16 March 2003

Florida Film Fest Diary - Entry #7

Today we get to talk about something other than strictly film, thanks to the NEXTART program that is also running inside the Florida Film Festival. In a nutshell, NEXTART is almost anything digitally-based that is outside the scope of regular film or art.

Thursday was again a relaxed day until the evening, starting at 4:30 with a screening of The Occularist, a short about a man with an extraordinary talent for drawing human body parts and how he decided to use his artistic skills to begin fashioning articifical enamel eyes for people who had lost theirs. While several parts of the doc were hard to watch due to their graphic nature (such as inserting plaster in the patient's socket to get a mold for the eye), the end result was breathtaking ... a soft insertable "mask" that can (depending on the patient's remaining muscular control) move in sync with the "real" eye. The young patient profiled certainly went from being someone to be stared at to a normal-looking kid in the space of about 15 seconds after all the weeks of work had been completed.

This is the kind of movie that makes me wish there was an all-documentary or at least all-short-film sort of channel. Who cares if things start at 11:10 or 4:14? This country desperately needs more venues than just film festivals (which tend to be populated mostly by rich, well-educated types) so that the public at large can get some exposure to the world around them beyond their own little sphere. Surely there is a viable way for some company to put together such a channel? With 500 channels (400 of which are utter tripe), I can't help but think there's a niche for this thing, and the filmmakers could really use another market to sell to. By it's very nature, short films are not as commercial as features, and thus there are a lot fewer outlets to go to in the attempt to actually make a buck on em.

The feature of the day was MAMA/M.A.M.A -- a seriously journalistic and thorough look at the bizarre world of Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy, and whether it's a true condition or an invention by a handful of overeager doctors, some of whom have clear conflicts of interest.

For those who don't know, MSBP refers to a mental condition where a parent (almost always the mother) deliberately abuses or poisons her child to induce a debilitating illness (not generally to the point of death) in an effort to get attention and sympathy. Over the years, scores of women have had their children taken away from them -- sometimes from the moment of birth -- due to accusations of Munchausen's Syndrome By Proxy.

The filmmakers take a long time to sort out the very very complicated facts in the cases of three example mothers and through the history of this "illness" and determine that in most cases (as well as a startling number of "cot death" or "crib death" cases), the real culprit may well be the neurological agents often prescribed by the very doctors trying to treat the medical problems of the child.

The film, unfortunately, becomes mired in its own minutia and while it succeeds in its aim to cast doubt on the legitimacy of most claims of MSBP, it bogs down in it's clearly-biased and hostile approach to doctors and bureaucrats who disagree with them. No matter how convincing the filmmakers try to be that a group of ultra-powerful neurological drugs that were never intended for children but which routinely get used in treating stomach/digestive problems in infants are the real root cause of most accusations of MSBP, the fact of the matter is that it is an emotionally-charged, difficult issue and it will take a long time to clearly test and establish if their claims are true.

If they are, of course, more than 25 years of parental abuse and traumatizing childen will become a Salem Witch Hunt-like footnote in the annals of medicine, and that is what gives the filmmakers their sense of urgency. But resorting to graphic portrayals and character assassination isn't really going to solve the problem, though MAMA/M.A.M.A. may indeed help shed light on the subject which could speed up the discovery process.

Obviously, this film is more than a little tough to watch, with it's endless scenes of crying parents, extremely ill and dead children, and heartless, detached medical experts. From dirt-poor southerners who have completely lost their chance to reclaim their children to dirt-poor Scots who ended up going to prison not for MSBP but for trying to protect their kids from abusive foster care, it's clear that the system is fucked up and needs reform quickly. I'm not sure, however, that cheap-sensationalism propaganda -- even when it's designed to counteract the propaganda that's already out there -- is the right tool to get the job done.

The last film of the day wasn't a film at all, but an interactive artistic experiment called "Terminal Time." Three creators, using mostly ordinary home computers (Macintoshes, quite naturally, with their built-in graphics/audio/video capabilities and superior speech technology) and off-the-shelf software (in this case Supercard along with a few databases), produce a self-generating, audience-influenced, constructed on the fly presentation detailing a version of events of the last millenium -- highly slanted to the whims of it's audience. One presenter has called it "the future of television" and in an extremely broad way I think he's right -- we're already seeing "narrowcasting" as a trend, this presentation just takes it another step further in customising the experience for maximum audience tailoring.

The computer puts up a series of questions chosen from a larger list at random. An "applause-o-meter" type device measure the response of the audience (though as we saw at this performance, one loud person very close to the mic could override popular choice). Based on the audience answers, the computer then generates an approximately 30-minute overview of the history of the last thousand years, using video and still pictures spontaneously (and sometimes seemingly randomly) sequenced and with a audio commentary that is again generated and read on-the-fly but biased in the audiences favour. For example, when a gender-makeup question is asked and the answer shown to be largely female, the presentation tends to keep coming back to the question of how historical events benefitted women's rights, and also touches on the role of children in historical events. When the machine determines that the audience is largely not religious, a strong anti-church tone becomes evident.

There are actually about six or so influencing factors on the makeup of the presentation, which means that you could have one of several thousand possible variations in the final product. In the show, we went though the entire procedure twice, and sure enough the results of the first showing were totally different than the results the second time (where we were much more "aware" of how our answers would affect things).

The presentation, which wasn't well attended (barely a half-full house) was a big hit with the audience who had lots of intelligent questions and comments on the logic and/or fallability of the system. Despite having asked the filmmakers directly, I'm still not sure if the main point of this is to showcase a new idea in interactive technology, to demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate history presentations to please your audience or to subtly show people that they are almost always being manipulated by the media in one way or another. Both presentations of history that we saw -- the pro-union, pro-technology, anti-religious version and the pro-female, pro-child, anti-war one -- were historically accurate and full of interesting facts. There was nothing made up and no untoward slant on the part of the machine, just an influencing of the facts selected for presentation that made all the difference. I suspect that when the novelty of this finally wears off and works its way down to the school level, it will be an eye-opening experience for youngsters of all ages.

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