One thing both sides of the political spectrum agree on: TV is full of bias. In Fantastic Machine, directors Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson wanted to tell the story of how we got here by examining the device that makes it all possible: the camera.
First, the camera was seen as a scientific tool, as something that excites. It allowed us, for example, to prove that when a horse gallops, at some point all four of their legs are off the ground. Nowadays, it’s used more as a way to leverage perspective, for example to make Kim Jong-un look good riding a horse into the distance.
Fantastic Machine is a collection of footage that links past to present, oscillating between the shocking and the funny. The directors try to illustrate how the use of visual storytelling has evolved to what it is today.
We sat down with both directors at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, where their documentary is showing after winning a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival a few weeks ago.
Projektor: You’re both working in Sweden, a country with an interesting history for unbiased reporting. The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 is a good example of that—where in the late ‘60s Swedish TV said, “American media is not telling the truth about the country’s treatment of Black people. We must go there ourselves to report.” What is the significance of your country’s vantage point in telling this story?
Van Aertryck and Danielson: When we were making the movie, we did a deep dive into the Swedish television archives, the same way the makers of The Black Power Mixtape did. There’s so much material in there where they actually get people to talk quite honestly. For example in the film, they have the CEO of a French commercial TV station saying, “A TV channel is just a way to make money.” That footage is precious because it was from a time when people were not as media-trained as they are today.
One of the points that we want to make with the film is talk about the role of public service. Public TV channels that are funded by all taxpayers tend to represent every minority in the country and have a mission statement to reach the whole population. But with the introduction of private channels who had completely different objectives, mainly to maximize profits like the French guy said, even public service started changing. They started trying to offer more entertainment, because they were losing audiences. Entertainment is not bad, but the kind of entertainment they went for was introduced in places where perhaps it shouldn’t be, like the news.
The result is: today, all images are competing on entertainment value. That’s why if you spend a couple of hours on TikTok or YouTube, you would think it’s a crazy world out there. But actually: is the world crazy, or are the incentives for what kind of images you should produce in order to get the maximum number of views—is that crazy?
If public channels didn’t adapt, they would have lost audiences, as you said. What else could be done to show the audience their value?
If you look at text as a medium, and how it’s taught in schools, we spend nine to 12 years teaching kids its different classifications: “commercial text,” “poetry,” “novel,” “journal,” and so on. When it comes to the photographic image, there is nothing like that.
We are also against going the other extreme and forbidding cameras and cell phones from schools, because they’re not understood. What we’re advocating for is showing kids from a young age these tools and how to use them.
We believe that good entertainment should also make you reflect on what you’re seeing.
Your film is highly entertaining itself. How do you reconcile the entertainment value with making sure you get your message across?
It was a very conscious decision to make the film entertaining because we want to reach a larger audience. We believe that good entertainment should also make you reflect on what you’re seeing.
One example is the footage in the film where you see ISIS soldiers shooting a propaganda video. The news only showed 10 seconds of it but then we went and found the entire video. It also had outtakes. They forgot their lines and the bird that they brought was too loud. You know, very relatable stuff. Then the whole situation becomes complex because you get to feel all these different emotions like, okay, these guys are bad guys. Okay, these guys are actually also funny. Okay, maybe I could get a beer with these guys. Wait a minute. No, these guys are bad guys.
If you watch one minute and a half of this footage, or if you watch 10 seconds of it, you get all the gray zones of existence and not just black and white.
How did you come across so much footage?
We’ve been on this topic for more than 10 years, the two of us, but also with others within our company like Ruben Östlund [director of Triangle of Sadness], his producer, and other people. We were interested in two things: how the camera is able to capture human behavior in front of the lens, and also how the intentions behind the camera are used. When we found material that we thought was interesting, we sent it to each other. In the last five years we said, okay, let’s take these small golden nuggets out of the bag.
It’s also connected to the fact that in the last five or six years, the world has been drifting away from democracy. The use of technology has been polarizing the world. So we were keen on the idea of doing a take on these tools that are the camera and the photographic image.
Beyond the funny and entertaining side to the film, there are also shocking moments. Can you talk about the use of shock in the context of the moving image?
We [made] an early decision to not include footage of someone dying, even though there is a lot to say about that in relation to human behavior. When you include the intentions surrounding the use of the camera in that, it just becomes something else.
Then you have the footage of the cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl, who was assigned the task of making the Nazi Party look good, and she does that very skillfully. But even 60 years later, she doesn’t want to admit that her images have any consequences.
While she was doing that, you had a team of British soldiers who had the opposite dilemma of: how can we film the Holocaust so that people cannot say this is fake. They said, we cannot make cuts and we have to include certain things in the images so as to appear real. They were also manipulating the footage, even if it was in order to seem transparent.
It’s something existential and driven by instinct. Nowadays, when people see a car accident, they start filming it instead of helping the people. Maybe it’s just a shock instinct but we must be able to find a language around these things.
In the film, the first broadcast in Ireland has the Prime Minister back then predicting almost exactly all of this: that the television is a great tool but it’s also dangerous. How do you predict the future?
One point of the film is to show how repeatedly throughout the camera’s history, there were voices that said, oh my god, this is such a great opportunity to link us together because this is a human thing that’ll allow us to actually have harmony and to live in peace. We’ve been drifting from that. What happens is that if we leave the tool completely in the hands of the market, then the result is going to be the opposite of that early sense of optimism.
So the prediction is that if we continue this way, nothing good will come out of it.