Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away): concluding episode delving into outright fantasy and falsehood

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away)” (2020)

If the first three episodes of this series on Hillary Rodham Clinton are essentially worshipful hagiography, the fourth and concluding episode descends into outright fantasy. Viewers learn very little new about HRC and especially about her years as Senator for New York and then as Secretary of State during Barack Obama’s first term as US President (2009 – 2013). The episode brushes aside HRC’s voting record as Senator on the wars initiated by President George W Bush (2001 – 2009) in Afghanistan in late 2001, soon after the World Trade Center attacks, and then in Iraq in 2003. The not so little incident of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens being ambushed and killed along with three other Americans in the consulate in Benghazi, eastern Libya, by terrorists is also treated quite cavalierly. Nothing is said about HRC’s role in allowing a context to exist in which four American citizens end up being killed in a small building in a city where one of them, a US Ambassador, is not expected to be. What was Stevens doing in Benghazi anyway – surely not running guns and jihadi fighters to Syria? Similarly nothing is made of the overthrow of a legitimately elected government in Honduras in 2010 or in Libya in 2011, the latter to which HRC, while being interviewed, cackled and said, “We came, we saw, he [Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi] died!” On top of this inattention to the issues that Americans are most concerned about – issues about public servants being accountable for their decisions and behaviours, and upholding the law – is the breezy dismissal of HRC’s use of a private email server with poor cyber-security to transact government business, of which much was in the public interest.

The episode brings viewers up to date with HRC’s decision to campaign for the US Presidency in 2016 and her campaign’s emphasis on gender politics, portraying HRC as a champion for feminism and a victim of institutional misogyny, and especially of her Republican rival Donald Trump (with whom the Clintons had previously been friendly), while saying nothing about what her campaign actually stood for in the eyes of the voting public. This narrative is pounded again and again in each of the episodes in this series. As might be expected, nothing is said about the women harmed by Bill Clinton while he was Governor of Arkansas and then US President by his actions toward them, or about his frequent trips to notorious financier Jeffrey Epstein’s private island for trysts with underage teenage women.

The breathless format of the series, in which viewers are forced to sit through constant swinging from HRC’s 2016 Presidential campaign to particular episodes of her earlier life and back again, might be designed deliberately to sweep viewers off their feet into a rollercoaster ride through HRC’s life, not allowing them to step back and have the distance to view HRC’s life, decisions and actions more dispassionately and critically. HRC is constantly portrayed as a fighter and battler to get where she is when in fact it would seem much has actually been handed to her through her husband’s associations and past career. Significantly the series ignores much of her career as New York state senator or US Secretary of State – because the truth is, she achieved nothing worth celebrating that fits in with a paradigm that sees her as a feminist champion and achiever. Her major achievements have actually brought ruin, chaos, violence and death to many millions of people around the world.

The attempts to smear Donald Trump with accusations of Russian collusion to gain the US Presidency and Russian President Vladimir Putin as a soulless character who will always be nothing more than a KGB man, with no evidence to back up such insults, demonstrate the shallowness of Burstein’s subject. That Burstein simply agrees with HRC and follows along, instead of probing these issues and challenging HRC, reveals the series as essentially propaganda of a very mediocre standard. HRC herself is an uninteresting subject for a documentary: smug, self-serving and expecting the world to revolve around her.

Hillary (Episode 3: The Hardest Decision): more fawning over a despicable subject

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 3: The Hardest Decision)” (2020)

Purporting to show how Hillary Rodham Clinton became a feminist icon to millions of women (and quite a few men) around the world, this episode in the four-part hagiography by Nanette Burstein does little more than portray its uninteresting subject as a victim of reactionary politics and malign forces in US politics. The hardest decision of the episode’s title that HRC makes turns out to one facing most women at some point in their marriages or equivalent unions: when a partner has been unfaithful, and moreover dallied with a number of women over the years of married life, should the cuckolded partner forgive the errant one, and stay together, or should the cuckold leave the one who did wrong? Even when HRC does make that decision, seeing how it benefits both HRC and Bubba is hard: neither HRC nor any of her 2016 Presidential campaign staff is asked any hard questions as to whether HRC’s forgiveness of her husband was a good idea to have undertaken in the past 20 or so years.

