This article part of Right Now’s February Issue, focusing on Technology and Human Rights.
The Transitions Film Festival, now in its third year and running from 15-23 February in Melbourne, seeks to showcase “inspirational documentaries about the social and technological innovations, revolutionary ideas and trailblazing change-makers that are leading the way to a better world.” We review two of the featured films, WEB and Easy Like Water.
By Sonia Nair
New York-based filmmaker Michael Kleiman lived within the isolated Peruvian villages of Palestina and Antuyo for six months to chart how villagers connected to the outside world for the first time through the One Laptop per Child initiative. On a broader spectrum, the documentary tackles questions on whether technology affects our lives for better or for worse; the role it plays in the erasure of culture and the increasing homogeneity of global cities; and the fast-evolving concept of what it means to be someone’s ‘friend’ in the modern world.
Kleiman interlaces footage of how technology impacts the lives of the Peruvian villagers with interviews with top technological figures – from Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley, to pioneer of artificial intelligence Seymour Papert – on the manifold benefits of technology.
Papert highlights how the more people are capable of “rational critical thinking” the better the world will be, while associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University Michael Wesch says “empathy grows when you connect with somebody totally different to you and experience a sense of shared vulnerability and love for that person”. Founder of non-profit organisation A Human Right, Kosta Grammatis, calls access to the internet a “basic human right”.
While the heavyweights of the Western technological world add a critical and relatable dimension to the documentary, its very heart lies in the hospitable warmth of the Palestina and Antuyo villagers and the rapport that Kleiman comes to share with them. It would have been easy for Kleiman to come across as prescriptive and paternalistic as he sought the opinions of Western heavyweights far removed from the realities of remote Peru, but never once does Kleiman present as such. He seeks as many viewpoints of Antuyo and Palestina villagers as he can and comes to forge a deep connection with them.
In what is perhaps the strongest argument or why the Peruvian villagers need technology in their lives, a villager in Palestina tells Kleiman: “Because here there is no way for the young people to be inspired to see and dream of something more, something big…If we don’t leave, we will never see what is out there.”
Kleiman echoes the villager’s sentiments.
“Palestina is an incredibly isolated village – and there are no roads that connect them to the rest of the country, no electricity or phones – and they feel the disconnection intensely. Suddenly having the ability to connect with families via email and instant messaging, to be able to speak with them and share pictures is really powerful.”
Benefits of technology aside however, a sense of loss is palpable halfway through WEB when the technological figures struggle to answer Kleiman’s simple question on the definition of a “friend”. The responses range from “covers infinite connections as opposed to the really close ones” to “used to be someone you knew really well”. The contrast of the their answers with that of a young Antuyo boy (“[a friend is] someone you tell everything to, like a brother”) is unsettling as it exposes the downsides of our perpetual connectedness with one another.
The juxtaposition is again stark when Kleiman films Peruvians who are only just learning how to connect with the outer world alongside Americans who are increasingly leveraging the internet to stay off the internet in the bustling metropolis of New York City. As Crowley says, “mediums like Foursquare are predicated upon using these tools to coordinate real-world meetings, not to replace them” – indicative of the growing realisation that technology may be harming our ability to experience life and completely immerse ourselves in the present.
The documentary culminates with the children of Palestina creating a Wikipedia page for their Amazonian hometown, young students YouTubing videos of the Flintstones and Jean-Claude Van Damme and a young girl helping her elderly mother compose an email to a daughter she has not spoken to in a year.
As one of the most memorable scenes from the documentary – where two young boys leave their laptops to fly kites in an open field – illustrate however, there is still a sense of presence and peace within these villagers that the Western world is simply not privy to.
“I don’t want to romanticise life there, because there is a clear downside to such isolation, but I also felt a very strong responsibility to strike a balance in the film and think not only about the potential gains to all this connectivity, but the important tenets of our humanity that we stand to lose as well,” Kleiman says.
Kleiman hopes people walk away from watching Web thinking about both the immense potential of the time in which we live, and the importance of striking a balance in how dependent we are on technology. He urged people to get involved with some of the initiatives of A Human Right – an organisation whose mission is to bring internet access to the nearly five billion people around the planet who are currently living without it.
Web is showing as part of the Transitions Film Festival on 20 February.
EASY LIKE WATER
By Maya Borom
Bangladesh is a country under siege by nature: it is where three of the world’s biggest rivers converge with often disastrous consequences; where the Himalayas to the north of the country are melting and sending torrents of water into rural villages; and where the south battles against rising seas. It is at the coal face of climate change.
The water disrupts everything, including schooling, and documentary film maker Glenn Baker shows how entrepreneurial thought has created floating schools for children who may otherwise miss out on schooling due to flooding. During the flooding season some schools are closed for 3-4 months and in other areas destroyed completely so children can miss out on a substantial chunk of learning – such gaps in education may be felt in later life where access to education often equates to stable and professional employment.
The film follows a local architect, Mohammed Rezwan, who decided not to follow the path of his peers designing mansions for the wealthy, but to design and build boats for children were unable to get to school, so that school could come to them. Made with repurposed material, the ships offer a floating classroom and an opportunity for the community to remain engaged with education as well as with themselves; not only is it a school but it is also a vehicle for the community to come together to try to provide alternatives to offset the destruction that climate change has on their way of life.
As well as providing education for rural school children displaced from their school by flooding, boats also offer a floating health care resource, essential when an area could be cut off from the nearest hospital or clinic for 3-4 months of the year. Expanding his model to include learning centres complete with computers and internet access,Rezwan has built an education system that rivals state-run schools, inadvertently creating issues with local government. The ability of the boats to provide floating schools, libraries, access to computers and, more importantly, equal access to education for both genders, is slowly breaking down the entrenched socio-cultural and economic norms.
However the issue is not merely access to rural schools because of flooding, but the greater issue is climate change and its impact on the country as a whole. Baker illustrates how massive swathes of the country has disappeared beneath swelling river and sea tides, taking with them people’s livelihoods and homes. Thousands of people live on dirt embankments that can be swept away in the next storm or flood. Loss of land also means loss of habitat to tigers, which seek food in neighbouring villages or wait for villagers to venture into the mangroves in search of fish.
The film captures the situation that Bangladesh now finds itself in, not through excessive debate about climate policy and global action (or non-action), but through raw and honest interviews with people directly affected by it. There is discussion as to industrialised nations responsibility to take on climate refugees, and it’s easy to make a compelling argument when climate change is driven by manufacturing and industrialisation, and countries such as Bangladesh watch helplessly as land and livelihood is swept away. As the effects of climate change reverberate throughout the world, it’s one argument that will be repeated over and over again.
Easy Like Water illustrates how one person is able to effect change in local communities through sustainable practices such as solar energy, volunteerism and the willingness to see outside of the box. However it also illustrates the vulnerability of communities against something that they have no control over – the environment. The film raises important questions about responses to climate change, questions whose answers and solutions come not from government, but from grassroots organisations and social entrepreneurs.
Easy Like Water is showing as part of the Transitions Film Festival on 18 February.
View the festival trailer: