In our regular column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. This week Conor Bateman looks at a relatively early film from prolific documentarian Alex Gibney, The Human Behavior Experiments.
Date Watched: 21st May, 2015
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 11
This year at the Sydney Film Festival, two films from documentarian Alex Gibney will be screening, Going Clear and Mr. Dynamite, taking his total of films that have played at the festival to seven which, according to my understanding and brief research, makes him one of the most often screened documentarians in the history of the Sydney Film Festival.1 Now any mention of Gibney’s name seems to come with the adjective ‘prolific’ (look – I even did it in the intro!) and the focus on this fairly astounding output – 16 features in between 2010-2015 – does take away from the fact that he’s able to make a consistent style of documentary regardless of form. Some of his bigger ‘theatrical’ documentaries (at least those screened here in Australia), were co-produced by HBO and screened on their network following festival screenings, which is exactly what has happened for both Going Clear and Mr. Dynamite. He’s also worked with the BBC (for Park Avenue), ESPN (the masterful Catching Hell and contributions to their 30 for 30 Shorts and Soccer Stories series) and, perhaps the most odd television partnership he’s had, with Court TV and Sundance TV for the 2006 TV movie The Human Behavior Experiments.
It’s not particularly odd but the influence in editing and structure is very episodic; divided into three sections, The Human Behavior Experiments unfurls like a Malcolm Gladwell chapter, providing us with a snapshot of a bizarre modern crime, then walking through the social psychology behind it, as explored in three infamous experiments from 1962 to 1971. The first of these three experiments is the most well known, Stanley Milgrim’s theories of obedience as tested through an experiment involving electric shocks a subject was instructed to dole out to another, finding that even the most ordinary person can be led to acts of depravity if instructed to by an authority figure. Milgrim’s study, as Gibney relays to us through footage of Milgrim talking to camera, was initially focused on trying to solve the puzzle of German obedience under Nazism, how average citizens found themselves carrying out horrifying acts. What makes this first segment especially compelling is the modern case married with it, the McDonalds strip search incident that inspired the 2012 independent film Compliance, where a con-man impersonating a police officer on the phone managed to convince a McDonalds manager to strip search one of her young employees, culminating in an ever greater act of sexual assault. The fact that in this case, and in the other two sections, Gibney and his team manage to get interviews with those involved in each horrific incident makes the film rise above a mere recount of social psychology. Commenting on this case, Thomas Blass, Milgrim’s biographer, essentially captures the entire query of this documentary – “the mystery is not in the con man but in the victims. Why would they obey?”
The second ‘experiment’ is an illustration of diffusion of responsibility, that being where there is more than one person able to act, they will be less likely to offer assistance to someone in need. The film shows clips from experiments by John Darley and Bibb Latané at Columbia University that contrast responses to danger facing unseen others and clearly show that a herd mentality exists. The infamous Kitty Genovese incident, in which nearly 40 New Yorkers watched as a woman was stabbed and crying out for help, is cited as a real-life forerunner to the experiment, and a frat hazing that resulted in manslaughter is cited as a more recent incident of this diffusion.
The final experiment cited is one with immediate relevancy, as it is paired with the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The controversial Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, where Dr. Philip Zimbardo placed 24 average men in a mock-prison, and randomly assigned them to the role of guard or prisoner, had some pretty remarkable findings about power roles and authority. With a lack of any further instruction, the men acting as guards assaulted and abused their ‘prisoners’ to the point of mental breakdown, all because they thought that, in the absence of intervention by Zimbardo, they could do as they pleased. The argument that this experiment is a clear analogy for Abu Ghraib isn’t entirely convincing due to many extra elements and incidents at the Iraqi prison, but it still manages to underline the value of social psychology experiments and the predictability of human behavior. This final segment also has greater relevance with regards to Gibney’s own filmography, as within a year he had released Taxi to the Dark Side, his Oscar-winning exploration of the U.S. Army-led torture of Iraqis, with a segment of that film also dealing with the Abu Ghraib abuse.
Having David Strathairn narrate is a pretty inspired choice, particularly as he’d just come off of being the voice of truth as Edward Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, giving Gibney’s film this strange sense of authority, despite the fact the film is more of an intentionally surface-level examination. Like Gladwell’s books (in particular The Tipping Point), The Human Behavior Experiments serves as something of a crash course in social psychology, and a consistently entertaining one.The Court TV financing comes through, though, in the major focus on the modern crimes and the way they are edited, but Gibney seems more interested in the original experiments that they echoed. Gibney’s focus on human behavior, or at least his interest in these experiments, goes back (at least) to his first documentary, The Ruling Classroom (1979), in which he and co-director Peter Bull filmed the second of George Muldoon’s social experiments with seventh-graders, in which he re-structured his classroom to more closely represent a capitalist democracy akin to that of the United States.2
The Human Behavior Experiments is an unusual Gibney venture – it’s not focused on a small group of people, an individual or an organisation, but on humanity more broadly – and despite, or perhaps because of, its 1-hour runtime, it manages to be both informative and entertaining.