SJIWFF: Friday Lunch Time Documentary “Web Junkie”

This is not The Fog of War. Collateral damage here is familial. No one is speaking, with decades of hindsight, straight into the camera. This is not a miniseries about The Civil War or Jazz. There are no talking heads. There is no historical footage. There is no presentation of statistical analysis. There is no precedent. There is no commentary at all.

I need a hug. I need to give a hug. I need everyone to hug everyone just for a minute, while I recover from watching Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam’s singular documentation of a few months inside one of China’s internet addiction camps. I say “documentation” because “documentary” has certain ingrained associations. In this film, the work these women have done is unimaginably large but also unseeable. They worked to gain complete access to an enclosed treatment facility in (what is to them) a foreign country. This is not about them.

The world they show is so foreign, on so many levels that any commentary would have been wrong or cheap, or too narrow. Instead we are given the space to watch intimate scenes between lost and angry teenage boys and their lost and angry parents. Space to sort through which of our reactions are reactionary prejudice to this culture and this treatment, to the very idea that Internet addiction requires treatment, or that bootcamp is a valid treatment. The same space that these families and their society are being afforded (though in stark, metallic, semi-crowded and peeling spaces) in these treatment centres as they also begin to question how they have always regarded and treated each other.

Like most addictions, the roots of suffering in these families is not the drug (or World of Warcraft in this case), it is depression, anxiety, physical and mental abuse, lack of communication, lack of connection. It is acute loneliness. Through the web of judgements and discomfort and hairy questions raised by the setting and the subject matter, the absolute honesty of the parents and their sons in a series of group therapy sessions burns, like lit cigarette ash on polyester, an expanding circle of painful empathy.

The fathers admit, in even tones, to the abuse and fear they have meted out. To the mistakes they have made and the mistaken beliefs they have blindly adhered to. Then they cry, in front of everyone, sometimes silently, sometimes with loud sobs wrenched from inside them as the other parents keep passive faces but put hands on shoulders and hand pass tissues.

The boys’ admissions are equally grave. One dares his father to kill him and threatens to beat his father to death in one breath. One explains simply that he is not connecting to a computer when he goes online, he is talking to another person, someone just as lonely as he is, sitting in front of their computer.

Just as there is no commentary or judgement offered by the filmmakers, there is no conclusion. This is happening right now. There is not yet an outcome on which to reflect. The closest to closure we are allowed is a scene where the parents and the sons are all urged to hug. The arms of boys and dads are shown squeezing each other in desperate, visceral love. We are left with a long shot of one of the boys we have followed leaving the centre with his father. We watch them argue as they walk away from the barracks over who will carry the heaviest piece of baggage.

This movie is why I come to this film festival.