"The hallways here are repulsive."
If you read that in the voice of Werner Herzog — possibly the only human alive who could find a nondescript UCLA hallway repulsive, and certainly the only one who would commit the observation to film — congratulations, you're a dyed-in-the-wool documentary fan. The words are indeed his, and they open his latest effort, which examines the revolutionary technologies that tie person to person, city to city, country to country. The title of the film is Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World and, besides being a mouthful, it is a reference to the first word ever transmitted over the Internet. Herzog's first guest, Dr. Leonard Kleinrock, explains how the message originated at a UCLA computing lab as a transmission to a similar lab at Stanford in an attempt to remotely log in to their server. During this experiment, the Stanford computer crashed in a brilliant stroke of fate, truncating the word "LOG" to "LO". As in, the professor enthusiastically reminds us, "Lo and behold!".
Enthusiasm has always been a common trait of the subjects Herzog chooses to interview. Not all those who appear in Lo and Behold are as outwardly giddy as Kleinrock, but they're all willing to engage in conversations that go beyond the dry talking head fare that would typically show up in a tech documentary made by a less existentially inquisitive director (read: any other director). As the film progresses through ten chapters, we follow the Internet from its birth into its uncertain future, stopping along the way for musings on hacking, technological dependency, artificial intelligence, and more. The poetic is never sacrificed for the informative, and experts at the top of their fields end up stumped, chuckling while trying to answer questions like, "Does the Internet dream of itself?" Therein lies the greatest strength of a film built on information that, in a ceaselessly changing digital era, is already stale, or soon will be. Lo and Behold is less concerned with what the latest technologies are and more concerned with how they reflect the incomprehensible complexity of human life.
Human life, perhaps, like that on display in another new documentary: Gianfranco Rosi's Fire at Sea. The film weaves together two vastly different ways of life on the Italian island of Lampedusa, near the northern coast of Africa. The local population is just over six thousand people, many of them sailors and fishermen, who Rosi shows leading simple, pleasant lives. Far more urgent to the film are the refugees for whom Lampedusa serves as the closest landfall as they flee the turmoil in their home countries of Syria, Eritrea, and beyond. Recent records show migrants arriving on the island at rates of over 100,000 per year. In case those figures don't already paint a picture of the humanitarian importance of Lampedusa, consider that it is also the deadliest escape route; in a guest introduction at the Carbon Arc screening, Dalhousie professor Ruben Zaiotti noted that nearly 80% of all in-transit refugee casualties occur while crossing that small stretch of the Mediterranean. The dissonance between these two intersecting worlds serves as a starting point for Fire at Sea's impressive emotional heft.
But emotional heft does not a prize-winning documentary make. The Berlinale jury that awarded the Golden Bear, their top award, to the film must have also been impressed with its craft, of which there is no shortage. Rosi, who acted as cinematographer as well as director, draws deep meaning from luscious visuals. From the early shot of a lone searchlight scanning the choppy seas to the wide landscapes of the island's misty cliffs, each frame teases something just out of sight — a capsized boat, a body washed up on shore — that never materializes. This crisis, the film suggests, is happening right under our noses. Take Samuele, the young "star" subject whose loquaciousness is matched only by his appetite for spaghetti. By day, he carves grotesque faces into cacti and shoots at them with his slingshot; by night, he and his friends run around by the glow of flashlights. That the tension and imagery recall a horror movie is no mistake, but horror movies come built to release that tension. Here, the horror is of a different sort. By the time the camera finally dips below deck on a refugee ship, we're steeped in an almost insidious sense of quotidian normalcy that quadruples the gut punch of the innumerable lives lost. Much like Herzog bringing philosophical wonderment to technology in a way only he can, Rosi has taken a topic that easily could have been manipulative or pleading and deftly crafted a document as moving as it is timely and exigent.
Another back-to-back trip to the cinema is in store for Carbon Arc audiences this week, as we bring you two Friday night films on October 28. First up at 7pm is Ixcanul, a romantic drama set at the base of a Guatemalan volcano and filmed entirely in the indigenous Mayan language of Kaqchikel. At 9:15pm, we're offering a special Halloween presentation of The Love Witch, a feminist spin on 1960s thrillers from director Anna Biller, who also wrote, produced, and personally designed the sets and costumes.