By Rohan Menezes
Ever feel like you are losing your connection to the outside world, and drowning in a deluge of social media messages and notifications? Even before the coronavirus, simple non-digital activities like opening a book, listening to live bands, and writing letters have been giving way to ebooks, Spotify, and WhatsApp. But perhaps we don’t need to, and shouldn’t, let them die off.
That is the message of Jens Meurer’s new documentary, An Impossible Project, which (contrary to what the title suggests) tells a story of how it is possible and perhaps necessary to preserve the ‘analogue’ in the face of the rising digital tide.
The documentary tells the story of Austrian biologist Dr. Florian ‘Doc’ Kaps, described by Meurer as a “21st century Don Quixote” and his quest to save polaroid photographs from extinction. Despite being an “iconic” American brand for decades, by 2008, only one factory remained (in the Netherlands). At what was intended as a closing party, Doc appeared and swore to provide the 180,000 euros required to keep it open.
Thus, began an analogue mission of sorts, as Doc single-mindedly pursued his ambition to save the factory, which by no means ended at securing the necessary funds. The film also explores the important place analogue technologies have in the modern world, and why we need to use them so they don’t get lost. “We will always be analogue,” Meurer told The Peacock, “we have five senses, we need to work with all of them.”
An Impossible Project is a testament to the benefits of analogue; it was shot on 35mm, which is strenuous, as it means constantly stopping and starting to change magazines of film. But Meurer prefers it, saying, “chemical film is limited and inconvenient” but “the constant stopping and starting makes you think more about what you are shooting, so it ends up giving you more control.” Meurer even describes the experience as “liberating” in how, rather than filming “thousands of minutes” on a digital camera and having to edit it later, he got the shots he wanted working with eight rolls of film a day, even recording the background music simulatenously.
The film portrays many other examples of the importance of analogue experience. One scene portrays a renovated printing shop in Italy, which teaches young children how to use a press. The children get paint all over themselves, laughing and having fun, and even say they would use such a machine every day if they could have one at home. According to Meurer, this is an example of how people long for experiences that are “warm, slow, permanent and personal,” as opposed to the fast-paced, disposable digital world.
There are some clear indications that he’s right. Young people are using polaroid more than ever before, and vinyl records have also made a comeback in the 21st century. As opposed to thousands of free pictures on smartphones that eventually get forgotten, “young people are willing to spend $2 each for polaroid photographs,” said Meurer, which he attributes to the fact that “we feel good when we have things that are permanent and real,” and can be understood with more than just sight and sound.
But besides that, the digital world has actually proven dangerous. The rise of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump through social media personas and social media enhanced political polarization have been warning signs.
“People don’t trust their common sense anymore,” said Meurer. “I went to college with Boris Johnson, for example, I know what he’s like. He’s very good at manipulating people with his perceived persona. But if you were close to him, you could smell that he’s a rat…people need to trust their senses about people more than what those people project about themselves.”
This feeds into An Impossible Project’s biggest takeaway; the need to keep non-digital elements in your life. “I am not a Luddite,” said Meurer, who uses an iPhone and the internet frequently. “I’m not saying we should switch back to analogue entirely. I’m just saying we should not let valuable real-life analogue experiences die.” He uses examples like the vinyl records, which when played, one might be “reading the record cover, feeling it and understanding more about who created the music and why it was produced,” creating an experience and a memory that goes beyond hearing
All he wants, Meurer says, is for his movie to guide people to occasionally escape the “tyranny of convenience” that keeps people in the digital world 24/7. “Turn off notifications once in a while, go out and speak to people, read a book, write a love letter by hand… My movie is in a way a love letter for those kinds of analogue experiences. It’s enjoyable, communal, and fun, and makes you feel more and think more in a world where we are being made to feel and think less.” He sees the film as “modern and forward-thinking” in that sense, that this is something many people, especially young people, should be and are fighting to bring back in our lives.