In 2006, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, a project founded in Cambridge and co-supported by the Miami-based One Laptop per Child Association, implemented a long-in-the-works project to get laptop computers to children in developing countries. The possible culture shock of people in locations without running water but possible Internet connectivity was intriguing. However, after the initial push touting the start of the program, for the most part, it fell off the media's radar.
Filmmaker Michael Kleiman wanted to get on the ground to see the program in action in isolated Peruvian villages. The director has come back with a sprightly documentary pondering the current notion of globalization while putting a face on those affected by the OLPC program. An early montage scene scored with a bright, incessant piano melody, backed by electronic layers of pulses and beats focuses only on Kleiman's computer desktop. He hops around Google, Facebook and Amazon, revealing how he learned about OLPC and how he preps for his trip (including the purchase of mosquito repellent).
Web is an idealistic work with an important dash of awareness about the bigger picture. It features interviews with New York City-based experts deeply entrenched in a cyber-world that almost defines them. There's a revealing moment when Kleimen seems to catch these sanguine intellectuals off guard and asks them to define a "friend." It's presented alongside a similar question with those he met in Peru, who show no confusion about what makes someone a friend, revealing a deeper intimacy with the word than those who are probably bombarded with Facebook "friend requests."
Kleiman often inserts himself into interactions with the natives (sometimes too much--again, blame Facebook), who live near the Andes mountains in Antuyo and off the Amazon River in Palestina. Mauricio, the father of one of the children marvels at Kleiman's yoga skills behind the camera, incessantly asking him how he can sit like that. It can sometimes feel a bit suspect, as Kleiman seems a bit ambivalent on why he is there. Could he be some sort of pioneering proxy for the technology that will offer a tool to help further develop the villages, or is he just getting in the way and offering something impractical in places that need so much more. At one point, one man in Palestina shrugs off the Internet and says, "What we really need is a road."
Though Web can sometimes feel a bit precious, there are some perceptively smart moments among the sometimes cloying scenes that hype an advanced civilization sharing knowledge with a primitive culture. In another scene, Mauricio tells Michael not to forget his family. Kleiman asks why he is so fearful of forgetting them. Mauricio says the big city will make him forget. As the talking heads start explaining the idea of globalization and its tendency to homogenize cultures, the Peruvian man's words gain extra resonance. It's as if he knows this laptop and this man representing a faster, more comfortable way of life will end up destroying his culture and language. Meanwhile, off the Amazon, Michael gives the kids in the river-town a lesson in Wikipedia. It's testament to the film's perspective that, in a rather morbid way, the children running around taking pictures of their village are writing their people's obituary.
Those behind OLPC seem to treat the Internet as if it were some great salvation in education, but it can also be seen as another step toward homogeneity across the world. Google search and Facebook friendships have been seen as one of the subtly socially divisive tools in erasing individuality and identity. Web touches on this, aware that such tools can also be a social and cultural Pandora's box. It's a superficial scratch on the surface. One tiny disturbing scene implies globalization via Internet could get rid of Sharia law, but also at stake are characteristic dances and costumes for a small group of people who have no written history. Concerns are culturally high and solutions are never as simple as an hour-and-a-half documentary can offer. But at least it's packaged in an entertaining way. There's even a blooper real where the director finally gets on camera.
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Saturday, March 8, 4 p.m. at Regal Cinema South Beach and Wednesday, March 15, at 1:45 p.m. at the Paragon Grove. Producer Michael Pertnoy will attend the first screening on Saturday, March 8. to both introduce the film and indulge the audience in a Q&A. Tickets.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.