The episode sketchily yet smoothly covers the period of Bubba’s involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in its coverage of the political events, bombshells and scandals that pushed HRC out in front before blinking audiences. Nothing is said about how sex scandals and other related activities might have affected HRC’s rise to a position and influence during the mid to late 1990s. In-between significant events and trends during her husband’s years in the US Presidency, one might have expected to see how HRC learned to stand on her own feet away from the shadow of Bubba’s Presidency and the scandals associated with it. What happens here instead is that HRC exploits gender-based identity politics to elevate her own position and launch her campaign for the US Presidency in 2016 with the help of starry-eyed acolytes and advisors whose interviews here are little more than gushing praise for the woman.

A more sober, objective and energetic documentary portraying HRC and her influence on US politics and foreign policy will have to wait many more years. How she manipulated and exploited identity politics for her benefit, the role that mainstream news media in the US and elsewhere played in colluding with her in that manipulation, allowing her to escape prosecution for various crimes, and the malign effect such manipulation had on the American electorate and the feminist movement in the US, to the extent that huge numbers of people were prepared to vote for her simply because she was a woman, ignoring her lack of policies that would actually help the poor and disadvantaged sections of the US population, is an issue Burstein is blind to. Above all, in spite of her attempts to sanctify HRC by denigrating her campaign opponent Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign debates, odious as he was then (and still is), Burstein still is unable to show how and why HRC lost what should have been a winnable election against a politically inexperienced outsider.

Hillary (Episode 2: Becoming a Lady): on the road to smug notoriety

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 2: Becoming a Lady)” (2020)

This episode continues to cover Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life from the time hubby Bubba Bill decides to campaign for the US Presidency in 1992 after serving five terms as Governor of Arkansas to the Whitewater real estate investment controversy that dogged the couple during Bubba’s first term as President. As in the first episode, the events of the early to mid-1990s are interspersed with the events of HRC’s 2016 Presidential campaign during its early run from when HRC bad-mouths Democrat rival Bernie Sanders to Super Tuesday in early March and a bit beyond that. These events are recounted by HRC herself and her campaign aides in a narrative that flatters the woman and paints her as a victim of bullying by the Republican Party and forces in US society antagonistic to the idea of a First Lady who is anything but submissive and content to stay at home in the White House supervising interior decorations and the garden design. Director Burstein rarely if ever challenges her subject on any aspect of what they discuss that does not only conform to a pre-arranged script of HRC as a righteous saintly type badly treated by reactionary forces in US society but is significant in its own right because of the light it casts on HRC’s behaviour then when the issue was current and on her behaviour since that time.

By presenting herself as a victim of malign misogynistic individuals and groups, and portraying herself as a feminist champion and pioneer, HRC comes off as self-absorbed and smug. Her aides are worshipful and adoring. Few of director Burstein’s interviewees ever stop to wonder whether HRC’s own personality and behaviour might be factors contributing to her unpopularity, the constant put-downs and smears against her reputation. As a result, Burstein’s film is less documentary, and more fawning hagiography. I hazard that many years, perhaps even decades, will have to pass before a more balanced and sober account of HRC’s life and the damage she has inflicted on US politics and society since she became a Senator for New York state in 2001 can be done.

Hillary (Episode 1: The Golden Girl): early years of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life receive glowing treatment

Nannette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 1: The Golden Girl)” (2020)

Ostensibly a four-part series on the life and career of Hillary Rodham Clinton, this work is never more than a worshipful hagiography of the woman who, after nearly a complete Presidential four-year cycle, has still never accepted that she was and will always be the least favoured of two unlikeable candidates for the US Presidency in late 2016. The series takes the form of interviews conducted by Burstein (never seen, though her voice can be heard) of HRC and various aides who have worked for her over the decades, including those aides who worked for her 2016 Presidential campaign.

