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Eduardo Williams on the Radical Cinema of The Human Surge 3

Film re-imagines the borders of cinema

18 mins read

The films of Argentine wunderkind Eduardo Williams reimagine cinematic language. His otherworldly oeuvre often interrogates human connectivity with strong nonlinear commentary on our current digital age. Since debuting at BAFICI with his award-winning student short Ten atentos in 2011 and the short Could See a Puma at Cannes 2012, Williams’ work would travel far and wide to festivals such as the Berlinale, the Director’s Fortnight, and the International Film Festival of Rotterdam.

In 2016, Williams screened his feature debut The Human Surge at the Locarno Film Festival. The film curiously blurred fact with fiction through the background and foreground of his characters’ interiority. The film examines the spatial and social alienation of young adults living in Argentina, Mozambique, and the Philippines. The Human Surge showcases their communal disconnection with three different, but loosely connected, segments. The characters’ nomadic qualities, blue-collar identity, queerness, and virtual footprint emerge from their respective routines. The film would later win the Golden Leopard – Filmmakers of the Present award at the festival, where it also garnered international acclaim from critics and filmmakers alike. In the wake of its Locarno triumph, The Human Surge was programmed at notable North American Festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.

Since the release of The Human Surge, Williams continued to experiment with radical new technologies including an ingestible pill camera with his indescribable feature documentary A Very Long Gif (2023). With his third feature, Williams’ returns to his arthouse saga with a continuation of familiar themes and narrative abstractions. Skipping the second instalment in the “franchise” altogether, The Human Surge 3 warmly embraces new forms of vision. Akin to the first Human Surge, the sequel premiered to great acclaim at Locarno 2023 and had its North American premiere in TIFF’s Wavelengths programme.

“I’m very curious,” states the 37-year old director, while speaking with POV over Zoom ahead of the film’s theatrical release. “I’m not only curious about new technologies: I’m curious about using the tools of cinema.”

Framing with Virtual Reality Technology

Unlike its predecessor, The Human Surge 3 was shot with 360° cameras. With the technology, Williams implements staggering wide shots to capture lackadaisical conversations from afar. A cast of diverse actors sporadically converse about their sexuality, their changing environments, and their unified hatred of the upper class. The hang-out foundation delves into their casual blue-collar mundanity, and the 360°the camera doubles as a silent observer who is actively part of the conversations. Whereas the first film specifically separates the locations into three unique segments with intertwining transitions, Williams deconstructs his experimental structure to bring the characters together in this latest instalment.

Previously utilising the same technique from his short film Parsi (2018), Williams notes that he first took interest in the technology due to the cost-effectiveness and size of the camera. He explains wanted to shoot in the streets of Bissau without attracting attention. In his search, he says he found a 360° Go-Pro that met his shooting standards. “I framed the film using my VR headset,” explains Williams.

“Usually, we frame during shooting. Our mind is thinking about other things in the process. With VR, I could have a moment to think solely about framing,” says Williams. “The fact that you can frame just by moving your head makes you observe in a different way. Usually you have to move the camera. This process is not the same. The physical relation to framing was different. Framing the film with a different mental state and different physical relation made me curious if I should use the technique for a feature film.”

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Contrary to the traditional process of composition and framing, the 360° technology flattens the frame through the two-dimensional conversion of a three-dimensional image. Williams’ methodology is largely consumed by extreme long shots, hovering upon the character’s freewheeling actions. Shot language varies, where close-ups specifically distort the character’s faces. If a subject stands only a few feet from the camera, they are more prone to computerised abstraction. The technology stretches the camera’s periphery, providing additional pixilation and datamoshing against the subject’s appearance.

Williams also experiments with single-take captures. “Usually, we frame scene by scene. Now, with the technology, I could frame it all in one movement,” he says. “I was curious about how this could provide a different way of observing, a different way of moving, a different way of being with each other. I liked the idea that the camera sometimes seems to act like one of the characters. Sometimes, it’s very robotic. Security cameras, video games, and even Google maps are all things that come up with this type of camera.”

Improvisational Techniques and Inspirational Scenery

On the set of the film, Williams approached his direction with flexibility. The Human Surge 3 often detours from the loosely-scripted material, combining documentary traditions within the intersecting narratives. Williams embraces his actors’ regional dialects and walking patterns. He explains that  directions onset were minimal, asking for specific phrases at certain moments.

“What I said to the actors was quite simple. I didn’t really want them to overthink. Each one of them does what they want because they have different personalities,” says Williams. “These were the different ways of coming in and out of documentary and fiction. The film covers what is imposed, what is invented, and what comes in by intuition. Onset, we really didn’t modify any of the spaces. Our houses, the jungle, the mountains, natural places, public places, private places — we used all of them as they were. ”

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Just like its predecessor, The Human Surge 3 integrates three different countries as ethnographic anchors for the intersecting characters. Enriching scenery from Peru, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan are at the helm of the project. Williams mentions that his early short film work stemmed from discovering new places. He enjoys questioning the logistics of human movement within the newfound spaces. His latest feature subsequently takes direct inspiration from the places he visited during production.

“When I went to Sri Lanka, I was in a bus and I passed by this neighbourhood. I was very surprised by the shape of the houses. I didn’t understand why they were built like that or exactly what happened there,” he explains. “Then, I searched a little bit and I found out they were constructed after a tsunami destroyed their houses. A spherical shape is more resistant than a rectangular shape. I thought the shape of the houses related to the film. I wanted the film to be under rain during its entirety. We couldn’t do that in the end, but weather is important in many different ways.”

