Tuesday 11 November 2014

Our Own Devices (2013)

Directors: Josh Kasselman and Stephanie Lucas
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
Perhaps the most obvious example of a local film that everyone else liked more than I did was Long Way, an IFP Phoenix Mystery Box challenge film by Josh Kasselman and Stephanie Lucas. It was the runner up at that challenge but won the audience favourite award; later, at the Phoenix Film Festival, it won as the Best Arizona Short. I found that I appreciated the idea behind the film more than I enjoyed the film itself, even having watched it a few more times and chatted about it and a key influence in Hirokazu Koreeda's Nobody Knows with Kasselman himself. It wasn't my favourite Arizona film of the year, but it wasn't even my favourite Josh Kasselman film that played within the Arizona Shorts set at the Phoenix Film Festival. I enjoyed Our Own Devices much more, as it's that rare documentary (and even rarer documentary short) that asks a lot of questions and gets a lot of answers, engages our minds on a bunch of different issues and yet leaves us with more to think about after the end credits roll.

It was shot at the Metropolitan Arts Institute in Phoenix, which I've walked past often as it occupies part of the same building as the old Phoenix Film Foundation offices, and it was made for the 2013 International Documentary Challenge. Kasselman and Lucas, who share the directorial credit on Our Own Devices, are off screen almost entirely, asking questions that we don't hear to elicit responses that we do. This works well as the film avoids restricting itself beyond the general theme of how we connect to the technology that is around us today, often sitting right there in our pockets. The responses, from both students and teachers, are consistently interesting, even when they dance with mindless commentary, because they mix insight and etiquette in succinct statements that are easily editable together. For instance, it doesn't only tell us that the younger generation is more comfortable with cellphones than preceding generations, it explains how not having them can leave them completely out of sync with those around them.

Of course, it's already dating itself because generations aren't twenty years apart when it comes to tech. Even though they were interviewed only a year ago, these students are already moving behind the curve, because personal technology is famously driven by Japanese schoolgirls. Just as some of the parents and teachers here slip up on fundamental terms, one calling Reddit 'Readit' and another tweeting 'twittering', the kids even date themselves. How many children use Facebook chat nowadays? That's now the tool of grandmothers, so they've moved on to newer tech. Of course, I'm personally far too old for some of these conversations. One teacher explains how cultural literacy has ceased to be historical and now has just as much to do with memes du jour, such as Charlie Bit My Finger and Double Rainbow. I had to look up both and I live online. Hilariously, one student references a particular important incident when explaining why she has to stay connected, but it's already a forgotten one to the interviewer.

So much of this is quotable that it becomes some of the things that it talks about, like instant gratification and the inability of human beings to truly multitask, only switch tasks. It's worth watching a few times to catch everything that's being said. To my aging brain (I'm one of those people who rode a dinosaur to the library), I can't quite keep up with everything said, so find myself letting it wash over me in the hope that some of it sticks. In this, it's amazingly successful at mimicking what it's talking about, but there's such a lot to say that it ends up losing its inevitable battle with its running time. This could easily be a feature, a longer, more in depth exploration of the points made, perhaps sectioned into a particular framework that isn't immediately obvious. Of course, if a short film can start to become out of date a year after it's made, a feature could get there during production and it would end up a neverending cycle of updates. Perhaps it would be better to shoot sequel shorts every couple of years and then collate them all together.

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