Over the coming months our column We Like Shorts, Shorts will play host to a series of pieces about the new short documentary series Field of Vision, hosted over at The Intercept and co-created by Laura Poitras, AJ Schnack and Charlotte Cook.
Like – Dominic Barlow
No inspired idea escapes being commodified, and so it is with the ubiquitous Like button that fuelled the rise of Facebook. Ostensibly a display of shared taste and social awareness, Garrett Bradley’s Like takes us into the underground market it has inadvertently created, where Bangladeshi office workers farm Likes in exchange for money from clients looking to boost their brands. He does this less through a dry investigation and more through surreal language that isolates, slows and freezes real-world interactions (a man takes another’s photo by the train tracks, a boy rides backseat on a motorbike to school) into static moments; the kind that are then partitioned and quantified by social media. Under a droning score (the Marcus Fischer track “Three Drifts”) and steady camerawork by Zac Manuel, Dhaka (and indeed the world) becomes yet more data to be partitioned and profited from, and the film becomes more compelling than one might expect.
Like cements the irony of a personality-driven network becoming an impersonal cash flow in the way Bradley, as both director and editor, disembodies most of his interview subjects. This is a legal practice because it’s real human beings doing the Liking, but you wouldn’t know it from the way Jewel A. Rob, the one worker who introduces himself in the seven-minute runtime, robotically copies and pastes links into numerous comments sections, which we watch in a detached perspective of our own as an off-screen recording of a computer monitor. Indeed, they workers take this displacement of personability in their stride, especially when we’re informed that Facebook started shutting down Like-paying pages in 2012 to boost its own system of paid promotion and sponsorship. An unnamed manager sums up the dynamic with chilling pertinence: “Facebook is treating this whole connection like love, and the intelligent marketer is treating it like prostitution.”
What value does this interaction, born as it is from genuine human pleasure, have in an environment that has snared it for capital gain? It’s as puzzling as the labour market in Bangladesh, which has a surfeit of workers chasing dream lines of work (engineering, medicine) that simply can’t be afforded to them, as we’re told by a citizen in the film. Hence, they either spend their life in unlawful labour or give it entirely from brands and operators putting economic stability before wellbeing. Like doesn’t just settle for acknowledging this cultural context, but also presents Rob as someone who takes the marketing role as a necessity to afford his art, which is a self-serving goal and the last humane arc in a circular process. Bradley comes very close to depicting this in predictable aesthetic terms, but then thwarts his final image in a way that makes it pleasingly ambiguous. Even the inevitable is obscured.
Speaking is Difficult – Conor Bateman
AJ Schnack is one of the co-founders of the Field of Vision project but Speaking is Difficult, which premiered at Sundance in January, played at True/False Fest in March and hit the web via The Intercept in April, is the first short he has helmed himself in the series. ‘Helmed’ here is perhaps conceptual, as Speaking is assembled from the work of many others: a group of 20-odd cinematographers Schnack sent across the United States to capture landscapes and audio from 911 dispatch calls made by civilians witnessing acts of mass shootings.1 As you’d expect from that description, the two are intrinsically linked in heartbreaking fashion; Speaking is Difficult is a restrained survey of the aftermath of mass shootings in America since the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon in 2011, told in reverse chronological order. Schnack in the edit and his cinematographers in the streets train their eyes on the conflict between normalcy and perpetual mourning: there are tattered tribute banners on wire fences, a slogan for recovery hanging from a window then turned into a town’s motto, the demolished site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
As a work of landscape cinema, Speaking is in the vein of James Benning’s Deseret, which paired shots of Monument Valley with narration about the Mormon migration to the state of Utah. Schnack’s film, though, due to its sense of history and its mode of editing, is much more immediate in its political statement, formally subdued but implicitly confrontational. Schnack has made a career out of filming U.S. politics, with his 2008 feature Convention following the Democrats, 2013’s Caucus looking at the Republican race in Iowa and his short-run television series Midterms in 2014 having a bipartisan focus, so the gut-punch of a pivot at the end of Speaking – to Giffords testifying at a Senate hearing on gun violence – is well within Schnack’s cinematic purview.
It’s not just through this ending that the film projects a political urgency, rather it’s in its very construction; the sheer number of shootings, locations, voices we hear across this 14-minute short are both surprising and tragic. The measured and unsurprised tone of the 911 phone operators reflects not only the professional standard of training they get but also, when played back-to-back, a weary fatalist acceptance on the part of Americans with regards to the prevalence of gun violence. As the on-screen text near the film’s end notes, since 2011 mass shootings have happened in America once every 78 days. Speaking is Difficult addresses this horrifying number with restraint, intelligence and a muted fury. PBS should be screening it every day in primetime.