Episode 1 “The Golden Girl” follows HRC’s life from her childhood growing up in a staunch Republican family in a comfortable middle class neighbourhood through her college years in the 1960s, during which she worked as a volunteer for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, to postgraduate studies at Yale University Law School where she met Bill Clinton, whom she married and followed to Arkansas where she taught in the law faculty at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. The episode then runs through Bill Clinton’s early political career, starting with his tenure as Attorney General for Arkansas and then his time as Governor of Arkansa, the latter during which HRC not only continued as a partner in Rose Law Firm (which she joined in the late 1970s) but also tackled education reform and was successful in establishing teacher testing and state standards for curricula and classroom sizes.

Inserted into the narrative of HRC’s early years are snapshots of her Presidential campaign in 2016 and the various controversies relating to her time as Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s first term (2009 – 2012) that resurfaced during her campaign, in particular her role in the infamous 2012 incident in which US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed during a terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi; and her use of a private server over which she conducted government business in violation of Federal laws forbidding the use of privately owned and run digital technologies to receive, send, work on and store emails containing government information. Disturbingly HRC and another interviewee breezily wave away the private server issue by saying that a previous Secretary of State, Colin Powell, also had a private server while holding the position. (Did he ever use this server to transact government business in the way HRC did?)

The constant theme throughout this episode, which HRC and other interviewees consistently bash into the TV audience’s ears and faces, is that HRC’s story parallels the rise of second-wave feminism and the fight for women’s rights from the 1960s onwards. In very many occasions HRC claims she was battling misogynistic prejudice against her for her education and achievements, and for wanting to retain her maiden name after marrying Bill. Viewers are misled into thinking HRC a significant leader in the fight for women’s rights and equality with men before the law. At the same time though, very little attention is given by Burstein or her interviewees on what the ordinary John and Jane Doe know of the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1960s / 70s and what HRC’s role might have been in that movement, if she had ever participated in it at all.

Despite covering the life of the woman who would become a significant figure in US politics and culture in her own right, for better and for worse, the program makes its subject an uninteresting and dull figure. One would have thought that Burstein, an experienced film director, would try to encourage HRC to relax and try to project a warm personality. Instead HRC comes across as a self-absorbed woman, around whom the world supposedly rotates and does obeisance. Everything dragged into the film, whether it be the history of civil rights and rights for women, ends up revolving around HRC.

Of course, nowhere in this episode will we see much about the scandals that were to follow the Clintons like a bad smell: scandals like the Whitewater real estate investment controversy or HRC’s dabbling in the trading of cattle futures contracts while serving as First Lady of Arkansas. As a result, viewers will only get a slanted view of HRC as a dedicated feminist and a tough political fighter. The real HRC, with all her sociopathic qualities, is carefully polished to Teflon-like sheen.

The Disappearance of Willie Bingham: portrait of a society exploiting emotions and desire for vengeance

Matt Richards, “The Disappearance of Willie Bingham” (2015)

A truly unsettling short realist film about a bureaucracy gone insanely inhuman, pandering to the lowest common denominator in Western cultural ethics, this Australian psychological horror piece justifies wading through much dross on the Omeleto channel. Prisoner Willie Bingham (Kevin Dee) has been selected by the State of Victoria to undergo a new kind of punishment for having killed a child while intoxicated: the punishment involves the participation of the victim’s family who can demand that Bingham undergo a series of amputations while family members watch. The victim’s father (Tim Ferris) requests that Bingham’s left hand be chopped off first. After this operation, Bingham is then taken by his prison supervisor George Morton (Gregory J Fryer) and the police on a circuit of primary and secondary schools to demonstrate to youngsters the consequences of committing serious crimes: they too can expect to undergo progressive amputation. Over time, Bingham suffers more amputations: his right hand goes, then his left leg, and various organs also disappear. With each operation, the victim’s sisters refuse to watch and leave, and the father steadily becomes more disheveled. Bingham’s mental state deteriorates with each operation as well until he becomes completely traumatised, withdrawn and uncommunicative.

