Sundance: ‘Fantastic Machine’ entertains while examining relationship between humans and camera

Jan 25, 2023, 6:19 PM | Updated: 6:21 pm

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Viktoria Odintcova appears in Fantastic Machine by Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute| Photo by Alexander Tikhomirov. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by the press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

SALT LAKE CITY — While the Utah’s political leaders grapple with laws to combat the dangers of social media, Utah’s Sundance Film Festival premiered “Fantastic Machine,” turning the camera lens not only the camera but what it has meant to humans — spoiler: it has drastically changed us.

From the the invention of a single camera in 1816 to today’s collection of 46 billion image makers around the globe, directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck collected an evocative cut of historic images and video, including a healthy does of funny, they also talked with KSL TV and their Sundance audience.

“On YouTube every time we would find something that spoke to this relationship of camera and human behavior, we would save that and show it to colleagues and discuss, because it would say something about the human condition,” Van Aertryck said. As they studied what it means to humans to see their own image, they sampled studies of children or aboriginal populations as they were exposed to images for the first time.

“It (the assembled video) follows the rhythm that is needed in the film and then afterwards we had to see what the bill is,” co-director Axel Danielson said. “And we had to come back to our financiers and say ‘Guys, can you help us?’ ”

A still from Fantastic Machine by Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Much of the content, from the first known photograph of a human (a man getting a shoes shine) to a series of dictators, to documentation of the horrors of Nazi  prison camps in WWII, to one of the very first viral videos on YouTube, to the humorous and harrowing footage on contemporary social media, the film exposes humanity’s obsession with the image and the social consequences that comes with it.

The film is something of a visual sociology lesson while never feeling preachy. The directors said their tight, 85-minute, documentary doesn’t pretend to provide answers but pose questions and initiate dialog.

The first half spends time establishing the camera while the second half showcases social media. Their five-year effort of watching and selecting clips was rewarded at the Sundance the world’s premiere independent film festival.

A still from Fantastic Machine by Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy Sundance Institute)

“It’s such a great feeling to see it in the room, with an audience,” Danielson said. “These images, we are used to seeing them in our screens and the discussion is not in the public room, it’s a private thing. But this private thing affects all of society.”

The Tuesday night screening in Salt Lake City, drew big laughs, a few gasps and some groans. It plays twice more in Park City and doesn’t yet have a distributor, though it seems hard to imagine a streaming service or documentary theater circuit will not be wise enough to realize the human obsession with image will lead to clicks and views.

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Sundance: ‘Fantastic Machine’ entertains while examining relationship between humans and camera