Almost Human

by Abigail Child




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About The Film

It’s easy to imagine a future where robots and people live together in households. There’s a big push in industry right now to build these machines. It is already happening with prosthetics and household units (Google Home and Alexa). When a robot has social aspects—you can talk to it in natural language, it reacts to your commands—will people prefer to hang out with robots rather than other people? Currently, sex robots are being built and introduced into society, and yet we have no legislation regarding them. What will this do to human intimacy? If we build an artificial system, i.e. an android that is capable, truly capable, of having emotions, then clearly there will be suffering in these systems as well. Issues of legal status and individual rights follow. Are robots “pets” or are they like primates, and do they deserve legal rights?

To explore contemporary discoveries and examine the ethics and cultural valences of human-machine interaction, ALMOST HUMAN follows five cutting edge laboratories in Japan, Hong Kong and the US, to discover competing approaches to how we conceive a “human.” The labs include those of roboticists Hiroshi Ishiguro at University of Osaka with his Geminoids, Takashi Ikegami from University of Tokyo with his android Alter, Matthias Scheutz’s lab at Tufts University, Allison Okamura at Stanford’s CHARM lab (Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine), Bina48 (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture) at Terasem, and Andrew Schwartz's lab at University of Pittsburgh. These compelling, uncanny, obsessive and sometimes intense stories are intercut with an outer world which is moving swiftly into the future. Weaving through, as well, is a structure of archival montage “interruptions” used to trace historic mythologies and the mainstream culture that runs parallel to the development of artificial intelligence.

The film’s objective is to record the science of creating an artificial human for the public, and to do so through questioning the promethean aspirations of this science. How do we feel watching the current limits of the machine we keep on improving? What does it teach us about being human? What do we make of a group of scientists engineering machines and algorithms to create new life? How do different countries relate to these machines? How will our social experience change when interactive humanoid entities are as ubiquitous as smart phones? How will we respond to their humanoid, fashionable, possibly erotic, shapes? How will they play into human emotions and instincts for bonding, for violence? How will androids challenge our moral and ethical instincts? Will they make war in our place? Who will write their software personalities? Do they and AI really pose “our greatest existential threat?” (Musk, Gates, Hawking). We may not answer all these questions, but it is essential to raise them and document the relevant science in a way to bring us face to face with this fundamentally disruptive technology.

Upcoming Screenings

Our Team

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Abigail Child

Director, co-Editor

Abigail Child has been at the forefront of experimental media since the 1980s, having completed more than thirty film/video works and installations. An acknowledged pioneer in montage, she makes “brilliant exciting work…a vibrant political film that’s attentive to form.” Her major projects address issues of gender, sound /image juxtaposition and "re-formatted" Hollywood and home movie tropes. Child has had many solo shows nationally and internationally, including mid-career retrospectives worldwide, featured exhibitions at MoMA, the Whitney Museum, Harvard Archive and Centre Pompidou among others. She has won many awards, including Rome, Guggenheim, Radcliffe and Fulbright Fellowships. She is also a writer with 6 published books, 5 of poetry and one of critical thought (This is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film). She has been senior faculty in Media since 1999-2016 at the SMFA Boston, now part of Tufts University. Her most recent film, the second in her Trilogy: ACTS & INTERMISSIONS: Emma Goldman in America, premiered at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight, followed by worldwide screenings and tour.

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Jennifer Burton

Producer

Jennifer Burton is a Professor of the Practice in Film at Tufts University. With her company, Five Sisters Productions, Jennifer has recently finished producing a new documentary on gender and drag, Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens. Her prior feature films include Manna From Heaven, which screened for the US Congress, was chosen by the Toronto Film Festival Group to open theatrically across Canada on its Circuit Series, and was distributed by MGM. Working with Five Sisters and SMFA/Tufts student filmmakers, she is producing the Half The History project, a series of short films on women in American history. The latest in the series (Half The History: Three Short Films on Abstract Expressionism) centers on Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Elaine de Kooning.

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Yael Bitton

Editor

Yael Bitton studied film directing at INSAS in Brussels. In 1994, she began working as a script supervisor on Lisbon Story by filmmaker Wim Wenders. In 1995, she moved to New York City; her credits include Girlfight by Karyn Kusama, and Hamlet by Michael Almeyreda, among many others. She began to work as an editor in 2000 with Watermarks by Y. Zilberman, and Child’s On the Downlow and The Future is Behind You. She works now creating award-winning work for Arte/Canal Plus, teaching at the School of Visual Arts, Geneva and currently as advisor to Dok Incubator in Prague and a member of Roughcut Service out of Finland. She is the editor of Rahul Jain’s debut feature, Machines, which was nominated for an Academy Award in documentary 2018, and The Advocate, which is at Sundance this winter, 2019.

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Mary Patierno

cinematographer

Mary Patierno has worked on many award-winning documentaries including Yugoslavia: The Avoidable War, How to Survive A Plague, and Child’s On The Downlow. Her film The Most Unknowable Thing was an IDA nominated film and winner at LA Outfest among other festivals. Most recently, she edited and was co-producer with Director Harriet Hirshorn on the Ford Foundation project Nothing Without Us: The Women Who Will End AIDS (2017), premiering at DocNYC and an official entry at Hot Docs, Toronto. She teaches at School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and lives in Ashfield, MA.

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Reviews Of Earlier Works

ACTS & INTERMISSIONS: Emma Goldman in America


The second in Child's Trilogy of Women and Ideology.

“An hour-long collage essay, charging the discussion with Child’s enlightened aesthetic of poetry, the archive, and experimental montage. As the Most Dangerous Woman Alive, Goldman’s life is seen as an ongoing negotiation of revolutionary purity and personal freedom, a complexity that Child mirrors in her own formal strategies. She layers multiple fragments of Emma’s liberatory legacy—from archive, from reenactment and from observational cinema—her speculative play with the revolutionary ideas extending to the present moment of feminist revolt!”

