Vague Terrain

The Argentinian director Eduardo Williams’s first short, Tan Atentos (2011), appears in English filmographies as an alarming whisper, Beware. The Spanish title has its ambiguities: tan could mean ‘so’, acting as an intensifier (‘very attentive’), or ‘as’, indicating qualification or comparison (‘as attentive as that’, ‘attentive to this degree’). ‘Beware’ doesn’t resolve this ambiguity, and we should take the hint – the realm we’re entering will not provide clear answers – and maybe the warning, too. Many of Williams’s titles have this cryptic quality, as though missing a coordinate: Could See a Puma (Pude Ver Un Puma, 2011), That I’m Falling? (Que je tombe tout les temps?, 2013, I Forgot! (Tôi quên rồi!, 2014). Like their titles, much of these films’ dialogue sounds interrupted, fragmentary, half-sensical. Could See a Puma opens with a shot of a daytime crescent moon and a voiceover caught mid-sentence: ‘and believe it static and harmless as decoration’. Williams’s use of broken dialogue is destabilizing; his films can make you wonder if you’re paying enough attention, or the right kind.

The Human Surge 3 (2023) is Williams’s second feature, following 2016’s The Human Surge. The mischievous omission of volume two has the disconcerting effect of a missed stair. Like Williams’s shorts, they follow groups of young people as they hang out, work, chat and listlessly slink around disparate international locations which, like the scenes that play out in them, feel diffuse and unremarkable – under-tended public parks, train station waiting rooms, shared bedrooms, parking lots, deserted markets, drab beaches. ‘Following’ really is the operative word for what Williams’s camera does, sometimes keeping pace with his characters, sometimes falling behind, occasionally becoming distracted and wandering off.

The Human Surge begins by tracking a young Argentinian man called Exe around the suburbs of Buenos Aires as he visits friends and seeming strangers, works at a supermarket, and witnesses a group of men performing sex acts for a webcam. In a convenience store, the camera takes a languid interest in another shopper, slopes home after her, then follows her housemate into a dark room where a laptop is running a video chat with a group of men in Mozambique also trying to make money from half-hearted cybersex. Seeming to move through the laptop screen, the camera then follows these men out into Maputo, where they, too, wander around, seeing friends and looking for work. When one pisses on an anthill, the camera follows the stream, delving among the earth and insects before emerging in the Philippines, where a third set of characters walk through the jungle, swim and converse enigmatically: telling second-hand anecdotes about getting lost and being followed, or swapping arcane facts (such as the gigabyte weights of various animals’ genomes). Finally, we arrive at a factory that produces tablet computers, and the shots become long and static. It’s a film about young adults – underemployed, culturally peripheral – searching for connection and some kind of meaningful interface with the world, a theme the film puns on (the characters are always looking for signal, wifi, or somewhere to charge their phone).

Blending arthouse, documentary and slow cinema styles, Williams’s films are hybrid works that one could imagine being screened in a gallery as much as a cinema; like their characters, they seem resistant to settling. Born in 1987, Williams studied film proper rather than fine art – first at the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires, then under Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes in France – and there is a cinematic scale to his features, in tension with their lack of narrative. Watching his films you feel always on the cusp of perceiving some clearer shape, a story about to announce itself. Instead there are repeated motifs, images, phrases and scenarios: an accumulation of associations. The circumstances of the characters are never quite concretised. We gather that they struggle to make money – they live in shared, down-at-heel homes – but their situations do not seem desperate. They seem disaffected rather than alienated, rudderless not ground down. They exist in interstices – between major cities, jobs, stages of life, even between classes or social identities.

The Human Surge 3 is also set in three distant countries – Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Peru – and depicts groups of young friends walking, swimming, sleeping, sitting at empty cafés, and chatting disjointedly about their dreams and personal theories about life and the world. The conversations are not only hard to follow because they are fragmentary but because they take place in two or more languages. It’s not clear the characters can always understand one another. A viewer would need to speak Sinhala, Tamil, Mandarin, English and Spanish to do without the subtitles. Williams has spoken of his attraction to languages he can’t understand. Travelling abroad for the first time, he was entranced by the experience of hearing language as sound, and it is one he seeks to replicate in his films.

Rather than moving through settings consecutively as in the first film, The Human Surge 3 interweaves them. The locations are often hard to distinguish from each other: Williams continues to favour terrains vagues which might only be identified as Peru by a road sign, or as southeast Asia by a stall serving oyster soup. Augmenting this confusion, the protagonists begin to show up in other countries – inexplicably appearing on the other side of the world. This is one way that the film leans more towards science fiction, or even abstraction, than its predecessor. On several occasions, characters mention having dreamed of each other, and the film seems to partake of a dream’s hermetic, associative logic. In place of the previous film’s pricklier, restless energy is a sense of languorous contentment; in place of the machismo, a mixed, gender-fluid cast; in place of the bored, mercenary sex, tender, chaste flirtation. The restless search for connection has become a more melancholy search for home: a refrain of the film is ‘How do I go home?’, to which the enigmatic reply is a variation of ‘That’s complicated from here’. In the final scene at the summit of a Peruvian mountain, as one character looks at the view and wonders ‘Is that our home?’, another walks forward, picks up the camera, and rolls it back down the path, sending the image into a kaleidoscopic tailspin of figurative abstraction. Eventually the camera gets stuck in some undergrowth and the film ends.

