Taking Stock of “The Human Surge”

Eduardo Williams's latest film reads like Linklater's Slacker for the global post-Internet age.

Work and communication have both evolved a lot in the last century, but have we evolved as a species? Go to a crowded place sometime—a shopping mall, a public square, whatever—and watch the crowd with this question in mind. Though the people around you are likely communicating in some fashion or another, do they ultimately seem disconnected? Do they look “natural” in the relationship they’re sharing with personal electronics? Do the things your fellow humans do for money, generally speaking, seem to provide them with a clear, non-abstract purpose?

While there have been a great deal of socially conscious movies to gain popular traction in the last year or two (a trend that will surely only ramp up in our current political hellscape), few have bothered to address these specific, but broad, socio-philosophical concerns with the curiosity—and ultimately ambivalence—appropriate to the subject. Sure, there was Ex Machina (an endearingly ham-fisted dystopian warning flare) or Her (perhaps too hard welded to Hollywood storytelling modes to really get at the complexities of the subject), not to mention the techno-alarmism of Black Mirror or the multi-layered explorations of Werner Herzog‘s Internet documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, but all ask big questions in big ways, and with relatively little ambiguity.

If one movie in the last year has gotten down (quite literally) in the dirt to examine modern humanity’s complex relationship with work and communication, in all its tiny nuances, it’s El Auge del Humano (The Human Surge), the debut feature by Argentinian director Eduardo Williams, out now on DVD via Grasshopper Film. Williams trots the globe from Argentina to Mozambique to the Philippines to trail behind three post-industrial/post-Internet youths, stopping along the way to watch the complex dance of ants working and the maddening repetition of a factory making tablets. The film’s vignettes are connected by incidental, disconnected interactions between these geographically disparate characters, like a communication age update of Richard Linklater‘s Slacker. Though each section is shot using different equipment, each with its own distinct textures, the whole thing is unified by a decidedly raw look and feel, almost never distracting from its subjects by anything more than spartan cinematography and non-obtrusive sound design. Altogether, it’s an original, challenging look at what will likely be most important dilemma of our current century (at least, if the planet lasts that long): How do we keep stride in the march of technological progress without getting lost in the machine ourselves?

The funniest part is that, throughout The Human Surge, virtually nothing is said directly about that very dilemma. In fact, most of the dialogue jumps between mundane and surrealistic so readily that you might think you’re losing something in translation. Williams instead endeavors to let the characters’ actions do the talking, whether those actions be exposing themselves on a webcam for money or walking through an unfamiliar village asking virtually everyone on the street where one might find an Internet cafe. The characters are disengaged from their work and looking for an escape hatch; when the real world doesn’t offer ample distraction, they get bored and turn to their phones and computers, desperate for a connection.

When the real world doesn’t offer ample distraction, they get bored and turn to their phones and computers, desperate for a connection.

This description makes it sound like an anti-technology treatise, but The Human Surge is hardly that. Never does one get the feeling that Williams wishes to persuade the viewer to get “back to the land” or some such thing. It seems more that he just thinks it’s important to observe what is happening at this point in history, to study and learn from it.

The characters also all appear to be living in varying stages of poverty, at least by western standards, but never does one feel that that is integral to the story. Had Williams’s eye wandered into the life of a hapless US tech freelancer for a while, the tone of the story would remain much the same. If there’s any clear thesis statement, it’s something along the lines of that old saw, “We’re really not so different.”

Due to its challenging nature, both philosophically and aesthetically—its pace, it must be said, is dreamy and languid, beckoning you to meet it at its level while refusing to reach out a helping hand—The Human Surge hasn’t yet made its way to many screens outside the festival circuit, but hopefully this will change when it becomes available for home viewing. For those concerned about the changing nature of work, the struggle to connect in modern society, or just imaginative and original independent filmmaking, The Human Surge is among the most essential viewing of the last year. FL

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