier, illicit kicks from tormenting others from the safety of their bedrooms.

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Swatted, a short documentary by Ismaël Joffroy Chandoutis

Chandoutis eschews commentary, instead opting for an immersive impressionistic survey of the swatting phenomenon. His intricately constructed virtual cityscapes, with buildings reduced to spindly outlines and the ground beneath our feet vertiginously erased, become a fragile backdrop for first-person testimonies. These movingly explicate the trauma experienced by the «swatted.» He delves sensitively into a complex social phenomenon of the digital age, within a context of American gun-violence—all of the examples chosen are from the USA—which makes the faked brutality all the more horribly plausible.

The myriad liminal zones where cyberspace and reality intersect, meanwhile, have developed some bizarre and even hazardous anomalies.

What really makes Swatted stand out is Chandoutis’ flair for composition and the editing of sound and image: the pulse-pounding suspense and urgency of the swatting incidents alternates with ethereal CGI nocturnes including the one with which it exhilaratingly concludes. Chandoutis cuts to black with his SWAT operative treading water mid-air; his own next steps should be closely followed.

Black Bus Stop

Kevin Jerome Everson (b.1965) is by contrast well established as a prolific, important voice on the global documentary scene, much of whose work addresses aspects of the historical and current situations of African-Americans. Always political, sometimes angry, sometimes reflective and often formally daring, Everson’s work spans the entirety of the duration spectrum: his Park Lanes (2015) observes the full shift of a group of factory workers and thus runs eight hours, while he has also directed more than a hundred shorts, some of them just a few minutes long.

He is perhaps best known for Tonsler Park (2017), an 80-minute record of four polling stations in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is the Professor of Art at the state university (UVA). Since 2013 Everson has occasionally collaborated with his UVA colleague Claudrena N. Harold, Professor of African American and African Studies and History. The latest fruit of their partnership is Black Bus Stop, a fiery, angular, unruly nine-minute celebration of the eponymous location on the UVA campus. Like Swatted, it played at the Vienna Shorts* festival in Austria in June; Everson and Harold received the jury prize in the international Fiction/Documentary competition.

Charlottesville achieved unwanted international notoriety in August 2017 via «Unite the Right», a gathering of various extremist-reactionary and white-supremacist groups eager to publicly flex their muscles in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration seven months before.  The rally, ostensibly organised to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate leader General Robert E Lee from a public park, proved a predictably ugly affair whose tense atmosphere ultimately took a tragic turn when a member of the «Alt-Right» deliberately rammed his car into a group of anti-fascist protestors, killing a 32-year old local woman, Heather Heyer.

the people involved are flesh and blood, engaged in a joyous interaction with their concrete, sometimes hostile surroundings.

But as former UVA student JT Roane later wrote on the website Cassius Life, this «eruption of violence in Charlottesville is no aberration… The fabric of the city and the University consistently recall and replay the history of white vitriol and mob violence that will continue unabated so long as white folks, including the liberals who are «shocked,» avoid reckoning with the violent totality of this whole god-damned country. But in my time at UVA and in Charlottesville, I also knew of other possibilities. I also came to taste the fruits of Black resilience, beauty, and power staged right there in that evil space. We had the Black Bus Stop—a place on the on central grounds where you could find Black people any time of day chatting, listening to music, stepping, romancing, flirting, laughing, living in our fullness.»

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Black Bus Stop, a short documentary by Kevin Jerome Everson & Claudrena N. Harold

Everson and Harold’s film begins with vérité-style footage of young students sitting on the bus stop benches during the daytime, the soundtrack an overlapping polyphony through which we glean fragments of dialogue which attest to the location’s importance, especially back in the day when those present «didn’t have social media.» The importance of al fresco face-to-face interaction is emphasised, the protagonists here the diametrical opposite of the avatar-toting, bedroom-bound computer-addicts of Joffrey Chandoutis’ Swatted.

After this lively and slightly discombobulating introduction, the bulk of the work comprises choreographed dances and anthems performed by members of black sorority and fraternity houses (Marjani Forté is credited as the choreographer). The sun has now set: proud and defiant, the students enact elaborate, rigorously controlled rituals which bond them to their current peers and link them back to their forerunners in the early part of the 20th century. A humble bus stop is thus transfigured into a kind of ad-hoc agora, a stage where dynamic expressions of exuberance speak loudly and positively about how African Americans embody and perpetuate their heritage. Like Swatted, Black Bus Stop climaxes with transcendent exhilaration—but this time the people involved are flesh and blood, engaged in a joyous interaction with their concrete, sometimes hostile surroundings. They shall overcome.

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* note: the author heads the Austrian National Competition section at Vienna Shorts, but had no role in the selection or presentation of Swatted or Black Bus Stop.


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