Although his films have an otherworldly atmosphere, Williams uses non-professional actors and real settings. Fairly often, a passer-by will look right into the lens. There are hints that the latest film is set in sometime in the near-future; there are several references to a warmer climate – water being too hot to swim in, computers needing to be stored in the fridge. Many of Williams’s characters live in fragile, ephemeral dwellings – in thin-walled huts perched on the edge of water, or in shacks dotted around agricultural land, always overpopulated – and his films fluctuate between seeming like dreamy fairytales and frank portraits of precarity. There are allusions to Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force and the disappearances with which it is associated (a secondary character’s son is taken away). He could even be regarded as a practitioner of magical realism – of the kind Gabriel Garcia Marquez produced, with One Hundred Days of Solitude,in response to the massacre of striking banana plantation workers in Colombia and the terribly surreal way their deaths were institutionally forgotten.

As their drifting between countries emphasizes, Williams’s characters live in a globalised world where far-removed locations appear increasingly interconnected and homogenised, parts of a vast, elusive whole. The countries in The Human Surge are implicitly linked by the history of imperialism originating in the Iberian Peninsula. Distant as they are, there are echoes between the Argentinian Spanish, Mozambiquan Portuguese and Spanish-flecked Visayan. In the new film, the settings lack this shared historical thread but are relatively close latitudinally: their similar stormy equatorial weather and light makes it easier to confuse them. The anthropologist Anna Tsing has drawn attention to what she calls sites of ‘friction’ in the globalised world: the overlooked places where surreal, violent, often unconscionable activity takes place to facilitate the outwardly seamless flow of global capitalism. Williams is similarly concerned with the world’s less celebrated corners, away from capitals and trade centres. But the phenomenon he tracks is less friction than lassitude: places where the momentum of trade and empire has left absence and listlessness in its wake.

Though Williams’s is in this respect a global cinema, his filmmaking style is also appreciably Argentinian. His improvisatory, deadpan approach and unglamorous though occasionally beautiful suburban locations recall films like Martin Rejtman’s Rapado (1992),about a teenager wandering Buenos Aires in search of a stolen motorbike, or Alejo Moguillansky’s Castro (2009), whose protagonist is mysteriously chased through the city, mostly via its sprawling bus routes. Both films are about restless, uncertain men living in the prolonged aftermath of a military dictatorship, their country seeming alternately dismal, surreal, boring and full of dazzling possibility.

Williams’s interior scenes evoke another pivotal work of Argentinian cinema: Lucrecia Martel’s sultry debut La Ciénaga (The Swamp, 2001), set in a holiday home in the north of the country belonging to an extended family whose relationships to one another – like those between Williams’s protagonists – are not entirely clear. Stunned by heat and alcohol, they spend much of the time lounging around. La Ciénaga memorably includes one of the least tempting swimming pools in cinema – opaque, still, fetid, green. ‘I ​think there are a lot of similarities in perception – between being in a pool and being in the world’, Martel has observed. ‘We usually forget that we are immersed in air.’ In The Human Surge, water tends to come up to about knee-height: Argentinian kids wade through flooded streets or the warm brown shallows of the Rio del Plata; Filipino families lie back in a pool below a waterfall in the jungle, talking about getting lost. In The Human Surge 3, characters are often up to their necks in water, but the film’s high-altitude climax on the mountain also heightens our awareness of air as a physical element. We can hear characters’ audibly laboured breathing in the thinner atmosphere, and at one point a character briefly takes flight, drawing our gaze up into the grey-blue expanse across the top of the frame.

As his films’ emphasis on water, air, the sound of language and digital technology suggests, Williams is concerned with how our experience of the world is mediated, and with our experience of that mediation. This is embodied in each film’s medium itself, or rather mediums. In The Human Surge Williams used a different camera for each country, with disorienting effects: Super 16mm film for Buenos Aires, which catches daylight in warm magenta tones but plunges interiors into fuzzy grey darkness; digital video shot on a tiny handheld camera in Maputo (then re-filmed on Super 16 from the laptop screen); and bright, brittle high-resolution digital video for the climactic Philippines section.

The medium of The Human Surge 3 is perhaps its most distinctive feature. Williams shot on a 360-degree camera whose footage he then edited into standard cinema frames by navigating it with a VR headset. The resulting image, stitched together digitally, is distended at its edges and in a few striking moments distorts the characters’ faces where they cross the image’s seams. The frame lilts right and left at its edges as the camera steps forward in pursuit of its subjects; whereas in the first film passers-by peered curiously into the camera, here they double-take, taking in a camera set-up that must have looked eccentrically elaborate, alien. At the heart of The Human Surge 3 is a long, enthralling sequence that moves between people swimming in murky water – an element, like the film itself, in which things are related, reciprocal, subject to pressures and freedoms, momentum and tension. Williams’s cinema makes us acutely aware (beware) of the presence of the filmmaker and of the fact we are watching a film: the looks into camera, the ungainly glitches, the 360-view and its occasional warping effect are like cold currents passing near the surface, or weeds brushing against your foot.

I first watched The Human Surge in 2017 on my wheezing old Macbook, the grime on its screen difficult to distinguish from the grain of the film stock, the intended quality of the sound hard to discern with the compression of the built-in speakers. I was nodding off by the anthill scene and woke up to the bright lights and repeating, computerised voices of the finale at the factory, over which the credits started rolling. Williams’s films encourage, if not sleep itself, then the ebbing and pooling of attention. While other films might seek to control our attention, Williams’s have a more insouciant grip on it, by turns looser and rougher. They catch it with a curious line or a vivid image, then invite it to drift with spells of inscrutable dialogue or shots that linger for twenty minutes. To recall one of his films is to remember a peculiarly porous attentive state – what you saw mingled with the circumstances of watching and the life around it. Trying to identify what exactly is compelling about The Human Surge or its wrong-footing sequel is like looking for the omitted pronoun in Could See a Puma. But something about the way the films cohere proves just as hard to forget.

Read on: Edgardo Cozarinsky, ‘Letter from Buenos Aires’, NLR 26.