“Screenlife is Terra Incognita”: a Foreword by Timur Bekmambetov
This article is a short piece from the upcoming book about the Screenlife format. It is scheduled for publication later this year.
I think I am not much different from you. I spend about six hours a day in front of a computer screen with my phone in my hand. Nobody forces me to do it. I am on my phone at every opportunity, I start sending and receiving messages and see what is happening in the world.
Today, this is the way we learn new things, fall in love, quarrel, make up, and find and lose friends. We often face moral choices on the screens of our devices. We decide who we will tell the truth to, and who we will hide it from. Who to go to dinner with, and who to brush off. Who to answer and who not. Moral choice is not just a building block in dramaturgy, it is its foundation. And today our digital, screen life is almost greater and more important to us than our real lives, the ones we live in the physical world, without devices. You can argue about whether this is good or bad, but it is difficult to argue with the fact that this is what a modern life looks like.
But what exactly does it look like?
If we go to a cafe in the morning, we will most likely see several people with laptops drinking their morning coffee. We cannot tell that one of them is quarreling with a girl at that moment, another has just received a terrible diagnosis from their doctor and is thinking about what to tell their loved ones, and a third is quite possibly robbing a bank thousands of kilometers away. And no matter how sophisticated the filming technique is, a traditional camera cannot bring us any closer to understanding what is really happening in the cafe this morning. On the screen, all these people look like ordinary customers whose biggest differences are their preferences for coffee: one likes Americano, the other cappuccino, and the robber, of course, has a double espresso. Today, many of our actions and emotions have been transferred from physical to digital reality. To find ourselves in a romantic comedy, drama or action movie, we do not need to look at people sitting in front of laptops. We need to stand behind them and see those people’s screens, because that is where their real lives are taking place.
Jorge Luis Borges said there are four stories that humanity eternally retells. People do not change much, so we still empathize with the heroes of Aeschylus and Shakespeare and their stories, written hundreds and even thousands of years before us. It is only the way these stories are told that changes. Their form connects them with the time in which they occur. If you want to make a modern movie about a love triangle, you probably wouldn’t consider a duel a good climax. You know modern people manifest jealousy, passion and folly differently from two centuries ago. The feelings themselves do not change – ways of life and the expression of those feelings have changed. And sometimes they change so much that new types of art appear to reflect that.
The birth of cinema at the end of the 19th century is inseparable from the Industrial Revolution and the acceleration of technological progress that would radically change our way of life in the following century. But cinema today is having a hard time reflecting our reality. We see large-scale retro productions and grandiose fantasies and fantasy sagas, but modern stories are appearing less and less often on the big screen. Modern big cinema is a strange phenomenon, carried away with visual forms, as if it existed in some endlessly prolonged past, or even outside of time. Mainstream cinema, and even auteur cinema, was scrambling throughout the 20th century to catch the present by the tail, and today they are forced to avoid modernity, maybe going into retro, or retreating into fantasy or comics where fictional technologies operate.
2020 was a great turning point: waves of pandemic shattered the traditional view of the film industry. We can state that traditional cinema is no longer able to tell the story of a modern person’s life without looking where that person spends most of the day looking – at the screen of a smartphone or computer. During the quarantines that have limited movement and real communication (outside of technology), traditional filmmakers have drawn attention to the possibilities of a new language to allow the story to unfold on the screen of a smartphone or computer.
Screenlife is a storytelling format in which all the action takes place on the screens of the heroes’ smartphones or computers. Screenlife is a new cinematic language, a truly modern way to reveal the inner state of the hero on the screen. Screenlife is a window into the inner world of the hero, destroying the fourth wall between spectacle and spectator and radically changing the audience’s understanding of film.
Five years have passed since the premiere of our first Screenlife film Unfriended, but we are still at the very beginning of the journey. Nonetheless, it has already become clear that Screenlife cinema requires new approaches to all the traditional stages of filmmaking, from script writing to filming and editing. In this book, we will talk about our findings and mistakes and the challenges we faced along the way to the invention of this new film language. During this time, Screenlife rules were formulated by us and broken by us. In this book, we have tried to describe all our experiences of that time honestly, but its main goal is to invite you onto our team of inventors in the Screenlife laboratory. In traditional cinema, everything has already been invented – every time you shoot a new film, you rebuild a constructor set, none of the details of which were made by you, and you often work completely according to someone else’s outline. Screenlife is terra incognita, every movement and event in this territory is unique, and we invite you to join us in making new discoveries about it.