Enforcing the film’s themes in the process, Williams ponders upon the connection of the Sri Lankan homes with the flooded Peruvian neighbourhood. The architecture of both locations intertwines, utilising dreary weather conditions as the basis for thematic reconnection. Through the characters’ nonchalant conversations, Williams juxtaposes their youthful optimism with the gloomy weather conditions. The locations participate in the linkage of communal infrastructure, with the Peruvian and Sri Lankan homes built around flooding precautions. Fears of inundation are suppressed by the characters’ camaraderie. The Human Surge 3 thus illuminates architectural contrasts to reinforce its themes of connectivity. “My main reason for choosing this place is that it shows, in a very clear way, the relation between reality and fantasy. It’s a bit of a fictional documentary,” says Williams.

To shoot the film’s dream-like climax, Williams says he endlessly searched online to find the perfect location. Through a direct message sent by a friend on Instagram, he found his dream space in Taiwan. Located 3,603 metres above sea level, Jiaming Lake rests upon the south-eastern side of the Prairie Mountain. Coined as the “egg pool” due to the lake’s oval shape, Williams says he was moved by the ethereal vistas.

“It was a bit difficult, because you have to walk three days to get there,” explains Williams. “There’s another shorter path but you have to book it in advance. My films are always on the go. We didn’t have enough time to book the trip in advance. I was very insistent. Having the group walking and camping together for three days was also very important to the process. When we arrived, the emotions felt very epic.”

Queerness and Collaboration

As the locations directly participate with the greater anthropological themes of the characters’ gradual unification, Williams diverts from the structural formula of the first film with a different perspective. The Human Surge 3 is more interested in breaking borders and eradicating labels, relishing the space between borders within the unclassifiable globetrotting experience. The Peruvian, Sri Lankan, and Taiwanese landscapes mix and mingle with one another, enforcing the universality of the characters’ shared experiences. Within the fluid structure, Williams explores the queerness of his characters while delving into their relationship with the land and the virtual reality form.

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“The queer aspect comes naturally because of myself,” elaborates Williams. “When you arrive at a new place, being queer is very different. This time, I realised I had to actively invite queer people to come to the film. Before, I didn’t do it.”

In his pursuit for authenticity, Williams notes the lack of naturalism in The Human Surge. He observes that a lack of LGBTQ+ involvement outside of the Argentinian chapter may have contributed to the effectiveness of the depiction. With The Human Surge 3, he wanted to try a different approach to the casting process and workflow. “We were actively looking. We accepted everyone. We were inviting queer people to come,” explains Williams. “Most of the people in the film are queer. I feel as though the queerness in the film is just there. It’s not directly spoken about but it’s also not hidden. It’s just a part of who the people are. It was different and better to work in a queer environment.”

Williams admits that he wasn’t thinking about the camera and its relationship with queerness during the production of the film, but he acknowledges that the form embraces different shapes and different avenues for expression. The film is not exactly meant to be understood nor traditionally labelled. His production method is similar. “Many times, I don’t understand what I’m doing or where I’m going. I have ideas. I want to explore them. I’m curious about what could happen, but not because I already know what will happen,” clarifies Williams. “I think the characters and the spectator are advancing together into the unknown without fear. For me, this is the only way of trying to look for new solutions. I think this also relates to queerness, in finding your own way.”

The Future of Argentine Cinema

While Williams concludes his film through the irresistible collective energy (or surge, if you will) of his characters’ escapades, the same optimistic outlook cannot be said about the current state of affairs in Argentina. With the recent closure of the National Institute of Film and Audiovisual Arts (ICCA), the government has halted nation-wide funding for festivals, film schools, and local film productions. While Williams currently doesn’t live in Argentina, he mentions that he benefits from the film institute’s resources. “We are trying to release the film in Argentina. The normal ways that were there before, through the film institute, are not there anymore,” says Williams. “It wasn’t easy, but now it’s much more difficult. The cinema institute still owes us money from the production [of The Human Surge 3].

“It’s happened before. Right wing governments try to cut funding. They only believe in commercialisation and marketing,” adds Williams. “The current government is more extreme than the other governments we’ve had. The administration is very violent in cutting funds that are essential for the workers and spectators of cinema. Even though Argentine cinema isn’t very popular in my country, it’s still very important for many people.”

Williams calls attention to the Milei administration and their libertarian malpractice. He questions the government’s role in prioritising the distribution of Argentine resources to richer nations over domestic aid for the country’s working class. “The government is trying to put us in a place of sovereignty,” notes Williams.

While tough questions still remain about the future of Argentine cinema, The Human Surge 3 offers a plentiful cinematic journey consumed by vanguard images and technological innovation. His film provides an escape from the cruelty of the world, fuelled by the characters’ empathetic memories and newfound experiences.

The Human Surge 3 is now playing in select theatres.

David Cuevas is a filmmaker and writer based in Ottawa, Ontario. With his limited time, he can be seen trekking between Toronto and Montreal to avoid the cataclysmic mundanity of the National Capital bore. You can also find the man of the hour at prestigious film festival events around the globe, with prior journalistic history with festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, IFFR, and TIFF. During the hot summer nights, David works as an associate programmer for the Ottawa International Animation Festival. David has written for various publications including POV Magazine, Next Best Picture, In Review Online, The Playlist, and ASIFA. He is also the Festivals Editor for FilmHounds Magazine. David funds his short film Ouvre on the side. David Cuevas was last seen as a filmmaker at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival with his short film Avulsion.

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