Reviews Short Narrative

Zwart (2019) – 3.5 stars

Director: Tommie Geraedts

Writers: Roy van Kessel & Arthur Menko

Cast: Rienus Krul, Julia van den Graaff, Belle Venema

Running time: 7mins

Social science-fiction is a broad term to describe any work of speculative fiction that features social commentary in its foreground – while arguably being a ‘soft’ form of sci-fi, as this makes it slightly less concerned with the hows and whys behind the hypothetical technology it features. Examples span everything from Star Trek’s peaceful post-capitalist Federation to the often brutal and totalitarian worlds depicted in the universes of 1984 or V for Vendetta – but in recent years its most successful proponent, for better of worse, has been Charlie Brooker.

Black Mirror has undeniably done some amazing and unthinkable things in its efforts to examine the increasingly toxic relationship between technology and the status quo. While technology is ultimately a tool – and cannot be objectively judged as good or evil in isolation – Black Mirror places incredible, potentially life-changing advances in a hyper-capitalistic context, examining how what could be transformative developments are instead co-opted to benefit and maintain an exploitative elite, and their grotesque and destructive social norms.

There are problems with the format, though. The short run-time, and the fact episodes are stand-alone stories, mean the execution of Black Mirror often leaves more than a little to be desired – using a hammer to complete a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces by simply mashing conflicting edges together. At its best, the show is prophetic enough in its message, and grimly humorous enough in its delivery to get away with this – but at its worst, it comes across as blunt, crass and trying to shock for the sake of shocking, somewhat undermining any grander aim its creators might have had.

Unfortunately, thanks to this approach, a great many independent filmmakers seem to have misinterpreted the success of Black Mirror. Rather than looking at its stories’ core of moral, social or political commentary, finding their own aspect of modern life they have a unique take on, and building outward from there, many of the social sci-fi creators Indy Film Library has encountered over the last two years seem fixated on the shock factor. They seem to begin their story with the “THIS IS US” climax to bludgeon their audience with, and work backwards, leaving the opening segments of their films as an unengaging churn, going through the motions in order to get to that SHOCK.

To its credit, Zwart is a slick and intense movie which almost manages to avoid the trappings of the Black Mirror sub-genre – even if its name so obviously makes it plain that it is drawing on the series for reference. The meat of the story is compelling enough, thanks largely to the emotional weight of what seems to be on the line. We will return to that ‘almost’ however…

A super-quick seven-minute short from the Netherlands, the story centres on Ronnie (Rienus Krul), who embodies all of the most pathetic and self-gratifying impulses men have spent their lives being trained to adhere to in the age of the internet. We swiftly establish he spends a good portion of his time glued to a computer screen, scrolling endlessly through soft-core cartoon pornography. It is important to note he is not the disgusting basement dweller that these vices are often attributed to – he is a relatively normal looking middle-aged man, who seems to be settled with a partner.

The sadness of this crystalises when an advert to a comic convention featuring a scantily clad young woman prompts him to research flights to the US. Ronnie wrestles with the price of his expedition – at one point flirting with ordering only one ticket, before a quick glance at his partner Britt (Julia van den Graaff) reminds him of how selfish that would be. Whether or not she would be aware or approving of his motives for taking them on the trip, we still see that on some level he cares enough for her to want to share a cross-Atlantic adventure with her.

Things suddenly take a turn though, when Google begins asking some surprisingly personal questions to confirm his identity. Assuming this is just the latest chapter in a long history of privacy violations by the tech giant, Ronnie goes along with it, and is soon confirming how many women he has slept with, and which of a list of women he prefers. To everyone watching, it is obvious he is in the process of being hacked – but his self-indulgent impulses soon render him oblivious to the situation, and before he regains his senses, a mysterious Instagrammer has Ronnie’s entire digital identity under their sinister influence.

The interlinked aspects of the Smart Home that everyone who has never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey currently lusts for suddenly become a nightmarish web, ensnaring Ronnie as Ann-Louise (Belle Venema) suddenly takes control of his supposedly benign infrastructure. With the threat that his fridge could suddenly leak webcam footage of him jerking off to some high-pitched anime porn, while his partner brews him some black coffee, Ronnie is stricken with regret and terror. Regret, because he took the caring, secure life he had for granted, and because he didn’t share his true desires or personality with Britt – terror because having kept that part of himself hidden could be about to end his relationship.

Unfortunately, it is here that we have to return to the fact the film almost avoids the trappings of Black Mirror at its worst. Excessive and indulgent in its own right, just as things seem to be approaching an emotionally impactful, morally ambiguous ending, a sudden twist essentially jettisons all that hard work. Instead, the camera abandons the story altogether, to enable a sloppy reveal designed to implicate us all as the perverse voyeurs.

Clearly a sizeable portion of the budget went towards this, with a huge digital matrix giving us an anxiety-triggering glimpse into an endless panopticon of humanity via laptop webcams. The thing is, that is a complete waste. There was no need to roughly insert this clumsy ending to make us feel like we are implicated, because anyone who has ever used a computer has searched for something which they are in some way ashamed of – and every teenager who has forgotten to erase their search history on the family computer – is aware of the blind panic that the potential discovery of their inner desires brings. We already had plenty of opportunities to connect with this story, and to understand and relate to its emotional implications.

Instead, the climax serves to distance us from what was a tense cautionary tale. We are denied any kind of closure, trauma or relief, relating to Britt and Ronnie – and instead are battered with a disappointing and disconnected “LOOK, THIS IS US, WE ALREADY ALL LIVE IN THE HELL-WORLD” ending. So close, yet so far.

Everything about this film is excellent – Roy van Kessel and Arthur Menko’s script is tight and tense without being excessive, while director Tommie Geraedts sees it realised with the right pitch and tempo to draw us in, and each of the actors gives an excellent performance, all showing a duality of personality effortlessly and affectingly – until the end. A huge amount of the credibility and tension built up over six-and-a-half minutes is frittered away on a completely avoidable implosion, which undermines the restraint and intrigue of the whole story. I would still quite happily recommend Zwart over any of the previous Black Mirror type content Indy Film Library has been inflicted with – but that is damning it with faint praise, when with just a little more self-restraint it might have received a glowing recommendation instead.

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