Jewels Under the Kitchen Sink: ‘El Auge del Humano’ is a Radical Mood Piece

This piece is part of a series called Jewels Under the Kitchen Sink. Here we try to bring films that have been overlooked during their time, or were (despite their distinctive and timely nature) somehow forgotten, back onto the radar. It’s an attempt at reaching into the dusty niches of time and fishing some true gems out of there. We hope to pique your interest towards some of these films, so they can be reintroduced into today’s film discussion.

Some films just won’t leave your head after you have seen them. Recently confronted with the slightly overwhelming request, “Recommend me the most unforgettable film you have ever seen,” I was suddenly thinking about El auge del humano again. I didn’t give the recommendation, because the person asking probably wouldn’t have liked it and there are so many other unforgettable cinematic experiences. But, the instinctual jump obviously didn’t happen without reason, so my train of thought went from there. It’s rare that cinema is so distinct and led-on with such a pronounced confidence.

Writer/director Eduardo “Teddy” Williams was born in Argentina, tutored by Miguel Gomes during his studies and garnered attention with his short film Pude ver un puma, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. Starring frequent collaborator Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, who is known for his dazzling performance as Sean in Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM, the film tells the mysterious story of young men roaming a torn-down and empty world with a floating and dreamlike sensibility. While dystopias are a popular narrative framing device in short films, there has never been one that tells its story quite like this one. This fact announced the young director as a filmmaking voice to look out for.

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After several shorts, Williams finally put together his first feature film, a deeply mysterious study of both characters and their environments, seamlessly spanning three countries through small towns, jungles and video chats. El auge del humano finally premiered at Locarno in 2016 and won Williams a highly deserved Best First Feature Special Mention and the Golden Leopard in the Filmmakers of the Present section. While the film sparked very diverse reactions amongst critics, there was no denial that Williams’ craft was absolutely original.The film starts out in a dark room, shot in such low-light that that we can make out glimpses of the interior. We follow a young man, Exe by name, who seems to try getting a phone signal. As he exits the house, he is wading through knee-deep water in the streets, which he and the rest of the people outside don’t seem to mind; life goes on. The lingering, distant camera continues to follow him through his world. We learn that he gets fired from his job and witness his encounters with family and friends. He does nude cam shows with some of his male friends in a basement and while there are half-hearted sexual interactions between the young men, there is a distance nonetheless; this is just for fun and out of boredom.

This scene gets recontextualized, when Exe finally goes to his dark room and opens a cam chat with guys from Mozambique, which implies that he is in fact homosexual, or perhaps just needs someone around in his eventless life. In one of the most dazzling transitions of recent memory, the camera zooms in on the monitor and after some time, begins to follow one of the young men onscreen. In the same manner as with Exe, we are introduced to Alf’s life in a manner both distant and intimate. Alf’s job is unsatisfactory and he has the urge to run away from his hometown, which he eventually does, with his friend Archie. As the latter relieves himself onto an anthill in the countryside, a tense, almost Lynchian odyssey through an underground system of ant tunnels unfolds, until we finally surface again. A hand with a smartphone is swarmed by ants, until Cahn brushes them off. This is one of many moments that show Williams’ interest in letting technology visually converse with the environments it exists in. We follow different people through the jungle of the Philippines, until we finally meet a young woman, who is in the search of an internet signal in her city, which proves as a rather difficult quest. In a final, almost epilogue-esque sequence, we get static, high-res scenes of a sweatshop for tablet devices, in which the masked employees fulfill their monotonic work without a trace of emotion. A robotic voice says “OK!” over and over again.

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The narrative ends here, surely to leave many viewers in a state of confusion, but the virtues of Williams’ vision lie in its journey, not the destination, which is told in a floating, utterly transfixing gaze. Shot in collaboration with co-cinematographers Joaquín Neira and Julien Guillery on Super 16 during the first two parts and RED Digital during the last, Williams keeps a deliberate distance from the characters, almost as if the camera is some sort of ghost which only catches glimpses out of their lives while following them. Enough narrative exposition to follow these character’s journeys on a surface level remains, but Williams actually wants to get to something more shapeless and visceral by telling these slices of life. The fantastic actors — all non-professionals — are taking part in situations both led by improvised, naturalist dialogue and short, un-elucidated poetic musings who contribute to an atmosphere of deep mystery around these pretty ordinary people. Repeatedly we see phones and computers, as they are an integral part of their lives and thus completely organic, even in the depths of the jungle. The low-lit and grainy imagery makes every corner of this world seem like some sort of ancient ruin, even though those places are clearly full of life. This aesthetic carries a gentle surrealism, forming every mundane occurrence into something immensely intriguing and giving the viewer a feeling of watching a cosmos both alien and intimate.

In its most intense quality, The Human Surge, like few other films, gives the viewer an experience of complete immersion into these character’s journeys. Rather than just what goes on in literal terms, the films offers a deep dive into the lost, disconnected state they find themselves in. They’re all stuck in some way, either jobless or in jobs that are hardly fulfilling and have a strangely toxic chemistry with technology. They try to escape their environments by using the promise of endless spaces that it offers. The final irony is that their disconnect to the world around them remains, and perhaps becomes, greater. Williams’ concerns lie both in the relationship between people and their imminent environments, as well as their relationship to technology. It’s a narrative that applies to millennials in particular, because in the end, there is no escape from the real world. The sad truth is: the further one’s reach becomes, the more the realization to be alone will hit.

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Williams makes the first film that truly feels millennial in every sense of the word. It tells the story of a network — not necessarily the internet, but something of a system of communication and relationship, connecting nature to man, man to machine and machine to nature. While Williams’ previous work was concerned with similar themes in a much more ambiguous manner, similarly exploring mysterious worlds and intimate moments, The Human Surge is a logical, more direct follow-up in every way. It substantiates its scenarios and tells a story of how we somehow got very, very lost on our road to complete connection.

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