“Four robots grapple with the human complexities of religion, love, friendship, and what it means to be alive.” This is the description given for A Synthetic Kind of Love, a shorts program that screened Wednesday as part of the Boston Underground Film Festival.
Man and machine are supposed to be equals in Wil Magness’ “The Manual” yet Machine (Lauren Emery) is the only AI in A Synthetic Kind of Love who doesn’t have a name. James (played as an adult by J. J. Johnston), like his father before him, simply calls her Machine, yet Machine performs her duties steadfastly.
When a short begins with the question, “James, did you intend to end your life?” it puts you in a certain frame of mind, but the next scene in The Manual isn’t any easier. James is a little boy and we see his father coughing and his mother restricted to a chair. You know where this story is heading but while Machine becomes James’ caretaker when they die, she raises him with the help of a Bible known as the Manual. Machine believes in the Manual completely, but James questions it, making Machine’s faith even more of an anomaly since it’s almost an act of defiance. The ending negates some of the questions raised, but provides answers you won’t see coming.
All of the films, except Last Days, involve an AI and a human living in isolation. Emily Limyun Dean’s Andromeda features the most human-looking of the synths. Where the others have faces like masks, unable to denote emotion, Andromeda uses make-up to turn actress, Kestrel Leah, into an android. It’s a resemblance that seems to go hand-in-hand with her human, Ella’s, desire to see her become a real girl. While Andromeda plays out like you’d expect, there are opportunities for horror that the film doesn’t take, like when Ella (Mai Brunelle) gives Andromeda a necklace and she pulls at the pendant. The necklace was offered as a gift, yet Ella tells her to put it on, and Andromeda’s gesture makes it feel like a chain. The film doesn’t lean on the scene for that effect though, and even a genuine act of violence gets zapped of its horror by being met with acceptance, instead of criticism, the music stubbornly light.
In The Manual and Andromeda, it was the human child who grew and aged, while the AIs (both female) were saddled with taking care of them, but in Fadi Baki’s brilliant The Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow, Mani is the one who ages, starting out sleek (with a waist that can twist on the dance floor) but ultimately weighed down and falling apart.
Filmed as a faux documentary, Mani (voiced by Toni Harouny), is an automaton that was given to Lebanon as a gift, but his journey is that of a fallen celebrity, punished for getting older and no longer met by adoring fans. For Mani, this is especially hard to accept. He was the Man of the Tomorrow and while we meet him struggling to get a letter into an envelope, Mani would deny anything’s changed.
There’s more to Mani’s story than he would have come out, though, and when Nour (Romy Melhem) starts to ask around about Vartan Ohanian (Houssam Sabbah), a mechanic who used to repair Mani, you realize the part he played in his current state of affairs.
A different outdated AI is the star of William Welles’ Rust in Peace. X-On (Douglas Tait) isn’t sure how he woke up in a dump, but he’s determined to get home again. When he tries to phone ahead, however, his calls won’t connect. Looking like a cross between a Judoon and an earwig, at first you wonder whether X-On’s efforts are futile, but he finds his home, alright, along with Devin (Rhys Coiro), the human who lives there. Saying anything else might ruin the effect of unspooling this story for yourself, but it’s not a healthy “Synthetic Kind of Love” that dominates this short.
For more information on the shorts included in this program, full descriptions are available on BUFF’s official web-site.