A sub-theme within the documentary programs at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival could be the insidious effects the Internet can have on the real world.
Three films screening at this year’s event examine what happens when online activities have dire real-world consequences: Brian Knappenberger’s doc biopic about computer programming prodigy The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz; Web Junkie, Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia’s look at Internet addiction treatment in China; and Valerie Veatch’s Love Child (pictured above), about a South Korean couple whose gaming addiction had fatal consequences.
In 2010, the 28-year-old filmmaker was in Rome when she caught a BBC News report about a South Korean couple charged with manslaughter after a judge ruled their gaming addiction made them not culpable for the death of their baby, who starved to death as they played an online game called Prius in 12 hour-long stints at a cybercafé.
The case made headlines around the world and sparked a debate within South Korea – a country with the world’s most advanced information and communication technology economy – around whether online addiction should be categorized as a mental illness.
Veatch, who previously directed the HBO doc Me @ the Zoo, and co-producer David Foox put together funding through friends, T-Mobile CEO John Legere (credited as an exec producer) and a first-look deal with HBO Documentary Films and flew to South Korean capital Seoul last year for a six-week shoot.
She met the couple and their family, interviewed their lawyer, police officers, psychiatrists, policy makers and a British reporter who had followed the story. A sad portrait quickly emerged: an impoverished couple with no emotional support or stability used gaming to earn income. As addiction rendered them outwardly emotionless, the virtual world became a means to achieve the happiness they lacked in life.
The more she delved into the case, Veatch began to draw connections between South Korea’s gaming culture and digital culture at large and wound up finding a cause for optimism in the deeply sad story of a neglected infant.
“My takeaway is that what we’re looking at isn’t necessarily Internet addiction,” Veatch explains in an interview with realscreen. “Rather, we are looking at a moment in time where there is a collapse between the virtual world and the real world in terms of how we socially, spiritually and emotionally address these spaces.”
“I really believe in the power of technology. I believe in the power of policy and innovation to resolve the social issues cropping up because of Internet overuse,” she adds. “A lot of contemporary coverage of this issue further entrenches this as being an exotic thing to be afraid of. Ultimately – even though it seems so sad – there are things about this story that represent a really positive shift that’s happening ontologically.”
To give the audience a sense of this collapse between the virtual and the real, Veatch made a controversial decision not to include her interviews with the couple – who had willingly participated in on-camera interviews – or their names and faces.
Instead, the film uses the tragedy to springboard into a broader exploration of legal, cultural and societal issues around Internet usage by mixing interviews and audio with game footage, visual effects, experimental electronic music, and psychedelic images of Seoul’s labyrinthine cityscape of LED lights and digital screens that paint a Kubrickian portrait of South Korea’s extensive IT infrastructure.
The creative direction began to take shape after Veatch returned home after the shoot in South Korea, translated the footage from Prius, and realized the plot of the game revolves around raising a virtual child – one of many eerie ironies in Love Child.
“To make it this pathos-driven character study documentary of these two people didn’t really fit the goals of the film,” says Veatch. “We really tried to represent their story in a way that had a lot of context and create a movie in which people can project their own digital experiences into the story and be like, ‘Wow, this is me or this isn’t me,’ or ‘This isn’t my kid.’”
“I love documentaries that visually re-frame familiar landscapes,” she adds. “Korea has such a unique visual landscape so it was easy to make it look really interesting.”
Additionally, Veatch was uncomfortable shining another spotlight on the couple in the wake of the media attention they experienced during the trial.
Her decision initially raised eyebrows among HBO’s producers who struck a first-look deal for Love Child once she and Foox gained access to the couple and their family. Meanwhile, another big supporter, Legere, pledged to stay on board either way.
“At first, [HBO] did not understand the direction that we took it in,” she says. “They wanted some of that pathos but that’s just not the project I wanted to make. I think what happened in the end was a much stronger film and I think they’re really happy with the outcome.”
The network eventually acquired the U.S. TV rights for Love Child. Veatch is looking to sell all other rights at Sundance.
To represent the emotional vortex that ensnared the couple Veatch used RGBD, a 3D-scanning process developed by experimental cinematographer Alexander Porter and creative programmer James George.
Using a hacked Xbox Kinect and a hacked digital SLR camera, the technique captures the geo-location of pixels in relation to a camera sensor, rather than a pixel image, to create a hybrid of 3D graphics and video.
“We wanted to tell a story that challenged the conventions around how Internet addiction and Internet over-immersion are perceived,” she says. “It’s really easy to say, ‘Oh look at everyone! They’re all addicted to their phones!’ But there’s so much more to the story. There are so many elements influencing why we use technology the way we do right now. It’s exciting to think about the future of how we can divine our way out of our current location.”
- Love Child plays at Sundance on January 22 and 24.
- Watch the trailer for Love Child below: