Social Animals, the feature-length film by documentary director Jonathan Ignatius Green, starring three children: self-taught New York street photographer Humza Deas, dancer and aspiring fashion mogul Kaylyn Slevin, and Ohio high school student Emma Crockett, which represents the teenager everyman. They talk about their lives, which means they talk about Instagram: how it helped them, how they hurt them, what the rules are, what people can use it for, why they care.
That's! It starts with a simple and unpretentious concept, and the result is a nuanced and non-judgmental look at how life works for children in the digital age.
To present the story of a self-made artist, Green shows Deas sitting in a two-seater bed while the subway cars pass noisily by his bedroom. Two Canon cameras on the window sill are the only notable objects in the room. To illuminate Slevin's business instincts, he shows her smiling politely and rolling her eyes while her father, owner of multiple car dealerships, debunks a hen and distributes topical vagrants about the key to success. Crockett lies on a trampoline, rides a dirt bike and sits in an anodyne classroom, calmly presenting the facts of how she was harassed and hurt.
The film premiered at the SXSW film festival this week, so I contacted Green after a screening to hear more about how Social Animals met, why he eliminated all the academic experts from the film and what he expects. the viewers learn from the three teenagers I trusted to tell this story.
This interview has been edited for clarity and duration.
Why were you interested in this topic? How did you start making this movie?
We have a marketing agency and we work a lot with brands. When Instagram appeared six and a half years ago or so, we were ready to help brands get on the platform. That was before you could buy ads. We learned a lot about the platform and started working with influencers, and most of them were photographers made by themselves. We were interested in "Maybe we could make a film about all these people who were not photographers before", and now, due to this platform and the democratization of the audience, they have been able to have careers that they would not otherwise have had ". We filmed most of the documentary, but then we were in the editing room, and I thought: "This is maybe more a web series than a movie." It was portraits of all these people from all over the world, [but] what more I was interested was the biggest impact of social networks and interpersonal impact.
"They are born in a world that only knows the rapid capture and exchange of images, it is part of their everyday social experience."
We rotate to do it on Instagram and teenagers. Part of that was because we interviewed along the way to Philippe Kahn, this inventor who is credited with having invented the phone with a modern camera, and that happened in 1997. So, we narrowed our focus to "What if our The film is about people who were born after 1997. They are born in a world that only knows about the rapid capture and exchange of images, it is part of their everyday social experience and, obviously, the adolescent landscape is ripe for interpersonal conflict and narrative of coming of age.
How did you decide to focus on the three people?
We had already started filming the photography film with Demid [Lebedev]so we met Humza through him. And he had been in the news, he had been in the New York magazine. The other two, we launch new. We were specifically looking for these different cubes of characters, Kaylyn represented a young star on Instagram. We actually met her through a casting director, who said, "Oh, my son is going to school with this girl, Kaylyn, she has half a million followers." And then we met her, and she was very affable and open to the idea. I mean, her neighbor next door is Khloe Kardashian, and she's the next generation of that starlet sensibility. Being so young and being so popular was really fascinating to me.
And Emma came through friends of friends. We put an APB in our network of family and friends and said: "Hey, we are looking for a teenager who has gone through something really difficult, either by or on social networks." We wanted the history of the Midwest to balance our East Coast / West Coast thing. We got in touch with this counselor who works with teenagers in Ohio, and we were telling him what we were looking for, and he was like, "This is going to sound weird, but you're actually describing my daughter." I called her, and one of our writers called her, and she was just lovely. His episode, his traumatic moment, had happened approximately two and a half months before that phone call. It was still fresh, but you could tell she was on the other side, too. She was very open about her story, and you could tell that she was a very intelligent woman and willing to share.
I was struck by the self-proclaimed and articulated that was about the whole experience. People often think that teenagers are acting irrationally on these platforms, but they can usually be explained very clearly.
Yes, these are human beings that are formed in adults that are very sophisticated.
I'm curious if there's something that really surprised you during the making of the movie.
