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Status update: what is happening with the documentary The Realists?

In 2018 I began filming interviews for a documentary on the dark side of Big Tech and digital advertising: The Realists.

After taking my documentary The Illusionists on tour on college campuses, non-profits, libraries, museums and corporate headquarters, it became apparent that my next project had to focus on technology and social media. The Illusionists exposes how mass media and advertising have exacerbated people’s insecurities for over a century. Yet the question on everyone’s lips whenever I did Q&As after a screening would be: “but what about social media?”

“My daughter and her friends are so insecure because of Instagram” “If I post something to Instagram and it doesn’t get many likes, I will delete the post… and feel terrible.” Or “I know celebrities have teams of people hired to make them look good. What makes me feel anxious is seeing perfect photos of my friends on social media” “I won’t post anything straight out of my camera roll, I always retouch my photos before posting them”. I would hear stories like these every day. So I set out to do something about it.

Starting in the summer of 2018, I contacted artists, activists and scholars and started planning interviews for The Realists. Unlike The Illusionists – which had a solid 90+ page script before I began filming even one frame – for The Realists I took a freewheeling approach, using an outline as a frame of reference and fitting interviews in it.

The Realists - Antoine GeigerOn set after filming an interview for The Realists with artist Antoine Geiger

Then 2020 arrived and we all know what happened next. Lockdowns, countries closing their borders, and billions of people using technology to connect to the outside world.

My original plans for The Realists went out the window.

Like shooting a moving target

The pandemic and its lockdowns created a brand new world where work, study, leisure and socialization occurred in front of a screen. For hours on end every day. It was the new normal.

In 2020, nobody could say for certain when the pandemic would end, when vaccines would arrive and what life could look like in the short term. Then vaccines became available, quicker than anyone had expected. But new contagious variants also emerged, causing waves of infections. Some countries re-introduced lockdowns and curfews. There was so much uncertainty about the future. But screens? They were our only constant.

How I could I make a documentary about a subject – a world – that was ever changing? It felt like I was trying to shoot a moving target. Worse yet, how could I cast a critical eye on the world of technology – if it wasn’t for digital devices, video conferencing tools and social media platforms, millions of people would have felt completely isolated and in the pit of despair during strict lockdowns.

So here we are, in the spring of 2022. There is still so much uncertainty about the future, but I know this. I am picking up work on The Realists and I’m more motivated than ever to make a documentary on the dark side of Big Tech and digital advertising.

Yes, yes, I know, there has been excellent work on this topic already, from Coded Bias, to The Social Dilemma and The Great Hack. What could I possibly have to add? A lot, it turns out.

Similarly to The Illusionists, I want to shed light on the experiences of people in countries far and wide – not just in the United States and Europe – but also in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. I want to show how certain problems are truly universal – regardless of our race, nationality or country of origin.

I’m moving in uncharted territory. With The Illusionists I had the luxury of using dozens of brilliant books as maps for my quest – from Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, to Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Susie Orbach’s Bodies, to name a few.

For The Realists I need to draw a new map. The story is still unwritten.

A new sense of purpose

I may not have produced a documentary in the past couple of years but I did produce an actual tiny human – a baby girl, my first child. And she is my number one motivation for picking up work on The Realists. When I think of teenage girls today and how they are affected by social media… how many base their whole self-esteem and self-image on digital views, likes and comments. I remember what my childhood and adolescence were like, pre-smartphones and pre-social media. These years weren’t easy but they were NOTHING compared to the world kids and teenagers live in today. I think about the work of Dr. Jean Twenge and her research:

Almost 1 out of 4 teen girls had major depression in 2019 – double the rate of 2011. Depression increased for teen boys as well. And this was all pre-pandemic. It’s really unusual to see such a large change in mental health in such a short period of time – it suggests something fundamentally changed in teens’ lives after 2011. It did: they started spending much more time online, especially on social media, and less time in person.

And I tell myself I have a decade before I need to face this issue with my daughter. A decade in which I want to complete and release The Realists, maybe work on a book on the topic and why not another documentary.

I want to do my best to champion digital literacy and help create a world where parents, teachers and kids will give more value to the real world than virtual worlds. The “Metaverse”? Please. You can have fun in it but nothing beats the glory of real world friendships, face to face interactions, fresh air and time spent outside, away from screens and especially away from algorithms. That’s my goal at least. I’m ready to fight the good fight. Are you with me?

– Elena

Check out the updated teaser of The Realists:

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