It started when Beeban Kidron heard her daughter screaming. The 14-year-old was in her bedroom with a friend. They were online. “I heard screaming, screaming. Some boy had given them an email with a link to what he said was a jokey site. When they’d gone on it, it turned out to be a loop of very, very violent sex, involving men ... really abject violence. It went on a loop, over and over. And they were profoundly upset.”
It’s clear that Kidron was too – though that wasn’t the only trigger for InRealLife, her new documentary, which looks with a clear, inquisitive eye at the digital world that adults have created for children to inhabit. It’s a serious portrait of how virtual life affects the young generation of “digital natives” who have never known a life unplugged, or one that attempts to question the practices of giant companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and BlackBerry.
The stories of five teenagers and their online lives are interlaced with an investigation into how the internet really works. Adding their views are experts such as Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, Sherry Turkle, professor of social science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The result is a fascinating, disturbing film, and never a simplistic one. This is no flat excoriation of technology.
“I’m not against it,” Kidron says of online life. “I’m for it. And I try really, really hard to tell everybody that. I love email; flashmobs make me cry. But I think a huge PR job has been done where anybody who has questions is branded a Luddite. No Luddite here. I love that stuff. But I did begin to think, ‘Hang on a minute.’ The internet has crept up on us and we need to know what it is, and start looking at it. We have to decide which bits we want, which bits we don’t, and how we’re going to use them – and how we’re going to put pressure on the people who deliver these goods to deliver what we really want.”
InRealLife is part of a renaissance in documentary film-making. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) remains the highest-grossing documentary of all time but it’s not just about the money: over the past decade the long-form documentary has become a locus for serious discussion in an increasingly fractured world. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) was, arguably, the work that brought climate change into mainstream conversation. More recently, a spate of successful films has shown that audiences don’t recoil from difficult subject matter. Last year, The Act of Killing, about the Indonesian death squads of the 1960s, attracted audiences and acclaim, as did The Gatekeepers, which featured interviews with former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency.
Independent film producer Ted Hope points out that documentaries now offer the best return on investment of any genre among films that make more than $2m at the US box office. He also notes: “[Documentaries] have gender proportional representation in the director class, whereas fiction films only have about six per cent women directors. I think this is partially due to the documentary ecosystem which has institutionalised staged financing, allowing for more of a meritocracy to develop.”
Kidron is highly placed in that meritocracy. She is best known for her television and feature film work – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990) and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004). However, she got her start in documentaries: her first film, in 1983, was a documentary about the women of Greenham Common, the peace camp set up to protest against nuclear weapons sites. Her 2011 film, Sex, Death and the Gods, looked at the lives of the devadasi, the women who, in Hinduism, are “dedicated” for life to the service of a temple or deity.
Kidron says the documentary form is vital. “People want to talk about things seriously. On telly, there’s been a move towards entertainment – with some very high-powered, fast-moving dramas. Then we have the internet, where we get our information but it’s all in bite-size pieces. I think the documentary, as a form, actually speaks to what’s missing. Our politicians don’t say anything any more: they just refute and assert. In the old days we might have gone to the church, we might have gone to the pub; there were places to gather, and to talk and understand. I think the documentary is something that people are hungry for, that it embodies careful thought, nuance. This film shows that I can be ‘for’ the internet but also worried about it. I think we need these things: we want to be immersed, we want to understand – and understand beyond the bleeding obvious.”
Kidron, married to the playwright Lee Hall, and created Baroness Kidron of Angel last year, is never one to state the bleeding obvious; this is a sophisticated and complex film, bound to provoke discussion. Sure, there’s activist and blogger Cory Doctorow calling Facebook “a giant behaviourist casino teaching you to undervalue your privacy” but there’s also the heartwarming case of 15-year-old Tom, who comes out to his parents after he meets Dan online. Tom’s positive experience with Dan is ambivalent: it calls into question the notion that, as Kidron says, “all grown-up adults agree on: which is that you shouldn’t meet a stranger online.” Yet contrast that with the case of Page, also 15, who ends up trading sex for the return of her stolen BlackBerry.
No representatives from any of the big companies would speak to Kidron. “One of them – I won’t say which one – knew I had a ticket to San Francisco and then cancelled me the day before, so I was in San Francisco by the time they cancelled. The reality is that they have nothing to gain by talking to me, because the world is currently set up so that there is no restriction on them – there is nothing to answer.”
It is this commercialisation of privacy that most concerns Kidron; how for-profit companies impose their realities on the inner lives of the young. “If Google or Facebook are telling them who they are, who are they? It’s like The Truman Show. You could call them the template generation. There’s a template for their social interactions, their games, their pictures. Someone else is creating a template for their experiences. It’s a false world.”
Yet it’s the world we live in. Julian Assange makes a brief appearance in the film, but it’s something he said off-screen that stuck in Kidron’s mind. “As Julian said to me, ‘If the internet is society itself, if there’s no point in distinguishing one from the other, then we really have to have a conversation about the world we want to live in.’ Is that too big a demand? I don’t think so. That’s what public discourse is for. And we must have this discussion in front of our children.”
‘InRealLife’ opens in UK cinemas on September 20.