This article was produced as part of the Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring journalists at the Locarno Film Festival, a collaboration between the Locarno Film Festival, IndieWire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the support of Film Comment and the Swiss Alliance of Film Journalists.
You probably came across this essay while scrolling along your Twitter or Facebook feed, where the image above was one of dozens of embedded pictures and videos vying for your attention. This is a typical experience in a time when social media is central to our lives and advances in consumer technology have endowed everyone with the ability to capture high-quality images with ease. On a daily basis, we’re faced with a deluge of visual stimulation, as looping comedy clips, breaking news and glamorous vacation shots flood our devices. With so much to see, it’s easy to lose touch with what it means to see—to have our relationships to images abstracted, disrupting our capacity to discern exactly how we are being affected by what crosses our eyesight.
Cinema is uniquely equipped to combat this. By presenting still and moving images in ways that flex our skills of visual comprehension, a film can serve a rehabilitative function. Upon exiting the theater, you may discover a renewed sense of clarity about how pictures and videos leave physical and emotional impressions on the audience. This was a familiar sensation at the recent Locarno International Film Festival, where multiple films in the program made a point of confronting visual overstimulation and interrogating how our modes of perception have been bent by the gadgets around us.
Take “Interchange,” a supernatural mystery movie from Malaysia. As the film opens, an ornately costumed drag queen stands at a microphone for a gloriously stagy song performance. A rash of cell phones document the show in the foreground. This conspicuous inclusion from director Dain Iskandar Said takes on a new dimension when, moments later, the singer makes a shocking discovery backstage: a person has been stabbed through the chest, on which a primitive glass plate photograph rests.
An investigation into the murder reveals that it’s part of a series of rituals involving a Bornean tribe that believes in the superstition that pictures can steal souls. One of the men leading the investigation is a forensic photographer newly back from a leave of absence, taken because the man could not longer handle photographing dead bodies. The tension between this man, shut down by an inundation of violent images, and the tribe members terrified by single rudimentary photos serves as a reminder that stability lies between these poles.
Destroying images out of fear of their power is a futile task, but some images can be discomfiting to the point that processing them is impossible. “Interchange” encourages its audience to find a middle ground where they can acknowledge the power of images while refusing to become trapped by them.
Once in that space, identifying how images function in order to impact viewers is more manageable. That “I Had Nowhere to Go,” the Douglas Gordon documentary starring avant-garde iconoclast Jonas Mekas, deals with this line of questioning may surprise those who learn that roughly 90 of its 100 minutes consist of a black screen with audio narration. That scarcity of visuals opens the film up to pinpoint the ways images alter observers.
Early in the film, a solid red screen slowly fades in, then fades back out. Staring at this directly burns an impression onto the viewer’s vision, the same way looking directly at a bright bulb might. Thus viewers are reminded that seeing an image has a documentable physical effect on them.
The film continues to dissect how images communicate with audiences later on, as Gordon settles on a shot of a chimpanzee resting in a hammock. For minutes on end, the shot goes unexplained. After it fades to black, however, Mekas’ voice returns to tell a story about visiting a zoo that corresponds directly with the earlier shot. Divorcing the shot from its context hones in on how what we get out of an image is dependent on what surrounds it. Images affect us because they commune with other images, with our culture and society, and with history.
Such history can be global — or it can be strikingly personal. Milagros Mumenthaler’s second feature “The Idea of a Lake” revolves around family history and memory as Inès, a professional photographer, compiles a book about her childhood memories of vacations to a family lake house. The impetus for the project is her attachment to a photo of her as a toddler alongside her father—the only photo taken of Inès and her father before he disappeared in the wake of a coup d’état.
As Inès journeys back through her memories, it’s clear they are colored by the photos she has from the time period. Our own memories, we realize, are shaped as much by how they are documented as they are by our actual experiences. Those memories aren’t fixed either — particularly when everyone can edit images on their computers. In one scene, Inès opens the treasured photo in Photoshop, zooming in on the faces as if looking for an unnoticed detail. Because images are easier to manipulate, memories are also more vulnerable to revision.
Pocket devices with professional recording capabilities and social media networks are here to stay. As it becomes even easier to modify and distribute images, taking the time to clarify how we relate to them will prove beneficial in facing the day in, day out tidal wave of visual information. Movies like those discussed above can offer audiences a chance to meditate on what we see and how it affects us. Without this recalibration, we risk succumbing to the flood.