Saturday, October 09, 2010

Three VIFF docs

Nénette: Nénette is the name of a 40-odd year old orangutan in captivity in Paris. This documentary about her mostly shows us close up images of her and her fellows, as we listen to voiceovers of zoo visitors and staff talking, mostly about her. One of the final people we hear offers the most astute observations - that (I can only paraphrase) after 40 years in captivity, there is pretty much nothing she witnesses from her cage that can surprise, or indeed mean much of anything to her; he talks about her impossible ennui - the sadness and despair that come of having a comfortable life that is entirely devoid of meaning. The truth of these observations is visible from the opening closeup, of Nénette's bored, blank stare, and reinforced throughout the film, where the most challenging task Nénette faces is adjusting her blankets. The VIFF guide makes the point that through it all, Nénette retains her dignity, which I suppose is true enough, and I guess this film has its heart somewhere close to the right place, but I must say: watching a very depressed/ unimpressed elderly ape, however sympathetic she might be, do pretty much nothing at all for an hour and some is not my idea of a good time at the cinema. ...And here I took my Mom to it, thinking she would be entertained!

By contrast, both Mom and I liked Into Eternity, a chilly, grim, and smart look at the construction of a facility for the permanent underground storage of Finnish nuclear waste, designed not to be disturbed for 100,000 years. The festival guide is right on about this one - I have little to add that isn't a mere quibble (ie., I would have liked to have learned a bit more about nuclear waste per se, as opposed to the amount of time spent on questions of how to keep future humans, in whatever state they may be 100,000 years from now, from digging it up). On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed the film's cool formalism, its atmospheric soundtrack (featuring Kraftwerk!) and its conceit of addressing the people of the future. Plus I did learn quite a bit I did not know (contra Nénette - I've known for some time that captivity is not a good place for wild animals). Highly recommended.

Plug and Pray: also recommended, is a look at the state of Artificial Intelligence, which gives a great deal of time to one of its earliest proponents and most stalwart critics, the late Joseph Weizenbaum. As a lay person with no particular knowledge of AI or robotics, I found a lot of what this doc showed fresh and interesting. It would have been nice if Weizenbaum hadn't been given the job of "sole dissenting voice" in the mad plunge forward of technology (I mean, it can't be just him and the Unabomber with grave concerns), and it would have been interesting to learn in a bit more detail how advanced the AI in inventions like Geminoid actually is. In the end, for all Weizenbaum's arguments, solid as they seem, and his well-aimed wry barbs, they never quite equal the "gee-this-is-cool-shit" feeling that you get watching androids conduct guessing games or trying to kiss Japanese teenagers, but I guess that's a point in the documentary's favour, that it leaves you to resolve your own feelings amidst the pros and cons considered. Definitely thought-provoking stuff.

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