Pitched at the Work-in-Progress industry section of international documentary film festival Visions du Réel, U.S. director David Borenstein’s sophomore feature “Can’t Feel Nothing” explores the connection between internet use and emotional disorders.
Borenstein’s debut feature doc “Dream Empire,” about the building boom in China’s ghost cities, won the top prize at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in 2017.
The filmmaker has been making technology films for networks like the BBC, Al Jazeera and Vice for years, and said the time had come to make his own – a project focused on what he calls “the vast apparatus of systems and technologies that are trying to influence our emotions.”
“It’s an interesting job but sometimes it feels like I’m in some sort of Kafka book: I interview technologists and people who make apps, who create the infrastructure of the internet that we use. I can’t help feeling I am interviewing people who are turning our lives into a living hell, as I struggle with my own addiction to the internet and how it changes me.”
Borenstein told Variety that the title of his film came from an interview with a child therapist in Denmark, where he lives, who has written a book about the way over-stimulation from the internet has dulled people’s emotions in real life.
“It’s what’s happening. Kids are having less sex because they’re having too much pornography on the internet: they’re so stimulated on the internet that they don’t seek sex in the real world. What’s happening with sex and pornography is happening to the full gamut of the human emotional spectrum,” he said.
Borenstein structured the film around his narration, dividing it into chapters named after human emotions – joy, love, fear, pride, shock, or anger – that go into the specific technology designed to make humans feel them.
It was shot in China, Denmark, Macedonia, the U.S. and Russia, where he filmed TikTok propagandists trying to raise feelings of pride among young users in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In Macedonia, he followed a doctor who became an expert in creating fake news posts, earning much more than her doctor’s salary, and in China – where he lived for 10 years – Borenstein explored effective computing that seeks to measure and influence human emotions, such as galvanic skin response or facial recognition.
The main challenge, he said, was to make a technology documentary that was people centered.
“So often, when you watch this type of doc, you don’t feel the consequences [of the technology]. You just look at it rationally, but it’s much harder to make this kind of film with strong characters, with a global reach and based in real characters,” he told Variety.
That’s where his past experience as a fixer came in handy, allowing him to find the right protagonists.
Borenstein hopes his film will help people reflect on the way they use the internet.
“It helped me think about the way I do. There’s so much that needs to happen for change to come. I’m no expert – but it’s important for me to make something that allows people to start thinking about it. What the internet does to us is beyond the technology. It’s about the culture of using that technology and seeing what it does to us,” he said.
“Can’t Feel Nothing” is produced by Jesper Jack at Copenhagen-based outfit House of Real, with the support of Denmark’s New Danish Screen, the Danish Film Institute, Denmark’s ministry of education and FilmFyn, Norway’s VG TV and NFTV, Sweden’s SVT, the New York Times Op-Docs and ZDF/ARTE. Currently in post-production, it is looking to fill a €100,000 ($111,000) funding gap and seeking distribution and international sales.
It was one of seven VdR-Pitching projects presented in the industry section at Visions du Réel, one of the world’s leading non-fiction film festivals, that runs from April 21 through April 30.
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