Discussing economics, globalism, full employment (the leftist goal of yesteryear) or full automation with universal basic income (the leftist goal of today) in a film remains a pretty foolish endeavor. Look no further than the American multiplex to see an assault by a sort of corporate noblesse oblige which naïvely extends alms to the post-2008 poor by chastising “greed” or “the banker” or some other abstract boogeyman (Money Monster, Up in the Air, Client 9, et al.). Not only is it a cultural disservice to any actual mobilization against financialization or for much-needed legislation, but it’s incredibly dull—these films are often filled with computer screens of abstract visualized data (what are these scary analysts ever calculating, anyway?), predictable shots under stilted fluorescent lighting, and two-bit ramblings about inequality being bad (often delivered by some of the highest-paid actors). It’s tantamount to posting your charity donation to Instagram.
Therefore, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the most interesting take on the new global economy comes from outside of the system, from someone whose budget does not include parties or advertising. Eduardo “Teddy” Williams’s The Human Surge follows a very similar format to his great shorts, 2011’s Could See a Puma and 2014’s I forgot!: a camera lingers behind a group of young men as they talk about mundane parts of their lives, their jobs, their environment, and the occasional funny academic quip. It all feels like a magical realist Richard Linklater film, and its unpredictability lends a special kind of tension that’s been missing from the festival circuit for quite some time.
There’s still an identifiable structure, of course. Williams splits his films into three sections: three countries (Argentina, Mozambique, the Philippines), three formats (Super 16mm, Super 16mm filming a monitor playing shots by a BlackMagic, and RED) and three groups of people looking for technology, jobs, and leisure. These goals are often combined, such as two lengthy scenes depicting young men earning a few bucks by stripping and sucking on Chaturbate; but, more often than not, they remain unfulfilled. The young men from Argentina switch jobs and wander all over Buenos Aires looking for someone with reliable wifi. Those from Maputo walk out of their friend’s house after a Chaturbate session, the webcam following them as if an unauthorized drone. They look for a party and money owed them. Then, a jump to a jungle in the Philippines, as a young woman moves from watering hole to the local village to desperately look for a cyber café before the sun goes down. None of these sections contains any sort of antagonist except perhaps the lack of stable jobs and stable internet—otherwise Williams shoots from a place of empathy and curiosity.
And that’s about it. Trying to find any specificity or definable narrative in such a strange film would be ludicrous since Williams even veers away from familiar arthouse techniques. However, there’s still a haunting sense of familiarity surrounding the film: the mad search for wifi rivaling a mad job search (the difference being that wifi might exist somewhere), the ten-minute relationships associated with the online gig economy (here it’s Chaturbate, but it could have just as easily been Airbnb, Uber, Etsy, or any other avatars of late capitalism), and wandering aimlessly. Instead of defaulting to film school techniques to talk about how we live now, Williams simply uses how we live now as his tool. By that gauge, The Human Surge presents a world brave and new, full of creatures who’ve successfully transmuted silicon into gold and wander, together, with no clear path in sight.