— Craig Baldwin, ATA


“Since the 1970s, Abigail Child has been a significant voice in experimental documentary. Her Acts & Intermissions (Feb. 17 & 19) combines several visual formats and sound collages to connect modern-day protest with early 20th-century dissident Emma Goldman, once called “the most dangerous woman alive." It's a bracing work that finds alarming patterns and repetitions in methods of repression over the past century.”

— Daniel Eagan

Film Journal

“Her films display a unique mastery of both form and content, graced with delicate editing, and colored by whispering sound designs which are all her own. …..The style undermines expectations …. Indeed, remarkable early-20th century protest footage interlaces with recent scenes of mass resistance. The film also includes contemporary scenes of workers in a yarn factory. These surreal shots of beautiful mess and mechanization, establish the film’s ground….. Another recent biographical documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, about author James Baldwin, similarly interweaves images of past and present. The days of the traditional documentary, with its objectifying, distanced historical perspective, seem to be over. These films suggest there’s no longer space to simply observe. However we choose to act, history is living us, and we are participants.”

— KristinCato

“Following the arc of Goldman’s life over the course of the 32 years she spent in the United States, Abigail Child’s Acts and Intermissions restores Goldman her complexity, though not as a fully-formed and unitary subject of biography or intellectual history. As an artist and writer, Child has worked seriously across a range of media. In all of them, her principal form has been montage, developing, as Tom Gunning writes, “a system founded not on coherence, but on breakdown, not on continuity, but interruption.” Here she subjects Goldman to the latest iteration of this always evolving system.”

— Ji.hlava

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A Shape of Error


Scenes from the life of Mary Shelley.

“I needed only two minutes to embrace this wonderful movie as one of THE highlights of this year’s Rotterdam festival [2012]. Abigail Child has created a totally unique way of telling her story. The main role is the voice over of Mary Shelley which is a delight on its own. " I was not yet in love, but in love with love itself, so I needed to find something to love.... The image itself remains without the usual sound and spoken word. Not only do the images have no sound, they also are frequently shot from positions that could have been taken by one of the participants, for instance, yourself. As a result the images strongly resemble memory. And indeed, after a while my brain stopped interpreting the images as being generated by film and started to see them as real memories. Memories I couldn't possibly have... In the end I not only re-lived the life of Mary Shelley but also re-lived a life of my own, a life I didn't know I had. If this is what the Abigail meant with reshaping the way we look at things, she did a hell of a job, equally as good and with as much genius, as the imagination of her subject. You still have two more chances to see this miracle, don't wait till next life!”

— Erik Von Goch, Rotterdam

“so exuberant, so visually gorgeous… ahead of the curve …hybrid, mixing narrative, avantgarde and expanded cinema. ….I loved…..the swish pan of tree tops and the backwards fireworks; the hallway images of the pregnant Claire. And it's shot in film! … one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I've had in a long, long time…”

— Tina Wasserman


“…it [A Shape of Error] made me think of Greenaway as well as Sally Potter and Derek Jarman, all three of them moving among these different types of filmmaking. ….You took me back to the sunstruck crushed-velvet early 1970s, where I lolled and loved and lusted with just these sort of people, though studiously avoiding getting anybody pregnant…”

— Michael Walsh, Professor, Hartford University.

“The legacy of the Romantics is a contested inheritance, too often claimed on strictly aesthetic terms; Abigail Child knows better, and her new film reminds us of just how deeply the Shelleys and their circle committed themselves as test subjects for their own political ideals. Setting the drama of their own lives against events of world-historical significance, A Shape of Error is at once a mischievous scuttling of BBC costume drama and the creative anachronism of home movies before the invention of film. The results are of a kind that only Child could achieve: a playful mastery of form, and never-wavering attention to the past’s connection with the present.”

— Jim Supanick

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On the Downlow


“The concept of African American men being "on the DL" isn't the same as being closeted, and this superb documentary by Abigail Child probably does more to explain the differences and the cultural roots than any article ever written. And if there's a preconception that guys on the DL necessarily live in terror of being discovered, Child disagrees. This is a fascinating and provocative film.”

— David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle.


“Some of the best pure moviemaking in this year's festival can be found within this documentary by Abigail Child. Reflecting Child's background as an experimental filmmaker, On the Downlow finds a lot of poetry and grit in urban Cleveland: a shot of a hooker moseying across the street and a sequence set at a barbecue are great examples of the poetry in motion that can happen when a talented woman picks up a camera… ”

— Huston, San Francisco Bay Guardian.

“Two of verite documentaries' hottest topics -- ghetto and gay life -- make for surprisingly apt bedfellows in Abigail Child's well-assembled video documentary On the Downlow. Ray, age 18, starts things off by announcing "I'm a thug" and giving a litany of crimes he's been on the giving and receiving end of -- before unexpectedly veering off into his sex life. Child moves from person to person, creating a portrait of Cleveland's underground black gay scene including coming out to one's parents; black homophobia; the persisting rumor that only gay people spread AIDS. This is….revealing …articulate and skilled moviemaking.”

— Vadim Rizov, The REELER.

“With Cleveland, Ohio, as it backdrop, Child's seeks to present the portraits of four African-American men living the secretive and much previously hyped lifestyle of living on the " DL". You know men who sleep with men but try to pass as straight. Child's film gives a rather balanced view of these men’s complex lives, and explores how each of these men view the gay community in very diverse ways. On the Downlow is an evolving project and it seems right, since sexuality leaps out as a topic we in the African-American community need spend some quality-time confronting.”

— THE A LIST MAGAZINE.

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