It’s oddly appropriate that Argentine director Eduardo Williams’ feature debut, “The Human Surge” picked up the top prize in Locarno’s “Filmmakers of the Present” sidebar, because watching it does make one acutely experience the present tense — a disproportionate amount of present tense considering its 99 minute runtime. Williams’ formal rigor is to be admired, as is his confidence that anything but the nichiest of audiences might feel inspired to provide for themselves all the things his film wilfully withholds.
But theoretical admiration alone is a poor substitute for engagement, and, lacking in narrative or character (the film is all theme and no story), the payoff moments for all one’s carefully invested attention are few and far between. The fact that one of those moments involves macro footage of subterranean ants burrowing through the earth — and that it feels like the warmest and most human section of the film — gives you some idea of just how distancing Williams’ approach can feel. For all the apparent intimacy of the docu-realist handheld camerawork, people are little more than microbes in the petri dish of his formalist experiment, their Brownian motion observed with a forensically dispassionate eye.
It’s a frustrating proposition from the start: In murky interiors too low-lit to even discern a silhouette except when a shaft of dull daylight catches the edge of a T-shirt or a suggestion of a leg, a figure shuffles through the poky rooms of a small house, opening doors, brushing his teeth. This is Exe (Sergio Morosini), the first of three young men on different continents whom we will follow a while (and that’s often literal: we become well acquainted with the backs of all three heads). Exe wades through the flooded streets of his hardscrabble Buenos Aires neighborhood to his warehouse supermarket job — from which, we later learn, he gets fired. He visits family, and hangs with a gang of guys who nonchalantly strip and perform sex acts upon each other for webcam money. It feels like a standard social-realist critique up to this point, even if the dialogue has a vaguely surrealistic quality in which the mumbled, banal delivery is at odds with the dreamy disjoint of the words.
But then the first of two clever transitions happens: Exe is online watching Alf (Shine Marx) a young man in Mozambique, perform another, slightly less explicit webcam sex routine, when suddenly, via an almost imperceptible cut when the connection is briefly lost and that little spinning wheel appears, we are in the room with Alf, and the baton is passed from South America to Africa with deceptive simplicity. Alf leads a similarly unfulfilling life, dislikes his job and decides to essentially run away to the jungle with his friend Archie. That evening, Archie relieves himself outdoors, drenching some busy ants below, whom we then follow with nature-documentary interest as they work though the dirt, only to resurface in an anthill in the Philippines, where Cahn (Domingos Marengula) brushes them irritably from his fingertips. And with that, we’re in Asia, with a new set of people to observe and scarcely understand (a typically impenetrable exchange: “How many times was I killed and almost never disappeared?” “If the moon were your cousin.”)
The transitions absolutely work, joining the three strands formally, in such a way that makes manifest the film’s thematic correlations: the three protagonists share their youth, their lack of wherewithal, their dissociative interactions with the world around them and their much more vital relationship with technology — specifically cellphones and internet devices.
An epilogue shot of masked employees at a workbench assembling tablet devices further signals that Williams, falling somewhere between technophobia and technophilia, wants to communicate the irony that the technologies we’ve invented to make connection easier have themselves impeded that process. Cellphones are things that get lost, become waterlogged, need to be borrowed, begged. Text messages are both laborious and enigmatic. And the search for wifi or internet connection is constant, and most often unsuccessful. If the slender paradox at the heart of the film is that the thing that connects us most is the difficulty of connection, “The Human Surge” is a victim of its own effectiveness: It’s rigorous, rarefied, and utterly remote.