The acting is excellent and Dee’s performance as Bingham is heart-rendingly pathetic, not least because there is a possibility that he is innocent of several charges against him relating to the rape and murder of the child victim. As the convicted criminal in a prison system that has been largely privatised, pandering to public calls for Old Testament eye-for-an-eye vengeance against those deemed to have committed unspeakable crimes, Bingham has no say in his punishment and is caught up in a spiral of a relentless and deranged prison bureaucracy that acts with a demonic life of its own. The film does not say who ultimately is responsible for having set this Kafkaesque machine system in progress, literally chewing through each and every prisoner guilty of a serious crime. At the end of the film, Bingham is left a literal husk.

Other characters fare little better than Bingham: the victim’s father undergoes degradation as well and ironically appears to reach a state similar to Bingham’s initial state when he murdered the child. (One almost expects a late plot twist in which the father admits to the crime.) Bingham’s supervisor Fryer appears a broken man by the end of the film as he resignedly takes Bingham on yet another circus tour of various schools. The high school students view Bingham as a figure to be made fun of. What lessons they might learn are very different from what they are supposed to learn. Yet the bureaucracy carrying out the progressive amputation punishments on Bingham and others like him continues regardless.

Aside from obvious questions about how the State should deal with heinous acts of crime and the people who commit them, and whether effective justice can be served by the punishments attached to these crimes, there is a wider issue of the potential consequences of privatising prisons and other functions of the State, opening up these privatised functions to the whims of the general public and pandering to people’s emotions and instincts rather than their reason. The horrific, dehumanising effects of such privatisation and a populist approach to punishing prison inmates, on inmates, prison administrators, victims’ families and the people who carry out the progressive punishments are made plain to the audience. Even the supposed benefits of the punishments are questionable.

Much of the film’s power comes from its plausibility and its realist tone. All the characters are to some extent stereotypes and audiences can very readily identify with these stereotypes. The plot is very original but its inevitable and relentless trajectory cannot sustain a running time much longer than 15 minutes. For a film of its type to work, it needs to bring in philosophical issues about the role of the State in delivering justice to victims of crimes, in deciding the appropriate levels and types of punishments for crimes, and in accepting (or outsourcing) responsibility for imprisoning people and punishing them. The film also needs to say something about the nature of a society that enables an inhumane system of punishment exploiting emotions and desire for revenge and extreme punishments to exist and thrive.

Trunk Space: familiar and predictable story and plot elements redeemed by good performances

Max Silver, “Trunk Space” (2016)

As surely as the sun rises in the east, birds fly in the sky and fish swim in the oceans, so also do films that begin with two people driving through a barren desert and stopping to collect a strange hitch-hiker turn out to be terror-filled affairs in which one of the people in the car turns out to be a serial killer. So begins director Max Silver’s short film “Trunk Space”, in which best girl buddies Anna (Jessica Jade Andres) and Priss (Kate Krieger) are fleeing dreary work lives in the eastern US on a road trip holiday to California in their car, and are flying along a lonely highway in the Nevadan desert. They talk about all the guys they’ve seen and picked up along the way. They notice a guy (Jordan Turchin) standing next to a car that’s run out of gas and Anna offers him a lift over Priss’s objections. While Anna and the stranger make eyes at each other while Anna drives, Kate fumes in the back seat and fiddles with the stranger’s bag – she finds women’s bracelets inside. The conversation between the women themselves and between the stranger and the women becomes ever more tense and starts to take a weird and dark turn when the stranger, prompted by Kate’s discovery of an odd tattoo on his neck, tells the women a strange story about wolves. Finally the stranger takes control of the situation by telling Anna that she should have listened to Kate in the first place.

