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Monday 19 October 2009

8th Wonderland (2008)

Directors: Nicolas Alberny and Jean Mach
Shooting a movie in twelve languages can only be described as ambitious, especially when it's done by a couple of young Frenchmen who seem to be relatively inexperienced. Nicolas Alberny and Jean Mach co-wrote and co-directed, Alberny only having a few shorts and some soundtrack compositions behind him and Mach one feature back in 2004 called Par l'odeur alléché.... Yet they've conjured up in 8th Wonderland a film that is the most thought provoking picture I've seen since The Man from Earth and which continues to resonate in my thoughts long after the credits rolled. That they did what they did on such a low budget is impressive, that they did it on a global scale through a complex network of translators is even more so.

At any point in time there are a few things going on, with an underlying analogy that begins as the opening static turns into bugs. We're watching some sort of nature documentary about an army of cockroaches led by one who has had a chip implanted into it. These roaches follow their leader everywhere but eventually prove that they can continue on without him, a massive force of nature even without direct leadership. Though it punctuates the film here and there to reinforce its relevance, it quickly disappears as someone changes channels on us. Soon we find ourselves watching some sort of recruitment video for something called 8th Wonderland.

8th Wonderland calls itself a country, one of many concepts that bear reevaluation after watching this film. Most people would see it as a collection of people who meet online to share a common interest. They call themselves a country because that common interest becomes something that overrides any prior loyalties and they become a force of nature able to influence things on a global scale from a convenient cloak of anonymity. They have no leader, they propose motions weekly and vote on them in online referenda in the closest thing to pure democracy I've ever seen.

Initially they seem to be a prankster outfit, mounting stunts like equipping churches in the Vatican with condom machines or publishing the Darwin Bible with its 'authentic' ancient pictures of evolution. Many of these are thought provoking, such as when they kidnap three internationally renowned football players and force them to work in a third world sweatshop for a week making trainers, then dump them back in the real world with a dollar each as pay. They even broadcast it as a reality TV show. Some are hilarious too, such as the kidnap of Paris, the turkey selected this year to be traditionally pardoned by the US President for Thanksgiving. The subsequent 'I want to be a turkey' demonstrations are hilarious, one newscaster finding it impossible to relate the story without breaking up.

Like any democracy they evolve. Being on the news is great but they don't seem to ever achieve anything: the Pope doesn't come out on the side of contraceptives just because of some successful stunt. So they become more ambitious, especially after the name of 8th Wonderland is discovered and associated with their doings, which the 8th Wonderland citizens previously did not claim responsibility for. Their exploits get more daring, but remain purely democratic. If something is passed by vote it happens, even if it goes against their previously stated goals. They have no consistency and do not pander to precedent. So the film asks the question of whether this would work without ever answering that it would or wouldn't. There's a bright side and a dark side. 8th Wonderland begins to achieve great things, but how much could you allow without it breaking your own principles?

One such event happens early on before we skip back eight months to find out how and why. Pablo Guereiro is reelected as his unnamed country's leader, contiguous with an 8th Wonderland vote, and when the votes are announced, his aide promptly assassinates him. Of course this aide is a citizen of 8th Wonderland, these citizens being comprised of a fascinating and eclectic bunch. Some are unemployed, some employed in high up positions of power. Some are privileged and educated men working within the system, some are connecting from a Caribbean internet café on poor and expensive connections. They're from all countries, all walks of life, both sexes and they run the gamut of every other descriptor you could imagine. One is a globetrotting lingerie model, one is an Iranian woman restricted by culture and politics from doing much of anything, except through 8th Wonderland.

The film does rely on much that wouldn't work in the real world, not least everyone sharing a common password to the system but nobody ever giving it up to the authorities. Some of these conveniences are immediately obvious, others only after a little thought. One gem of a scene provides the epitome of this: it features an interpreter in a meeting between the Russian and Iranian leaders about a nuclear power plant deal. She provides a peach of a way to cause dissension at a critical point in world affairs because she's the only person in the room who speaks both languages needed. No, it couldn't happen in real life, each side savvy enough to bring their own translators, but it makes for joyous cinema.

There are many successes here that provide that joy. One such is in the editing, there being very little conventional story here. Most of the film is told either through news footage and a virtualisation of 8th Wonderland. The news footage is global and is the epitome of the film's multilingual approach. While the language within 8th Wonderland is English, these news reporters read their news in the language of their country, of which there are many. To highlight the global scale, these news stories are edited such as to be told across multiple channels and languages even within the same sentence. It's a major achievement and I can't think of a single other film that meets the same global challenge with such aplomb.

The way we see discourse within 8th Wonderland is fascinating. The virtualisation is technologically nonsensical but very apt as a symbolic attempt to show us online meetings without an endless succession of chatroom logs, hardly something that would translate easy into a visual experience. Again, it's not an easy achievement but a clever one, made even more clever by how these online discussions move offline. Whether it be people recognising each other in a bar or arguments spilling offline between the middle Eastern girl and her father, it's appropriate and succeeds in raising yet more questions in our minds. There are so many questions and so little time, but the film succeeds in raising them all yet still keeping focus on the main thrust of the story.

The biggest success in my eyes is the abuse of 8th Wonderland by others after it becomes public knowledge. A man named John McClane (not the one from Die Hard) announces to the press that he is the leader of 8th Wonderland. He's a fraud but he carries himself well and he seems to have inside knowledge, so the public believe him and 8th Wonderland's citizens are forced to respond by appointing an ambassador to the real world. This speaks to the benefits and disadvantages of such an online world, one of the core concerns of the film, the tagline being 'How to fight a country that doesn't exist?' The eventual response by the intelligence agencies mirrors that of the music industry today and their often unintentionally hilarious attempts to stop progress, always doomed to being at least a step behind the people they're fighting. The evolution of 8th Wonderland mirrors the evolution of file sharing, one of the most fascinating stories in technology today, the internet proving to be a hydra who always provides two new heads for every one cut off.

The questions keep on resonating long after the film's ending. A film festival is a busy thing, packed with films and collections of shorts, Q&A sessions and autograph lines. It becomes difficult to find time to eat or sleep, let alone think out films as complex as this one. Yet this one, only the second film we saw this year, staked out a claim in my brain and refuses to be quiet, throwing out new connections and progressions and inevitabilities at the strangest moments. It's already very clear that it isn't going to go away.

Shot over a couple of years from 2006-2007 with heavy use of translators, this can't have been an easy film to produce and there's an inherent need for the filmmakers to give up large amounts of control and rely on trust, not something particularly commonplace in film production. The filmmakers are French so that was the language of the set and they apparently have some ability in other languages, presumably mostly English, the first language to many and the second language to most. However they are certainly not fluent in every language used in this film, so I can't help but wonder if there's anything here to act as a cinematic equivalent to the old chestnut of gullible girls getting fashionable tattoos of Japanese kanji that don't say anything close to what they think they mean. The trick played by the translator in the film could easily have been played by a translator working on the film. That would be a prank worthy of 8th Wonderland.

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