Reviews Short Documentary

Swipe Left: The Age of Disposable Relationships (2020) – Unrated

Director: Amber Ostergaard

Writer: Amber Ostergaard

Running time: 30mins

Having watched Brandon Smith’s ugly attempt to weaponise a school shooting in support of the US gun lobby, last year I set a precedent for Indy Film Library which I had hoped I would never have to. Noting that, “just as we have a responsibility to help discover and promote new and exciting artists, we also have a responsibility to navigate the ideologies and political motifs at play in the production of culture,” I determined that it would be unethical to ‘rate’ this film; and morally wrong either to attribute honours upon it for whatever merits it has as a production, or to treat it as a source of illicit giggles by carelessly throwing it a ‘low score.’ Both courses of action would only serve to trivialise what is essentially a work of deeply harmful propaganda, to treat it as ‘normal.’

Unfortunately, less than a year later, I find myself left with no choice but to level the same judgement at Amber Ostergaard’s reprehensible ‘documentary’ Swipe Left: The Age of Disposable Relationships. It is a distasteful melange of puritanical ideology, punitive social experiments, and dubious academic sources, conjured into a nightmarish rebirth of the old ‘red-scare’ format. Do what is expected of you by the establishment, or face the ghoulish consequences.

In this case, replacing the hidden threat of a KGB cell posing as your real American neighbour, we have a deranged pickup artist named Jeff Allen. Initially, Allen’s goals seem diametrically opposed to the thrust of Ostergaard’s film: he wants to have as much sex with as many partners as possible, and he doesn’t care how he gets it or who he upsets along the way. On closer inspection, however, it soon becomes clear that he is simply a different side of the same coin.

Readers might be interested to note in 2016, Allen had his visa revoke by the Australian Government, ahead of a seminar he was hosting for Real Social Dynamics – a group even then-Immigration Minister Peter Dutton found “pretty repugnant” – after a petition calling for his deportation gained 62,000 signatures. Over the course of the film, he gives a pretty thorough example of just what managed to irk a government quite thoroughly mired in its own sexism scandals.

Stating deadpan that “attraction is not a choice,” Allen proceeds to rub various parts of his body against clearly inebriated women at various bars and nightclubs – one of whom we are led to believe takes a cab home with him – with Ostergaard’s camera faithfully in tow. This takes place in a world where “had you been drinking?” is a question levelled at rape victims, and in which for that reason a great many predators make a point of pursuing women whose capacity to say “no” has been impaired. It is a type of behaviour which has led some to allege that means Allen’s ilk “advocate rape” – and yet it is being egged on by Ostergaard’s filmmaking in a most sinister fashion. What soon becomes clear is that she is very tactlessly using Allen as a vile ultimatum to her film’s broader assertion that young people should be less picky when “choosing a mate,” as she chillingly terms it. Disturbingly then, this moves beyond the old dramatised propaganda of the McCarthyite US – adding an apparently real social experiment to scare viewers into submission. Get married; or you may be the victim of sexual predation, or even be ritually humiliated by ‘sociological’ propagandists, hisses the vitriolic threat.

Aside from the “pretty repugnant” tactics deployed to terrify us into agreeing, the film also deploys a number of decreasingly credible sources to help it make its case. Dr Justin Garcia of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research and author Barry Schwartz correspond in platitudes via text for their part, seemingly unwilling to offer anything more controversial than “learning to choose is hard,” and sensibly remaining reluctant to appear as a talking head in a film like this. Soon, however, their use of the text format is used to lend a thin air of credibility to the apparent musings of figures like Accenture Executive Pierre Nanterme – who passed away in January 2019. Rather distastefully, the film repurposes a popular quote of his – one you can find many places on the internet – to suggest he was making a fabricated conversation with Ostergaard about a highly controversial topic, during a production which likely took place after his death.

At the same time, a number of very live talking heads do appear, hoping to leech some credibility from those conversations which – if the case of Nanterme is applied across the board – may never have taken place. These experts include a series of ‘matchmakers’ (whose clear conflict of interest when it comes to pressuring people into marriage makes them laughable as supposedly impartial advisors here), and a number of academic-cum-motivational-speakers.  

“We can learn something about this from a social experiment involving jam,” argues Dr. Julie Albright, perhaps the most tenuous of these sources. A ‘sociologist’ whose website consists of a hilarious collection of stock images and fake testimonials, she cites an uncredited case study where a supermarket offered consumers a choice of 24 conserves one day, and only six the next. What we would expect to find, she asserts, would be that with more varieties, consumers could find a choice they could be happier with – but they actually found that people were only 10% as likely to buy jam on a day with more choice than less.

Beyond the chilling idea that the choice of a complex and potentially volatile human being to be bound to from here to eternity with is comparable to selecting loganberry or damson, the question is, even if this does in some strenuous way apply to dating, why is that a problem? Why shouldn’t people be choosey when coupling (or throupling for that matter)?

Historically, people might have been more willing to permanently tie themselves to someone for a host of reasons. In a time before the welfare state, when an uncaring human scrapheap awaited anyone who didn’t hastily raise some kids to look after them in their old age, marrying was seen as an important part of young people’s lives. Sadly, that also meant many young people declared “‘til death us do part” with partners they would gradually fall out of love with, or would swiftly realise made them inexorably miserable.

For every warm and fuzzy couple celebrating a loving 75th anniversary on a local news item, there are several more who have a very different experience of marriage – either of spending their lives with someone they share almost nothing in common with, or suffering decades of abuse out of obligation to an arbitrary social contract. Of course, putting off marriage or avoiding it all together does not preclude this fate – but it certainly makes extracting yourself from it simpler.

In the end then, perhaps fewer millennials are married by the age of 32 than older generations, but so what? Why is this an apparently a cataclysmic problem. People want to be damned sure that they have weeded out the Jeff Allens from their lives before they settle down with one or more long-term partners? Why should they condemn themselves to such a life of misery just because previous generations might have? I can’t see any reason on Earth why we should dissuade them from that; other than it may make it harder for Ostergaard’s rogue’s gallery of dating experts and motivational speakers to hawk their nonsense to the general public.

There is not a single aspect of this crooked piece of dogma that any filmmaker should seek to replicate, and not one atom of input that a viewer would be better off for experiencing during this soft-spoken traditionalist bilge. It would not be fair just to say that Swipe Left is a dishonest and damaging piece of disinformation, which seems to have been crafted with the soul aim of selling paperback pseudo-science and a matchmaking industry which feels jeopardised by people’s healthily cautious approach to long-term relationships. It should instead be added that it is a disdainfully spiteful act of cruelty; a film which backs up its half-baked argumentations with the threat of being publicly punished and shamed for promiscuity, and which treats its audience as an abusive spouse might – assuring you at all times that it has your best interests at heart, all the time underwriting its orders with a thinly veiled or else.

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