In an era when workers are rapidly being displaced by machines, Maxim Pozdorovkin was expecting that both employees and employers would be sensitive to questions about the influx of robots on the job for his latest film “The Truth About Killer Robots.” However, Pozdorovkin found by sticking to questions about the technology, he was getting more access, both to subjects and their inner thoughts, than he could’ve ever anticipated.
“One of the great myths of our time is this idea of technological optimism — that technology will solve all our problems, whether that will be climate change, inequality, terrorism, etc., and this delusion is so rampant that a lot of times when you reach out to people and you say you’re doing something on the subject of robots, they only see it in this perspective,” says Pozdorovkin. “But because of that, we had an interesting way in [with companies using robots] – by saying it’s about robots, we were able to get in whereas by saying, “It’s about your experience as a worker in this factory,’ we probably would’ve had a more difficult time, even though effectively, the questions are one and the same.”
The answers Pozdorovkin gets, however, are not, creating a provocative, compelling conversation-starter on par with previous efforts such as “Our New President” in which he told the story of the 2016 U.S. election comprised entirely from Russian propaganda videos or following Pussy Riot when their outspoken activism led to their arrest in “A Punk Prayer.” Although the subject could be unwieldy for most filmmakers, visually abstract in its effects and international in scope, Pozdorovkin brings the trend towards automation into sharp relief with extrapolating reaction to three robot-related human fatalities to speak to how robots are shaping the human experience in subtle and dramatic ways.
Starting out in Baunatal, Germany where a 22-year-old contractor was killed at a Volkswagen plant by an errant robot movement, the filmmaker racks up frequent flyer miles venturing out to Williston, Florida where Joshua Brown, a Tesla owner loses control over his driverless car and Dallas, Texas where the police dispatched a drone to end a mass shooting by taking out the assassin Micah Johnson from a distance, contemplating the ethical implications of shifting the balance of power and responsibility from humans to computers. But Pozdorovkin’s inquiry grows to consider less obvious but equally weighty ramifications of the rise of robots, documenting a shift in business motivation from job creation to investor profit that has mercilessly reduced the workforce but shifted worker behavior within it, requiring some skills still too intuitive for computers to perform, but demoralizing those who have trained for years only to see their experience less necessary for most tasks in countries, whether they be postal workers in China or long-haul truckers in America.
Mischievously enough, Pozdorovkin even relieves himself of a few filmmaking tasks to show how prevalent the presence of robots is, finding a host in a Japanese droid named Kodomorid and gathering unworldly footage that could only be achieved without someone actually manning the camera. However, the overall ingenuity of the filmmaking in “The Truth About Killer Robots” suggests that humans still have plenty to offer and on the eve of the film’s debut on HBO following the film’s premiere earlier this fall at the Toronto Film Festival, Pozdorovkin spoke about creating a “science non-fiction” film, figuring out the logistics of an international shoot and shifting the point of view from most films about technology.
How did this come about?
I’d been thinking for a while about trying to make a film about automation because it’s such a transformative force, yet something that’s hard to talk about. In reading and watching a lot of nonfiction that’s been made about the subject, I kept seeing all these blindspots in the reporting, mainly seeing A.I. and its potential threats in the future that we’re heading towards rather than think of it as a continuation of automation. So when I heard about this accident at the Volkswagen plant where a manipulated arm killed a worker, I went there and talked to a lot of the workers and while a lot of them were forbidden from speaking about the accident because the case was open, and remains so to this day, they were more than happy to talk about the way that the introduction of robotics into car manufacturing transformed the experience of their work, so there was this opportunity to make a film which would take three cases of literal death by robots as a window onto the metaphorical ways in which automation is affecting us and killing us [with consequences] such as de-skilling, loss of memory, loss of spatial orientation, and [exacerbating] the difficulty of human connection.
In the past, you’ve had a strong central subject to focus in on. Was it liberating or challenging to tell a story more amorphous in nature?
Yeah, I always start off with the belief that movies are a really bad medium for saying anything and they’re a really great medium for feeling something, so from the very beginning, I set myself the challenge how do you talk about automation in a qualitative way – not just in job numbers, but in terms of experience and from that premise, a lot of this film follows. I also had this idea of making a science non-fiction film [because] if you think about what science fiction writers do, they look at the world around them and they see small pieces that suggest the future to come and then they build a world. For example, every episode of “Black Mirror” operates on this similar premise, so with this idea of seeing a continuum between automation and A.I. rather than it being something we’re heading towards in the future, I looked for the things in our present [global circumstances], which is why I filmed in its four biggest economies, as a way of [illustrating] this dystopian cautionary tale about the negative effects of automation on humans.
It’s really important to try to grapple with these issues and try to render them cinematically and not just in a journalistic way, [because it] reveals some blind spots that are inevitable to every medium. When I was reading a lot of the books and watching a lot of the news pieces that were made on the subject for research, all of it was premised on this idea of what robots could do for us – even when it was a serious investigation, it had this marketing perspective. And I realized early on that the only thing that really interested me was what robots did to us – the way they transform us, the way they change our experience – and that blindspot was a direct consequence of the fact that the vast majority of people in reporting the books, the news and the video pieces that were done about this subject, were predominantly [conveying] the voices of the technology owners, the programmers, the CEOS, the people that are directly benefiting from this technology.
