– This coronavirus-themed documentary by Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein will make you suffer from YouTube fatigue
Viral – world-premiering at Hot Docs – is a tiresome, tiresome experience. There are a few reasons for that, the first being the simple fact that the pandemic isn’t quite over just yet. It feels premature to go down that COVID hole once again and watch it unravel in 2020, which is exactly what Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein (also behind #Uploading_Holocaust) decided to do. What’s more, they show it playing out solely via YouTube videos, uploaded by increasingly scared/misinformed/bored young influencers, accompanied by a vexing soundtrack. Which, frankly, makes this 80-or-so-minutes-long film feel longer than The Lord of the Rings at times.
Still, it’s undeniably an entry point into a world that can be fascinating at times, or just plain baffling. These young adults, now in their twenties, grew up sharing their lives with others, and boy, does it show. They seem earnest when throwing around their “hey guys” and “you guys”; they appear to be talking to the subscribers that they don’t actually know or see. At this point, no one can claim that what they do doesn’t matter, as social-media star is what you want to be when you grow up. And yet Viral seems to almost revel in their naivete, with the directors – unlike their protagonists – already knowing how the story unfolds, fully aware that their New Year’s resolutions to be “more open, more sustainable, more active on Instagram” will soon grind to a sudden halt, replaced by a teary “I just want to go home.”
Focusing on seven separate stories, Nir and Bornstein try to cover a lot of ground: one of the “content providers” is living in a van, very Nomadland-like; another struggles with mental health issues or tries to leave her stripper past behind – against her online tribe’s wishes. It’s interesting that, for the most part, they don’t seem to interact live with anyone here, “talking” just to their followers. They spread misinformation, too, wondering aloud if they should get that mask after all or boasting about “Indians having a good immune system”, a statement that is especially jarring right now. Sure, there is a mention of people sharing unchecked content en masse, but mostly it’s hearsay masquerading as honesty, as “saying what everyone else is already thinking”.
It’s hard to say what Nir and Bornstein’s take on it all is, especially once political issues make it into these videos, too. After all the recent films implying that the future is young, they feature a guy “highly recommending” peaceful protests instead – although at least he means well. Then there is an attempt to – spoiler alert – seemingly calm down the older members of the audience, with the suggestion that even the influencers in question will see the error of their ways, complete with a montage of some admitting they are just tired of being online all the time. But at the end of the day, or was it the pandemic, Viral doesn’t really commit to investigating anything; it just shows people reacting live, on their channels, and there is no easy way to unsubscribe from the blabber.