With most of the plot taking place in the car, the tension and mystery arise from the conversation and the conflict between Anna and Kate over the stranger’s presence. A familiar horror story feeding on familiar elements – two friends fleeing the city for unknown reasons for a supposed paradise, the friends falling out over an intruder who then manipulates their strained relationship, the stranger’s mysterious past – is refreshed by good performances from the three actors. The tension is heightened when Kate discovers on her mobile phone news that police have found decapitated bodies along the highway they are travelling.

As a result, when the plot twist comes, it does hit the viewer quite hard even though the viewer can guess what is about to happen. Now we realise what happened to the men Anna and Kate had picked up on their trip earlier and whom they rejected, and we also now know why they are fleeing to California. The plot twist is done very deftly and quickly, and before we know it, the two girls are on their way again and the film ends there and then.

The film is rather repetitive and drags on a bit too long which results in some over-acting from Andres and Krieger. Better dialogue, hinting at dark secrets in all characters’ pasts, perhaps a history of abuse for one character, or some desultory conversation about how the police are hunting for a murderer and Turchin’s character answering to the description of the man being pursued, might have strengthened the plot and made the film even more tense and horrifying. If the film had been made as part of a proposal to movie studios for a longer film, the bean counter executives would have been wise to ask Silver for a stronger and deeper concept

End of Decay: pulpy body-horror adaptation of Frankenstein story

Christopher Todd, “End of Decay” (2017)

A pulpy body-horror update on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” novel, this short film has the sketchy and hasty look of a pilot for a sci-fi horror film that might have once done David Cronenberg proud. Ambitious freelancing pharmaceutical researcher Orin (Brian Villalobos) is pursuing a project using stem cells to regenerate body parts and organs in his garage. From this research, he hopes to discover a method by which degenerative diseases and conditions such as cancer can be cured or prevented, and he himself, being wheelchair-bound, can regain the use of his legs. His collaborator, disgusted at Orin’s resort to sourcing stem cells on the black market, and suspecting that the research is Orin’s vanity project, leaves him. After obtaining the stem cells, which have come from God-only-knows-where, Orin injects them into his spine through a machine set-up guaranteed to inflict maximum pain on him (three times, no less!) and hysterical heebee-jeebees on the viewer at the sight of all the vomit.

At first everything seems to have gone well, and Orin does regain the use of his legs – but as with all experiments where the researcher uses himself or herself as the first guinea pig, unusual side-effects can be expected. To his consternation Orin discovers an ectopic pregnancy growing in the right-hand side of his abdomen. Unwisely perhaps, he does not consult his local neighbourhood family-planning clinic who might have urged him to agree to a properly done Caesarean appendectomy …

The film is more notable for its themes which admittedly are not original. Pursuit of scientific knowledge needs to be moderated with ethics or else experiments will generate invalid or dangerous results. Orin narrowly cheats death at least twice but whether he can handle the responsibilities of parenting a fast-growing child who is destined for a poor quality of life as a freak of nature, and what threats and dangers that might pose for both Orin and his creation, is another question. Orin may laugh at his former collaborator for not wanting to share in his discovery but he may eventually rue his decision to inject himself with treated stem cells of dubious origins and nature.

The plot depends a great deal on viewers’ knowledge of Shelley’s “Frankenstein …” to make sense of the breaks in the narrative, corresponding to the passage of time from one scene to the next. Obviously this short film is intended in the space of less than 15 minutes to pitch a plot for a movie or even a mini-series that brings “Frankenstein …” into a contemporary era of DIY freelancing biological research, organ-trafficking and stem-cell technologies.

Lucid: horror sci-fi dealing with cyber-addiction, escapism and technology shaping human psychology

Jamie Monahan, “Lucid” (2018)

The film’s title refers to so-called lucid dreams in which the dreamer is aware that s/he is dreaming, that the action in the dream comes from his/her subconscious and s/he can control and shape the dream’s path and narrative. Actor-director Jamie Monahan applies this concept of dreams to Virtual Reality, in which participants are not only transported to a cyber-world that simulates reality but can be trained to shape it while inside it. Monahan introduces other themes such as the issue of cyber-addiction, the use of Virtual Reality as a form of escape from real life and having to confront it and deal with its mess, and the place of women in technology invented and mostly mediated by men.

