Through a mix of mesmerizing images and contemplative narration, director Natalia Almada explores humanity’s relationship with technology in the thought-provoking documentary Users. It’s more of a tone poem than an analytical investigation, raising complex questions that don’t have straightforward answers and reminding viewers that we all have choices when it comes to how we interact with the digital tools and devices that are so prevalent in our modern world.
Winner of the Directing Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, the film feels even more relevant in 2023, with the rapid proliferation of generative AI tools like ChatGPT constantly in the news and our increasing understanding of the potentially negative mental health consequences of social media use. The risks are especially high for young people, and that’s where Users spends much of its time, too — with kids, looking at the ways that technology impacts them from day one and pondering the role it will continue to play as they get older.
The film’s calm, introspective narration seems to be coming from a mother’s perspective, fueled by her insecurity over whether her children will still need her in a world where infants can be efficiently soothed to sleep by a machine and any question can be answered by the family smart speaker. But, she reminds us, wires and screens aren’t the only things out there: There are also fields and landscapes and green grass to run and play in. The images Almada chooses to illustrate the compelling beauty of the natural world can feel like living art installations, and watching them on the screen is a meditation-like experience.
By the time Almada pulls back the curtain on exactly who’s narrating her film, you might be ready to pull the plug on your phone (as well as your tablet, your e-reader, your laptop, your video doorbell, your kids’ gaming system, and any Alexa/Google-enabled devices you happen to have lying around). While it’s important to take the film’s sobering message with a grain of salt — because there are positive features of modern technology, and having the time and energy to fret about the ethics of tech is rooted in a level of privilege that many, many people don’t have — there’s no denying the fact that Almada’s message is worth thinking about. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nikki Fowler: Natalia Almada’s Users is a therapeutic and hypnotic ode to nature, questioning the rise of technology and its influence on humanity and the world, specifically how we consume and navigate the dance with automation as our human lives become more isolated. She tells the story through her own experiences of being a mother, flawed when compared to robotics and the tech that governs our lives. With outstanding cinematography and sound, you will get swept away into a visually and audibly sobering experience that’s almost therapeutic in the fear, friction, isolation, and loss of emotion that at times comes with our advancements in society to an age where we no longer have to leave our homes to work, shop, eat or play. Almada questions the now and the future, as well as contemplates global warming in her euphoric visual experience. Prepare to be spellbound and contemplate whether the good in technology outweighs the bad.
Leslie Combemale Raising our children from birth, growing the food we eat, how we communicate and travel…how will the way we are developing technology around those rituals and very human experiences fundamentally change us individually and as a society? Juxtaposing biology and nature against manmade technology, writer/director/editor Natalia Almada makes a case for the idea that one day we will be unable to distinguish the difference between the two. What makes the film particularly powerful is how sound, or the lack of sound, and music (by Kronos Quartet, no less) are used, both in technologically focused and natural environments. There is a calm, a connectedness to soul, that sounds of nature evoke, but we are also tricked in a number of ways, both visually and aurally, about what is natural and what is technological. Users is, ultimately, decidedly anti-tech, but the film is at once lyrical and jarring in the questions it poses about our future as a species.
Jennifer Merin Mexican-American filmmaker Natalia Almada’s documentary, Users, is a poetic and profoundly provocative delve into the complex intersection of nature and technology in human civilization, present and future. The film presents itself as 81-minute meditation on the ways in which our increasing dependence on technology will impact our future generations, and those who are being birthed in the present. Don’t expect a delineated thesis or linear narrative of any sort. Almada juxtaposes images of the natural world — rushing water, clouds, pristine forests — with those of technological wonders — mechanized indoor crop growing and harvesting, soaring communications towers, streamline vehicles — to suggest the unfathomable complexity of our modern environment, civilization and culture. Read full review.
Cate Marquis Natalia Almada’s non-linear documentary opens with that unseen female narrator talking about how once parents didn’t know a baby’s sex until the child was born, women carried babies in their bodies for nearly a year without knowing gender — as if this condition of having to wait was a phenomenon from a distant past. The narrator then goes on to talk about her baby being cared for by machines – perfect machines replacing imperfect parents – and wondering about how her child will grow up in this modern world that is covered in solar panels and harvests food that is grown without sunlight or soil. Read full review.
Director: Natalia Almada
Release Date: June 9, 2023
Running Time: 81 minutes
Screenwriter: Natalia Almeda
Distribution Company: Icarus Films
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Jamie Broadnax, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore
Edited by Jennifer Merin