In an interview with the Metrograph Journal, Eduardo Williams remembers the first time he ventured into a jungle. Rumor had it the forest teemed with cougars, but the Argentinian director saw none; instead, all he experienced was a curious mix of wonder and terror, poised between “wanting to see the wild animal but also being afraid.” Anyone mildly acquainted with the filmmaker’s oeuvre––a handful of shorts and two features to date––will recognize that as an accurate description of what it means to dive into his cinema. There is something exhilarating about Williams’ films: experimental works in the most literal sense of the word, they combine conceptual audacity with technological virtuosity to stress-test the boundaries of what cinema can still be and mean. To watch them is to be ushered into unmapped universes pullulating with images that feel in turns familiar and perturbing. Each time out, Williams doesn’t just recreate the world around you, but gives another way of seeing it.
The Human Surge 3, Williams’ second feature and follow-up to his 2016 The Human Surge (the first installment of a trilogy with no second chapter), is another stupefying project designed to push the medium toward new, uncharted paths. Like the first Surge, this too unfurls in its barest terms as a hangout movie, cartwheeling across three different countries (Sri Lanka, Peru, and Taiwan) to dog a few low-income twenty-somethings as they fritter away time with friends in-between odd jobs. But where the saga’s first episode played like three shorts stitched together, traveling across distinct settings in standalone segments, The Human Surge 3 trades that for something far more elliptical and confounding. The youngsters at its center––Meera and Sharika, Livia and Abel, and Ri Ri and “BK”––aren’t confined to their respective countries but keep showing up in each other’s locales, and the film itself seems to exist in a multiverse that collapses time and space; one minute we’re roaming the rain-soaked slums of Iquitos, the next we’re strolling past Sri Lanka’s igloo-shaped, anti-tsunami houses.
Tempting as it may be to peg Williams’ projects as ethnographies, the label applies only in its broadest and most immersive terms. Here as in his previous films, there is no clear separation between filmmaker and subjects; throughout one senses that Williams doesn’t just share their location but also their state of mind––blissful confusion. As his young protagonists are slingshot from one place to the next for no apparent reason, their disorientation echoes a viewer’s. So does their bewilderment. “I want to see maps of different regions and listen to the crazy dreams of my friends,” a character muses halfway through; it’s a wish that might as well double as the film’s tagline.
“This is spiral cinema,” Williams stated at a TIFF Q&A earlier this month, and indeed––both narratively and visually––The Human Surge 3 often plays like a whirlpool (an image that’s literalized 90 minutes in as the camera suddenly tilts skyward, spinning on its axis to turn a canopy of trees in the Peruvian jungle into a kaleidoscope). As he did for his 2019 short Parsi, Williams shot his latest on a 360-degree VR rig mounted on a backpack, a bowling ball-shaped device (the Insta360 Titan) bedecked with eight lenses that allow for hallucinating distortions on people’s faces and hallucinogenic flourishes on the background, with ground and sky curling up into each other. But instead of figuring out the framing of his shots on set, Williams did so in post-production, exploring the footage in a VR-headset, and then recording his own movements to frame it.
Which is another way of saying that The Human Surge 3 is a profoundly corporeal experience, and that to witness it is to be made aware of the many bodies that crafted it: 1) those the camera was fastened onto to record the many lackadaisical meanderings; 2) Williams’ own as he ambled through the footage. It is also why the film remains such an electrifying journey throughout. In placing us inside the bodies of those who shaped it, The Human Surge 3 invites us to reclaim our own––to understand its limits as well as the sensorial delights we can enjoy through it.
There’s an interesting parallel to be made between Williams’ cinema and that of Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab duo Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. Time and again during The Human Surge 3, my mind jolted back to the duo’s 2012 Leviathan, a documentary shot for large chunks through cameras attached to fishermen toiling in apocalyptic weather off the coast of Massachusetts. Both projects offer examples of somatic filmmaking and disquieting testaments to all the strange beauty that can be captured when one abandons traditional POVs. Sure, Williams’ parsing of his material in post still amounts to a kind of directorial consciousness (there’s plenty of curation involved here: what we see ultimately is his gaze cherry-picking what they saw). But The Human Surge 3 saunters across its enigmatic images with restless curiosity, and the end result is less alienating than entrancing.
That’s in large part because the world Williams immortalizes in his transcontinental odyssey is essentially our own, and the journey doesn’t look that much different from other digital environments we’re already familiar with, a blend of Google Street View and RPGs. Like the finest films of this year––from Radu Jude’s Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World to Harmony Korine’s AGGRO DR1FT––Williams’ seems designed to toy with our expectations of what might even count as cinema. Proudly immune to narrative conventions, The Human Surge 3 doesn’t just ape an aesthetic that’s become so prominent in our screen-mediated lives, but wonders what can be built upon it. The exhilaration it radiates amounts to a vertigo not unlike what Williams must have experienced in his first trip to the jungle: a feeling perched between wanting to wade deeper into those lunar landscapes and being afraid of what might happen once you do.
The Human Surge 3 premiered at Locarno Film Festival and screens at the 61st New York Film Festival.