Charlie (Monahan herself) decides to try Virtual Reality neurological therapy after months of having had other unsuccessful treatments for post-traumatic stress caused by being raped during a girls’ night out. After a few treatments during which Charlie is able to “think” a puppy into existence in Virtual Reality, the therapist realises that Charlie has considerable talent in shaping Virtual Reality and signs her up to an experimental long-term program. Unbeknownst to Charlie, her sessions with the therapist have been carefully monitored by psychologists and scientists who have plans of their own in using her – and who are quite prepared to throw her therapist off the program if she objects. In her first session in the long-term program, Charlie realises too late that she is being stalked by strangers who have entered her Virtual Reality world and who threaten her psychological stability.

The film plays like a pilot to a full-length film or television series which might explain its sketchy and incomplete nature. However the vague nature of the plot does invite many intriguing explanations of what is happening throughout the film. Is the rape itself a scene in a different Virtual Reality world? What exactly is the role of Deja, Charlie’s friend, in “Lucid”? One might think Charlie would not be too keen on seeing Deja again after her rape experience as Deja was the one who took Charlie to the club where Charlie met the rapist. How and why does Charlie choose Virtual Reality neurological therapy to cope and deal with her trauma? Was the rapist ever arrested, charged with rape and put away in prison?

The acting is adequate for the film and perhaps Monahan is best advised not to try to direct and be the main character at the same time so that her energies and efforts are not spread thinly. However the film’s emphasis is on plot and the themes and issues surrounding the use of Virtual Reality in ordinary life, and how it could lead people into escapist cyber-addiction and encourage an inability to acknowledge and accept that life is often unfair and hard lessons must be learned to gain maturity and self-knowledge.

The film looks very good and plays smoothly, and serves as an introduction to the wider issue of how technology is allowed to invade and shape human psychology and culture.

Outpost: a skimpy plot redeemed by skillful acting, good sets and an uplifting theme of hope and love

Justin Giddings, Ryan Welsh, “Outpost” (2020)

On the very edge of the known universe, the last survivor of Earth’s Interplanetary Diplomatic Service, a fellow known as Citizen Gordon (Ryan Welsh, who also co-wrote and co-directed this film short) and his AI companion A.R.I.A. (Ryann Turner, in real life married to co-director Justin Giddings) make contact with an alien life force that resents the presence of the Earthlings in its part of the cosmic neighbourhood. Citizen Gordon and A.R.I.A. have already collected considerable information about this region of the universe and the alien force wants the data back. The Earthlings try to escape but the alien grabs A.R.I.A. and starts draining energy from her. Gordon is torn between saving the AI being – they have been together and have clicked together so well that they have fallen in love, in defiance of their employer’s directives against human-AI relationships – and adhering to his mission while the alien pulls her with a long tentacle and tries to engulf her.

The plot is very skimpy with many logic holes in it. Why is the alien so concerned about the presence of another interstellar species in its region? What does the alien mean when it tells Gordon and A.R.I.A. that their kind is “not ready” to make contact with it? How long have Gordon and A.R.I.A. been together and how could their seniors have failed to notice the burgeoning romance beneath their good cop / bad cop routine and the bantering between them? (Unless of course their seniors had always been aware of this relationship and even encouraged it, giving rise to further intriguing issues on whether such a relationship was intended to manipulate Gordon and make of him a laboratory animal for study.) Would a spaceship in the 25th century really carry a weapon like a sword? (No wonder the alien force distrusts humans when they insist on using old-fashioned weapons!) Nevertheless the film works because the actors playing Gordon and A.R.I.A. are at ease with each other, have invested heavily into these otherwise one-dimensional characters and the two have good chemistry. Welsh certainly comes across as a young, rough-hewn version of Australian actor Hugh Jackman and plays both a heroic character and a larrikin at the same time. Turner brings a quick mind and wit to A.R.I.A. and the character’s self-sacrifice and death are extremely affecting as the Earthlings sail off in their escape pod while the alien force pursues them.

