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The ethics of social experiments on film

Two new documentaries explore “structured reality”, and why it’s better when the subjects are in on the joke

Anyone who’s watched the Big Brother live stream knows that observing people in a controlled environment can be banal. Yet reality TV gluttons and behavioural scientists alike know that human nature is unpredictable – even more so in group settings. In other words, boring can be exciting to watch. But is there an ethical way to film this kind of social experiment? After all, ‘structured reality’ can start to feel queasy when subjects aren’t in on the joke.

Two films at this year’s CPH:DOX tackled this question. In their respective documentaries, Swedish director Marcus Lindeen and German filmmakers Jana Magdalena Keuchel and Katharina Knust try to make movies of two different social experiments from two different eras – one from the 70s and one from 2015 – by bringing their respective participants back together. Lindeen’s The Raft reunites the participants of an academic study called the ‘Acali Experiment’ and asks them to reflect on the experience 45 years after it took place, while Last Year in Utopia uses actors to restage a cancelled reality TV show with the former contestants present. Each film uses present day testimonials as a counterpoint to the original material it is based on, understanding that in order to evaluate the success of a social experiment, context is needed.

In 1973, Spanish-Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genoves placed an ad in several international newspapers looking to assemble a ‘diverse’ group of 10 men and women who he would observe as they sailed across the Atlantic, for 100 days, on a raft. As an actor’s voiceover reading Genoves’ journal explains, “at sea, you can’t escape”. This group, he decided, would all be between the ages of 25 and 40. The women – by his own admission – would be “sexually attractive”. And the plan? To “isolate a group of people and expose them to danger”, to find out why – and more importantly, how – people fight. You can sense Genoves’ glee when raftmates catch a small shark, and one of the men cuts out its still-beating heart, caveman-style.

16mm footage of the original voyage is overlaid with Genoves’ commentary (performed by actor Daniel Gimenez Cacho), and interrupted by present-day scenes of the surviving man and women (just seven are still alive). Aboard a scale model of the raft, which looks like an art installation or theatre rehearsal space against a black soundstage, the subjects retell their own stories, which frequently challenge the information in Genoves’ journals.

It is through these retellings that we discover Genoves was a meddling, Machiavellian puppet-master who engineered the raft’s gender dynamic in the hope that it would cause trouble. “I wonder if having women in power will lead to less violence, or more,” he muses, giving the key roles of captain and medic to the women on board. Yet the participants didn’t fight – they became friends (and, as he predicted, some of them fucked). By the end of their voyage, Genoves comes to understand that though the experiment didn’t fail (he learned stuff, after all), he had failed – to prove his sexist hypothesis that a woman in charge is cause for outrage.

“The participants didn’t fight – they became friends (and, as he predicted, some of them fucked)”

Where Genoves succeeded was in undermining the very women he had gifted with ‘power’. Maria, the raft’s captain, had trained as a seafarer and was the world’s first female captain. In the press, she would simply be remembered as one of the passengers aboard ‘The Sex Raft’.

Last Year in Utopia is similarly fascinated with the idea of narrative intervention for the sake of drama. In 2015, a group of fifteen men and women agreed to take part in a Dutch reality TV show called Newtopia, an experiment in which they were to build a new society over the course of one year. Like in The Raft, participants are asked to reconsider their experiences with hindsight.

To illustrate the fallibility of their memories, actors wearing white face paint are brought in to re-enact key scenes from the show. Former contestants Tatiana, Hans, Auri and L direct the actors playing them, then watch the Brechtian re-enactments live. These scenes are frequently hilarious, with on-set musicians re-creating awkwardly underscored arguments.

This was supposed to be a utopian project – isolated from civilisation and its rules, the hope was that Newtopia’s inhabitants would be able to create something pure in its ideals, unmarred by existing preconceptions of what role a young fitness coach (like Hans), or a fortysomething supermarket cashier (Auri) might play in this new society. Yet as its former ‘stars’ explain, with its Big Brother-style rules – every four weeks, someone must be voted out and replaced by a new contestant – and interfering story producers, living in Newtopia felt like living under a dictatorship, deliberately designed to drive them apart. The utopian experiment at the heart of Newtopia was compromised for the sake of the show and its ratings, but neither aspect ‘worked’. The show collapsed when these ‘stars’ refused to take part in the vote, deciding that they wouldn’t play by the rules, despite the producers’ threats.

“Isolated from civilisation and its rules, the hope was that Newtopia’s inhabitants would be able to create something pure in its ideals”

These films aren’t as interested in the social experiments themselves as they are in the impact they had on the people taking part. Both hint that there’s something unethical about trying to create cinema out of these observed experiments, but find loopholes in their own films. By inviting their subjects to interact with their memories, they allow them to reclaim agency within the confines of a controlled setting. In this sense, The Raft and Last Year in Utopia are successful experiments themselves.