Isiah Medina’s long-awaited second feature brings a new vision for the future, and for cinema

Ruairí McCann on Isiah Medina’s ‘Inventing the Future’ (2020)

In his essay “We: Variant of a Manifesto”, Soviet filmmaker and theorist Dziga Vertov urged filmmakers and thinkers to burn bridges with older forms of art and:

 —  to flee  —  

out into the open, into four dimensions (three + time), in search of our own material, our meter and rhythm. 

Dziga Vertov, “We: Variant of a Manifesto”, Kino-Fot, Issue 1 (August 1922).

This incitement sets montage, or the cut, as the catalyst for cinema’s emancipation. The skeleton key to new forms and ways of thinking through cinema that would break from the medium’s restrictive definition as especially suited, and so duty-bound, to realism above all other modes, and to image and narrative above all other aspects. That through its transcendence of form — as its neither wholly a visual or audio element — and its ability to use juxtaposition in order to create new associations, montage could be the closest artistic analogue to the workings of the mind. To how it experiences and then draws conclusions about the world.     

Isiah Medina arrived as a new bearer of this montage-driven drive for a radical cinema with 88:88 (2015). His excellent debut feature depicts the troubles, interests, and intimacies of a network of poor, young people in Winnipeg as a dense and fleet catalogue of the sight, sensations, and articulations of living precariously in the 2010s. Its DNA could be traced to the catch-as-catch-can diary films of Jonas Mekas and Jean-Luc Godard’s own use of video and digital as analytical tools. But ultimately its style is Medina’s own. His interpolating of different formats expresses the experience of the present’s media plurality not just as overload but also a well of possible intimations, a feast for firing synapses. And his approach to narrative as an episodic series of home video like fictions, along with his cutting’s often jolting sense of rhythm and repetition, felt like a rare successful blending of film language with influences that have been largely untapped or poorly incorporated. From chopped and screwed remix techniques to the kind of tossed-off, amateur footage that the ubiquity and informality of video recording equipment has wrought. 

For his long-brewing second feature, Medina applies his distinctively cobbled form to a more concrete mission, if not application. Adapted from the book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015), authored by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams and published by Verso Books, Inventing the Future elucidates a forward-thinking leftism intended for a global scale. A programmatic socialist movement that will embrace the presumed inevitability of automation and advance a universal basic income that would augment, rather than replace, the welfare state. The outcome is a post-work society where the abolishment of waged labour topples the ruling neoliberal hegemony and counters what Srnicek and Williams dub “folk politics”: the then-dominant form of left-wing activism, which in advocating local or individualist forms of protest and abstinence from capitalist practices leaves the larger structures of power intact.  

The book itself is outlined by actors reading it in voiceover and on-screen, presented non-linearly, in fragments, and interspersed with other utterances concerned with semiotics and metaphysics. The text finds both description and further development in a rapid and recycling oscillation of stitched together sounds and images. An atonal concoction of piano lines and musique concrète that races or wanders along with snippets and scenes of city life, the natural world, domesticity, games, play, and political action. Some of the footage is plundered but most of it is recorded in an ad hoc style on digital and 16mm, or crafted with the assistance of a production crew and a higher budget, with more deliberate camera movements and staging. 

This is only half of it, for greatly expanded from his first film is its exploration of digital and artificial spaces. Scenes from a motion capture studio — where the generated bare decor resembles the sleekly minimal sets and props of pedagogic children shows like Art Attack and Blue Peter — and a CGI vision of a trans-humanist utopia are interwoven and interfere with the abovementioned footage. Along with the film’s most overtly performed strand; a Socratic dialogue played with Straub-Huillet-like minimalism by Erik Berg (returning as actor and production jack of all trades from 88:88) and Dahyeon Hwang. They exchange over that most fundamental philosophical quandary: of how the way we describe experience and the world shapes our perception of both. 

Many of the initial responses to this film have been preoccupied with the flaws of the ideology espoused. This line of criticism is not exactly superfluous — and to briefly take it up, my opinion of it is mixed — but to make it the bulk of the analysis portrays the film a mere light and sound flipbook of its source, as opposed to a work of art in and of itself. Concerned with the very possibility of creating a multiplicity of expression within the cinematic form, rather than presenting an airtight academic thesis in an ironclad vessel for either agreement or dismissal.

The use of toys, Lego, blocks, and letters is integral here, for as educational devices they are personally primordial. The root tools we, as infants, used to field our first forays into sensory exploration combined with complex thinking. It is why those in the pop education racket on YouTube and other sites use Lego and other rudimentary forms of animation to make easily communicable, but patronisingly simplistic, analogies to the topics discussed. In this film, their use is never so reductive. Or rather, in a search for presenting different modes of cinema expression, they are allowed to be both reductive and complex. By the virtue of Medina’s form; its constant swapping and changing for new word-image-sound relationships, these materials are used to portray a subject maybe a bit too on-the-nose one moment, literally just spelling out the subject being discussed, or using a toy robot to symbolise automation. But then the focus shifts with the letters or Lego giving way or joining together with other elements or images to make more complex configurations. Often just thrilling on a very immediate level with Medina’s editing patterns getting more complex as the film progresses.  

Though the warmth of 88:88, as a film more attentive to individual intimacy, is gone and missed, Inventing the Future’s inscribed instability offers a different sort of pleasure. For when critical common sense elevates the precisely engineered object with a set and streamlined theme, there is a refreshing intellectual brazenness to filmmaking that refuses to set meaning in stone but instead let it metastasize. A “quantity cinema” then, as Medina himself calls it in the opening titles, and a reminder that the medium can still be home to artists with outsized ambitions.  

Inventing the Future was released 30 March 2020 on YouTube and can be viewed below.

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.