I think only the level of sophistication. Kaylyn, although on the one hand she is very innocent and naive, clearly knows what she is doing. I think she's more strategic than she lets on. Because of the generation and the era we're in, I mean, we work with marketing executives all the time, and these kids are talking in this brand vocabulary, it's just now, it applies to itself. And that's really interesting, since they only speak in a native way, not only a digital language, but also a marketing language. They are always marking and healing themselves. That's something I had to budget to enter, but it became very literal when interviewing all these people.
Image: Conscious Minds
It is a bit disconcerting. But I think many adults see it as narcissism. Where for me, it's more like these teenagers have had a broken economy. Going to college does not guarantee a job, so if you can make this work for you, it's good for you. They have not given you many options.
I interviewed many experts, and then in the editing room, I decided I did not want to make that film, where a group of talking academics explain why children are doing things. Because children are much more interesting. And then I got rid of them. But in the process, it became my research, to interview them and think more critically than about these things. I interviewed [Dr. Megan Moreno] from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she is a well-known academic and published in space. Every time she used this kind of alarmist language and said: "These children are doing this and this and that", she said: "Yes, that is all normal and formative behavior for someone of that age". It's just that they're doing it online. "
"They are still experimenting with their identity, and they are exposing themselves and seeing what comes back, and that is something very natural."
Like when a girl or a boy stands in front of the mirror and prepares for an hour before going to the party at the 80s skating rink, they are still experimenting with their identity, and they are putting themselves out and seeing what come back, and that is very natural. It is just happening at a faster pace. She was like, "What are you worried about?" It was a refreshing perspective, but you need both. It is not all or nothing. Have you heard about Sherry Turkle? She wrote that book Alone Together, and is the director of the Technology and Being Initiative at MIT. She is very influential to me. She does not speak in an alarmist way, she simply says: "Does this affect empathy?" When we talk about screens, we are not dehumanized, but we are disembodied. That really is something alarming.
Was that the most disturbing part for you?
I think Emma said it better than me. She says: "They would never say these things to my face, but since they could say it through a screen they just did it." She has the phrase that it became a game for everyone. I think that is very interesting. We do all these things on our phones, and the phone equalizes the experiences, so I'm playing a game and then I turn around and I'm on social networks, and you can see how those lines get blurry. It's pretty confusing. That's why I did not try to do like a kind of Michael Moore movie, "Hey, think this way." I just wanted to say: "Hey, this is complicated, let's see it." Fortunately, this stimulates reflective and reflective conversations. It's not that we do not have it yet, but I want to be part of helping to nurture that.
I do not want the talking heads to do the work, I just want the teenagers to do the work and say, "Hey, this is what's happening." And the public has to deal with that and think about that.
Image: Conscious Minds
Looking at Kaylyn's part, I was very nervous about the perception that other people in the room had of her. There is still a bad attitude about young women who are doing Instagram careers. The assumption is that they are superficial, they are insipid, whatever.
She is a polarizing character. I have friends who would think you're fired right away and say what you just described. But they have really come to me and said: "She is my favorite character". Yes, he is only 15 years old. She is working hard. She has talent as a dancer. She is already doing something of herself. That's great. And then, the other part is people who think it's detestable, and she represents this materialistic obsession that we have in our culture, and she's in this bubble, etc. She is very polarizing. She definitely has the least emotional arc in the movie, too. She does not learn a ton in the movie. That was difficult for me as a narrator because I'm trying to puncture his perfectly arranged façade. To be honest, she has not gone through enough in her life to have these great moments of reflection. But she will. Everybody does. She simply is not there yet.
What kind of movies do you want to do after Social Animals?
I have always had a fascination with bioethics and technoethics. There is a great narrative opportunity around this future in which we are moving so fast. I studied philosophy and literature, and I am interested in making sure that the conversations around our humanity are solid and remain intact even as we dive deeper into this avalanche of cybernetic things. I interviewed [Amber Case]. She made a TED talk a while ago that caught fire. She considers herself a cyborg anthropologist, and her dissertation was about the smartphone, because the definition of the cyborg textbook is that you have some kind of machinery connected to your body that expands your natural ability. And then she says, well, the smartphone is for the brain. It is always in our pockets, and with wearables, it is connected to our bodies.
We are moving into this human age, not post-human, but improved. We need to keep these conversations so we do not get lost.