Since that seemed like a huge blindspot, [I set out to] talk to a lot of the workers that are most directly affected by automation right now in its present stages as a way of trying to correct what [perspective] emerges in so much of the writing about technology.
Would you just park yourself outside factories and plants to talk to workers?
No, in some places, we had to arrange in advance to go and speak to the workers and in other places, we just waited outside because we wanted to speak to people as they were unguarded. In China, we had a great fixer who we had to arrange everything and negotiate with the factory. The heart of the China scene is the Foxconn recruitment center where we would be able to talk to workers and get the best perspective on the labor market in China, specifically at this moment where automation has made incredible gains in terms of precision – what people are able to do with their fingers and their hands, [which] remained for a long time the last competitive advantage that humans had.
One of the most revelatory moments for me was when you speak to Brandon Ackerman, a truck driver in America. How did you find him?
One of the things that often gets lost in the quantitative reporting on [automation] is how acquiring a skill as one does on a job over a 20-year period is closely connected to our sense of self and personal dignity, [which is why] the whole second section of the film deals with the service sector. Truck driving is the biggest single job in the service sector and truck drivers who used to drive for 25 years had a certain amount of pride in knowing how to do this job, but what rarely gets reported now is that truck drivers nowadays do very, very little. They’re essentially babysitting a computer, not dissimilar from the way airline pilots work now. That definitely has some safety gains, but the feeling that the people have and the fact that the job has been deskilled also creates downward pressure on wages because far less training and far less expertise is required, so the job itself becomes far less meaningful. So we went to various truck stops around the country, specifically around the Pittsburgh area because this was a coming together of both a former industry and manufacturing [town], which was destroyed, and new technology began [since it’s] one of the first places where driver-less cars were tested – Uber has a headquarters there. So we found this truck driver from Mississippi who told us about his experience and it felt right to put those side by side.
Was there anywhere you may have had an idea of what this would be and your ideas about it changed?
There was this one moment where the third act of the film begins with this bomb robot that was used to kill an active shooter, and I wanted to get at the question the kinds of weapons they use with robotics in the military. Originally, I had a section about drones and spoke to various people about it, but what I realized was that all the [previous] discussions of drones as weapons of war basically get tangled up into questions of how autonomous is this optical system and at which point can the pilot intervene from a remote location? [With] these really highly technological questions about autonomy, you almost lose sight of the most interesting, uncomfortable aspects of it.
When I heard about the case in Dallas where there was an active shooter, what was fascinating there is if the sniper, who [was at the scene] and is in our film, killed him, there would be nothing interesting or problematic about the situation. It’d just be a tragedy that was resolved the way that it usually is. But in this situation, they brought in a robot to do this job and blow this guy up. The robot is unintelligent, as you can imagine, but in the heat of the moment, no one is thinking about that, so if you reason it out, there’s seemingly nothing wrong about what happened, but at a gut level, it feels awful. The police chief, even when announcing what they were doing, kind of flubs the line and says “bomb robot” because it touches upon something that’s very real and hard to get at. It’s that feeling, that discomfort that we feel when these cases come up that I really wanted to explore. So as a result, the whole third act of the film started to turn and rather than focusing in on these very advanced systems, it became about focusing on incidents and prod and poke that discomfort that high-end automation produces in us.
I was fascinated by your own use of flying drones in the film. How much were you conscious of the technology you were using to tell this story?
We were very conscious and actually the use of the drone footage is an extension of why we used a robot narrator for the film. One of the bigger blindspots that I saw in a lot of the documentaries produced on this was about artistic uniqueness, as if artists are exempt from the effects of automation. There are all these films that are built around the question of, “Can A.I. direct a movie? Can a robot edit a movie? Can you create a robotic camera man that would be better [than a human]?” When you try to program something like this independently in the context of a film, it’s going to fail and there’s this false feeling of “Aren’t we special?” at the end of these films, but we wanted to grapple in a formal technological way with the fact that if you look at the economic data, the arts are being hollowed out as rapidly as all other industries. In photography, music and film, we’ve gone from a healthier bell-shaped curve economically to a star-driven distribution where nobody makes money except for people that are very successful, but that middle is totally sucked out and how that happens is there’s a lot less work.
For example, [we had] the android narrator and a voice that we created [for it], so we weren’t using an actor and we didn’t have to use a [sound recording] studio. We didn’t do different takes, we could edit continuously on the fly and constantly the tweak the narration up until our premiere at Toronto. Likewise with drones, [which we’d] use for aerial shots, which is the way that everyone else is using them, but we wanted to push that, so we use them indoors or inside factories as a way to replace what traditionally would be done by a steadicam operator or a helicopter pilot. So it was important not to exempt ourselves and not put a James Earl Jones soundalike that would wax poetically about how beautiful humans are, but to grapple with technology and have it be a part of the film’s DNA.