One of the more controversial films to be showing at Revelation this year (after its egregious removal from the Melbourne Film Festival), The Trouble With Being Born confronts a very problematic aspect of our humanity, particularly how it pertains to androids and artificial intelligence. Its director and co-writer Sandra Wollner spoke to DAVID MORGAN-BROWN about how the real world of technology shaped this film, as well as its controversy in Melbourne.
Where did the idea for this movie come from?
Well, the initial idea actually came from my good friend and co-author Roderick Warich. I was basically searching for a story that I wanted to tell out of a non-human perspective and I immediately jumped on this because I was very intrigued by the idea of the android being the vessel of our weird wishes and the essence of human nature.
The usual narrative about an AI, it’s usually either that the AI wants to rule the world or it wants to become human. And so from the very beginning I was very interested in this…not that the android wants to become human, but of this object being a mirror for what its owner wants. That’s what fascinates me.
Were there any movies or stories that inspired you when you were crafting this film with your co-writer?
There are always a lot of movies that you’re thinking of, but maybe you’re not even doing it consciously. So there was, specifically what we’re talking about, Au Hasard Balthazar by Bresson, which showed the gaze of the the animal, looking at humankind. And then there was also Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin which was a big inspiration for me personally, especially how Scarlett Johansson works as an alien in a very realistic world. And of course, I was going to put it as an antithesis to A.I., Spielberg and Kubrick’s ideas of artificial intelligence.
Were there any real world stories about androids or AI that inspired this story at all?
Of course, AI is becoming much more naturalistic, much more real. But do you avoid this becoming more and more human, so that you cannot distinguish that anymore? That was something I found quite inspiring and interesting in the question of how are we going to deal with an AI that resembles us more and more, and what kind of moral standards are we going to apply to them.
And not so much only AI, but also in my research, I came across this doll that looked like kids and is used for sexual purposes. And I find the idea quite unsettling, but also interesting, of course, that you could combine a very natural way of looking with the human eye. I found it troubling but interesting. So there were real effects in the real world, that influenced the film, of course.
I was just wondering was there any inspiration from the Emil Cioran book of the same name?
Yeah, I mean, we borrowed the name from it, and it’s not of course…it was not the trials to write this down into a story, but I just felt a lot of similarity that I wanted. When I read it for the first time, I felt it was a very nihilistic but it was also very humorous way of seeing this world that I can relate to.
If you think about it, he’s saying “Okay, we as human beings, we are aware of that our birth is a laughable accident.” But why do we forget ourselves? We behave as if it was if it were a capital event necessary for the progress of the world because we as humans need the meaning, and we create the meaning that we need. And this is, of course, different to the idea of the android that does not need any meaning. And therefore I found the title a perfect fit for what was my approach for this film.
What do you think of the real world implications of androids and AI, especially if they’re created for seemingly a father-daughter relationship?
I don’t know if there’s an answer out there. I don’t have an answer. I don’t think psychologically it’s a good idea to live out every dark fantasy, and definitely not the one depicted in the film. But it’s, of course, an interesting and complex ethical question whether we want to allow it, because the fact is people do have dark fantasies, and do have fetishes that we don’t want to see. And if technology like this exists, for sure it will be used for that purpose.
So whatever your personal opinion about it is, if it’s just an object that is being used, at what point is it permissible to attribute human qualities to it? Is there any point where we can say this android [not only looks] like a child, but also should be protected like a child? And if you think about that, we do the opposite to animals in industrial farming where living creatures are basically treated as objects in order to allow us to process them in the way we do. And I think that it’s just a really fascinating question that we definitely will have to deal with.
I was wondering what you thought about the film’s controversy at the Melbourne Film Festival that was on recently?
I really do think people should watch the film before they judge it. I do understand, of course, this year was a weird and unforeseeable and hard year for cultural institutions like festivals and they had to deal with things we did not have to deal with before, especially in moving events online. I do understand there is a fear of giving up control with the festival not being in the physical room, but going into the virtual room.
It’s something I think happens a lot in our present time, that we are reacting even before some reaction comes up with bad things, because we fear…even fear the discussion. And this is something I personally don’t think is healthy or leading us somewhere if we don’t discuss those things, because it’s important to depict and talk about every aspect of human nature.
Do you think that you will explore similar concepts and themes to do with technology and identity in your future films?
Right now I’m not looking for technology for my next film, but I do expect to return to that topic at some point. The way technology changes our human experience, that’s something it’d be hard for me not to be interested in.