Eduardo Williams on Making a Film About What Argentines, Mozambicans & Filipinos Have in Common

In their own gilded, decadent way, film festivals can be rough; I probably spent more time rearranging my Toronto International Film Festival schedule than sitting in an actual movie theater. If a colleague hadn’t advised to me that “Teddy Williams is the future,” I might never have hot-footed it over to the final public screening of the Argentine wunderkind’s debut El auge del humano (The Human Surge.) But I’m glad I did: Surge is an unclassifiable whatsit of a movie.

The first act takes place in Williams’ native Argentina, where a young man, fired from his job at a big-box warehouse store, resorts to group video-chat cybersex (with a group of bemused and bashful friends) for money. After lingering a dozen or so feet behind in prior scenes, Williams’ camera then plows dead ahead into his protagonists’ computer interface, slowly grafting the frame’s perspective to that of a desktop webcam in Mozambique, then begins to follow another clique of young cybersexers, this time from the inside out.

It’s a ferocious stylistic gambit that’s even weirder to behold than it sounds. Williams’ camera pushes forward without once looking back, traversing languages (spoken, typed, and otherwise) as well as shooting formats in a globalized breeze that defies easy delineation. (Anyone who’s seen Williams’ earlier short, Could See A Puma, might have a better idea what they’re in for.)

I had the pleasure of catching up with Eduardo “Teddy” Williams – scruffy, generous with his time, and packing a mischievous smile – at one of the festival’s many industry drop-zones. Having received a rapturous premiere in Toronto, The Human Surge will play the New York Film Festival’s “Projections” sidebar in October.

On Researching Online Sex Work

It wasn’t really research, because I am also a user. [Laughs] I found really crazy scenes there, very different ways of approaching sexuality… It’s a great way to observe people. It’s not that I’m always trying to think about a film. You see people so relaxed, and sometimes behind them you’re seeing scenes of everyday life, while this sex thing happens in the foreground – so I was very interested in doing that scene. I didn’t ask for the performers to do anything specific, I just explained: “You’re trying to earn some money by teasing people, by having sex or not.” Some people just show one part of their body. The guys in Argentina and the guys in Mozambique had their own approaches to the scene. One was more serious, one was more nervous, but they were free. I really liked this contrast.

On Finding His Niche Online

Well, in my university I could find the people I liked more on the Internet, maybe, than on the campus. [Laughs] Thanks to the internet I made friends in different neighborhoods, different parts of the city, and that was very important – for my sexuality too, because it wasn’t easy to meet people when I was supposedly bad. I didn’t have friends with the same desires, so I couldn’t share that with anyone. All the things society proposed to me weren’t interesting or exciting, I could jump ahead of them thanks to the internet. And now for the films I am often meeting actors and actresses on Facebook, explaining the movie to them on Facebook, seeing their pictures and imagining things.

Still from ‘The Human Surge’
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On Keeping the Internet Off-Camera

I love to shoot people looking at their phones, and not caring about what is happening there. The multiplicity of points of view, physically and mentally, is something I’m really interested in. Cinema is a way to share, to propose, to practice this. Maybe in this part of the film we don’t care why they want to get online, we just see where they pass through. We saw everything inside the screen before, so it’s good to get outside that. We are on the periphery and then we must arrive to the core of production, produced by the same guys who are using it – these jobs that are usually very badly paid, not interesting at all, they make people into machines themselves. And at the same time, the makers use the products. I like this moment when everything comes together.

On Letting the Film Speak For Itself

“Cinema escapes this explanatory, institutional way of thinking. There is no exam.”

Everything I am interested in saying is already in the film. Once someone told me about how internet relations are fake, or how the film addressed them in a very negative way – which is maybe the opposite of what I think? [Laughs] I don’t think in terms of good/bad. If I had to choose one, I would say it’s actually good, but the film is not proposing that we consider life in that way. Everyone loves words because they feel more concrete, maybe even when they sound like they are not. It’s much better that others write about The Human Surge than me. Sometimes when you read something written by a director, you feel that’s the film’s “truth” and it’s not. Sound and image cannot always be explained. After seeing my shorts, people would say: “I loved it, but I don’t know why.” That’s what happens to me too. Cinema escapes this explanatory, institutional way of thinking. There is no exam.

On Shooting in Three Different Formats

I knew I wanted the film to start with 16mm and finish with video. I really like the change of texture in each part of the film. I like that each camera lets me do or doesn’t let me do certain things. When the main character finds the guys from Mozambique on his screen, I wanted to keep it logical while figuring out how the movement would be, the texture, how to introduce the other characters.

We were not very detailed in our choreography, but we did have to figure out a rhythm for the moments where we had to be precise. Acting-wise, I think it’s much better for the people I’m working with to be fresh, unrehearsed. In Argentina we were shooting on 16mm film so we didn’t have lots of shots, maybe two or three takes of each thing. In Mozambique we were shooting with a Blackmagic digital camera and we had the time. We repeated more and tried more. We just planned the pace, the movement, the speed of things… and we did a sort of choreography, but not really really detailed because I had to make some space for freedom, or for independence. When we are making the film we’re hanging out together, going through things together, passing time together – that’s the moment when they understand the film and I start to understand what exactly I can do with the actors.

On Splitting DP Duties With Two Other Cinematographers

The principal structure didn’t change a lot; what changed were the combinations in between. I didn’t really know Mozambique or the Philippines until we were there, but I really wanted moments where I could take the camera and react in the middle of the scene to things that are happening. I also find the communication between me and camera people interesting, like letting another brain or “computer” take over… I invented moments during shooting without knowing where they would end up, but I knew where we were going.

On Turning a Few Minutes of the Narrative Over to an Ant Colony

While making notes, I read a great book called Ant Encounters by Deborah M. Gordon. I wanted to know about ants, but it didn’t feel like research. It helped me get closer to all of these things people see behind ants that I had not realized before. But whether you have the text or not, I feel like observing them gives you a lot of good information.

On Showing Something More Than Poverty

Some viewers focus on the poverty in a way that I don’t. The Human Surge is about passing through everywhere with the same openness. I feel strange when people talk about Africa and all they talk about is the poverty of certain countries. It’s very shallow to just see that. For me, part of the film is this relationship of jobs and how they are so cruel for young people — and that has to do with the obligations of money. But I don’t think I have the poverty fetish. [I’m not] not denying poverty, I just want to enlarge our way of relating to people. It’s better to be conscious, but not treat it as the only thing worth caring about. It’s less interesting for everyone.