The special effects are very good without being outstanding – I’ve seen so many DUST films featuring holograms being used as laptop and iPad replacements that this futuristic technology is now looking banal before it even becomes reality – and the sets and costumes are very impressive. Attention to detail such as these and the acting together can flesh out a very sketchy story and compensate for flaws in the narrative.

The film’s conclusion, coming after the end credits, turns out to be very moving with Gordon apparently alone on a deserted planet and A.R.I.A. close by, in the manner of Hans Christian Anderson’s famous Little Mermaid at the end of her tale. Whatever the alien force found in Gordon when it captured him and A.R.I.A. must have impressed it so much – his willingness to sacrifice everything he has for a mere robot, the extent of his love and affection for a machine – that he received a commuted sentence for whatever harm he and A.R.I.A. did to it. Or perhaps the alien force finds him a fascinating subject for further research just as his employers did with his relationship with A.R.I.A.

Hashtag: smartly presented and concise film on social media as psychological prisons

Ben Alpi, “Hashtag” (2015)

A smartly presented sci-fi short, “Hashtag” demonstrates how a science fiction film made with a tiny budget and minimal special effects can be a cult success if its actors are able to do exceptional work with a significant theme and plot. In “Hashtag”, the theme focuses on the impact of social media on human society, to the extent that people form their identities and judge their self-worth (and the worth of others) based on the values and structures imposed by social media platforms. The plot explores what happens when an online social media celebrity (Gigi Edgley), known only as X, is interrupted in her various online tasks – which include advertising products even during intimate personal routines such as her morning shower, and collecting statistics on her popularity and the number of friends she has – by mysterious hacker Gil (Erryn Arkin) who forces her to question the nature of her existence. Her resulting curiosity about the box she lives results in her employer, who communicates through an AI being called Te’a (voiced by Juliet Landau, the real-life daughter of Hollywood actors Martin Landau and Barbara Bain), ditching her and casting her out into a place populated by other social media celebrity has-beens. We do not know what this place is as the film ends at this point and so we are left to speculate on what sort of uncertain future faces X. We also must muse on the nature of Gil himself, whether he truly is a rebel hacker or is a company employee sent out to get rid of X before she experiences burn-out and starts losing her fan base and clientele.

The undoubted attraction of the film is Edgley who in the space of less than 15 minutes fills an essentially one-dimensional character with so much feeling and emotion that viewers end up feeling for X, despite her hectic and shallow lifestyle and her extreme dependence on her employer and Te’a for affirmation and purpose for living and being. I did not get the impression that X ever really realises that she is being turfed out completely and permanently – so abrupt and horrific is the way she is shunned by her employer once she asks a question that she seems unaware is forbidden. The special effects used are excellent but Edgley’s portrayal of a lonely social media celebrity on the edge of burn-out and cracking end up overpowering the film’s technical aspects.

The film’s fast pace mirrors the frantic speed at which Edgley’s character is forced to live her life constantly exposed to public scrutiny – though interestingly we never see her audience and so the possibility exists that her audience really consists of bots activated by a limited number of algorithms – and only allowed brief breaks for privacy and self-reflection. Even then, she is expected to view her employer’s media during recreation time. On the one occasion when she looks outside her box and sees other boxes just like hers, the film achieves true existential dystopian / panopticon horror.

Social media celebrities and the audiences who support them and their platforms turn out to be prisoners in a system that milks them both for profit and to harvest their data and information that can be used to manipulate and even blackmail them. The prison formed is not so much physical as it is psychological, even spiritual. Prisoners may not even realise they are trapped as their identities and self-worth are shaped and moulded by the prison’s parameters and the values and beliefs it promotes. The devil really does exist in the details of the prison.