Adapted from a popular Chinese web novel, Caught in the Web depicts how a thoughtless incident can almost instantly be spun into an explosive storm by the media and the online world. (TIFF)
Amid the Toronto International Film Festival's crush of movies to watch, a pair of thought-provoking dramas -- from opposite sides of the world, depicting completely different stories and styles -- stood out for one thread common between the two: the serious consequences we face as we increasingly express ourselves online.
Early in the festival, I saw Jason Buxton's assured debut Blackbird, a powerful commentary exploring alienation, paranoia, the juvenile detention system and the difficult, life-altering choices the young protagonist is forced into making.
Blackbird director Jason Buxton. (John Rieti/CBC)
The drama follows a tormented, outcast teen whose life is irrevocably changed when his online interactions -- including angry blog posts, internet chats and cellphone texts messages -- are inflated, misinterpreted and twisted.
For rising Canadian star Connor Jessup, who portrays Blackbird's vulnerable protagonist, Sean, the film offers an eye-opening look at growing up in modern society.
"What Sean writes down, which gets him in trouble, is what someone 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, might have written in a diary or told a friend in private," Jessup told me in an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival.
"The internet has become the diary of kids these days...It's become a knee-jerk reaction just to immediately post something online and what you post online is there forever," he noted.
"That can have consequences," Jessup continued. "Sometimes extreme examples are the best way to get a conversation started."
Online behaviour taken to shocking extremes is also a key notion explored in a film that screened later at TIFF: Caught in the Web, a rare contemporary tale from Palme d'Or-winning Chinese director Chen Kaige, best known for period pieces like Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin.
Adapted from a popular Chinese web novel titled Human Flesh Search, Chen's film depicts how a thoughtless incident can almost instantly explode into a media-fueled storm when spun a certain way into the online world without a thought to actual consequences.
Cyber-bullying and internet vigilantism, especially by people incensed by perceived immorality, is a serious issue in China today, according to Chen, who said he's fascinated by how truth can be a subjective notion in media portrayals and online.
Caught in the Web is a rare contemporary tale from veteran Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige. (John Rieti/CBC)
"People stay on websites sometimes, just wanting to kill time. They don't really have things to do," he told me, admitting that he often lurks, reading other people's missives, rather than posting comments online.
"But they never think that someone might be hurt deeply by what [they] said."
The veteran filmmaker likened the instant judgment meted out on Chinese websites, forums and through microblogs -- often without considering different perspectives or context, and revelling in personal, sometimes irrelevant details -- to the infamous struggle sessions of China's Cultural Revolution. At these gatherings staged by the Communist Party, political rivals and "class enemies" were publicly persecuted, abused and humiliated before crowds numbering in the thousands.
"I feel like the hundreds of thousands of people who get together on a website [are building] a new platform for another kind of cultural revolution, just looking for a victim [so as] to attack them," he said.
With "hundreds of thousands of people around you ... you feel immediately that 'I'm guilty because so many people are against me.' You cannot argue 'You're all wrong and I'm right,'" Chen said.
"An individual facing a group of people, a collective, [feels] hopeless."
Blackbird is slated for release in Canada on November 30. Caught in the Web opened in China in July. A North American release is pending.
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