Reviews Short Narrative

Ik ben geen robot (2023) – 5 stars

Director: Victoria Warmerdam

Writer: Victoria Warmerdam

Cast: Ellen Parren, Henry van Loon, Thekla Reuten

Running time: 22mins

In my last review of a Victoria Warmerdam short Snorrie – and with reference to her previous effort Korte Kuitspier – I made a certain connection between her work and a certain computer animation film studio.

She has played with our biases, prodding us into laughing, before using that laughter to flag up the absurdity of the things we assumed were common sense. It’s Pixar for adults – but more than that, it’s a unique, intricate balancing act made all the more remarkable by the fact she can pull something like this off repeatedly in films with such meagre run-times.

After I was given the privilege of seeing her latest movie, Ik ben geen robot, on the big screen at the Imagine Film Festival in Amsterdam, it was a comparison which immediately sprang to mind once more. In particular, it got me mulling over a semi-famous meme about the running theme of Pixar’s back-catalogue, in which a parody elevator pitch tries to see each of the studio’s films pre-2015.

What if toys had feelings? What if bugs had feelings? What if monsters had feelings? What if fish had feelings? And so on, before concluding with ‘What if FEELINGS had feelings’ as the seemingly absurd conclusion of the arc.

One of the most unintentionally striking things about this otherwise irritatingly knowing meme, is that some of the listed items objectively do have feelings. They might not be of the same complexity and intensity as the feelings experienced by human beings, but insects and fish feel pain, fear and learn from interactions with their environment, and while larger animals like rats and dogs cannot communicate their full understanding of their feelings, we know they display affection and empathy.

The thing is that a sizeable chunk of the human world doesn’t actually care if something or someone has feelings. Indeed, we know from history – from slavery, to the Holocaust, to the increasingly grotesque events unfolding in Gaza that when it suits their worldview, people are very good at ignoring the suffering of sentient beings. For all of its familiar comedic beats, that is the unspeakable horror that lies at the heart of Ik ben geen robot, and rendered it a good deal more disturbing to me than any of the more conventional horror fare that played in its Imagine programme.

Ellen Parren stars as Lara, some kind of unspecified creative, working in an amorphous arts company – and in an office staffed entirely by women. While sitting at her desk, an application on her computer suddenly springs one of those pain-in-the-arse Captcha tests on her. I suspect like most of us have, she fails her first attempts – but in this case, she is unable to convince the machine that she is not a robot.

This leaves Lara at the mercy of the nightmare that is capitalist bureaucracy. After being put through to a customer services agent, she is confronted with another familiar form of hell viewers may well be acquainted with. It is rare that any customer services employee is empowered to admit culpability for their employer, so more often they will dance through a series of leading statements, which inevitably lead us to second-guess themselves, and begin questioning whether in fact their sudden spike in insurance premiums/lack of running water/household infestation of rats might somehow be our fault.

Rather than offering at any point to help Lara round the apparently malfunctioning Captcha installed on his firm’s software, the agent in this case, voiced by Warmerdam-film-regular Sieger Sloot, becomes increasingly obtuse. This culminates in him tentatively suggesting Lara might actually be a robot, before pulling one of my favourite tricks from my own time suffering in call-centres: cautioning the customer for their ‘tone’, and forwarding them to the complaints department.

The seed has been planted, though. The kind of nerve-wracking Googling session my fellow hypochondriacs will be well acquainted with follows – eventually landing Lara on a Web MD-style quiz, to diagnose whether or not she is a robot. And just like any of those symptom checkers, far from peace of mind, the result only leads to more panic washing over her.

Parren puts in a hell of a shift as Lara – carrying a plot which requires her to run the full emotional gamut – from a state of collegial comfort, to flailing satirical frustration, to creeping emotional dread – in very little time. Whatever Warmerdam’s script throws at her, she takes unwaveringly in her stride, and in the hands of another actor, that might not have been the case. Instead, she is able to play on the references to our banal reality humorously included by the writing, and craft a relatable protagonist for us to relate to, however bizarre and disturbing this initially familiar world becomes.

Perhaps the most relatable thing about the performance, and the writing of the character, is how little her dread centres on the physical. Instead, like anyone suddenly realising an aspect of their identity might impact their position in correlation to loved-ones, to their work, or to broader society – something also hinted at in Korte Kuitspier, albeit in a far more ridiculous manner. For all the desperate introspective stares she commits herself to in the mirror, Lara’s horror really seems to grow from the sense that she is about to lose control of her own life.

A phone call with her infuriatingly evasive partner Daniel only deepens this encroaching sense of helplessness. Played by another veteran of Warmerdam’s films, Henry van Loon, Daniel moves from aloofly explaining he is “gaming with the boys”, to clumsily hoaxing a loss of connection to get off the line, when Lara mentions the test. Van Loon is also excellent when it comes to shifting from conveying trite everyday sensibilities to a ratcheting sense of anxiety – but his fear comes from a very different place to Lara’s. Not so much fear for his partner, as a fear that the safe, stable life he has put together for himself may be slipping from his grasp.

I will not write about the film’s conclusion in detail, because only very special brand of arsehole would spoil Ik ben geen robot’s finale while it is still in the early phases of the festival circuit (or before IFL screens it in April). But I will give you the set-up for the closing moments, when the distinct fears of the two come to a head with a confrontation on a roof-top carpark. In a brilliant piece of visual storytelling, their two positions are summarised by the physical stances they take – underlined by the brilliantly understated cinematography of Martijn van Broekhuizen.

Lara has the weight of the world on her shoulders – more specifically, a world which she has a creeping suspicion has no respect for her life, feelings or beliefs, and will treat her accordingly. As she unpacks these feelings, she strides through the carpark, the sounds of the wind and birdsong swirling around her. Daniel conspicuously trails behind her, bleating that things can still go back to normal between them – but not on foot, but in the enclosed space of a tiny, ancient car – desperate to contain the situation, and keep his own perfect version of reality intact. It is a ridiculous image that drew a belly-laugh from me, but also underscores the pathetic, myopic worldview of one character, while another feels increasingly exposed to the whims of a hostile wider world – one which seeks to control them in the most intimate and terrible ways possible.

With this added level of craft, on top of Warmerdam’s signature blend of absurdist satire, and chilling real-world implications, this might just be her most complete short film yet. And yet, with an ending which leaves the story ripe for expansion – while many other aspects of the ‘reality’ we are shown are now open to further questioning – it also seems like the most telling preparation yet for venturing into the world of feature film. Whether Warmerdam serves that up in her next film, or ten films from now, I do hope this is not the last we see of Ik ben geen robot.

2023 has been a tedious flurry of ‘think-pieces’ on artificial intelligence by superficially intelligent columnists. The go-to discussion has been whether or not human beings should sound the alarm about an impending robot insurrection – mistaking the advent of automated plagiarists ChatGPT and DALL-E as the moment when machines learned to dream. We are a long, long way off from constructing a truly conscious machine, whatever the latest hype-pieces might be saying. But if the day ever does come, Ik ben geen robot raises a rather more interesting point. In a world in which wealthy and powerful humans have already exploited and abused sentient life so extensively, robots might have substantially more to fear from humans than the other way around.

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