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Skydiver — screenlife as a DIY Tool

Back in 2010, American filmmaker Eugene Kotlyarenko engineered his own idea of screenlife using the tools immediately available to him—iChat, his friends and family, and his internet connection. An assembly of video call conversations distributed over ten parts (with an epilogue that goes outside of the computer), “Skydiver” is an early testament to the ingenuity within screenlife, and how it takes a mad scientist like Kotlyarenko to engineer it.

The film starts with Kotlyarenko as Eugene, who is like almost any person with a video chat account and a Facebook account—in their own world, interacting with other people from their quiet bedrooms or office spaces. He chats with Facebook friends like college peer Kate (Kate Lyn Sheil) and falls for her until she says she can’t talk to him anymore, which crushes him. In a spiral, he lets his mind wander to different interactions with people, either from his iChat log or sometimes from Chatroulette. Some of these scenes are clearly not scripted, as with his interactions with his Russian relatives, and others are certainly more structured, as with his interactions with Max, and other characters.

Using script and performance in a deceptively laid back way, “Skydiver” earns a sinister nature as it blends documentary and fiction while its true arc emerges—Eugene has become radicalized by a California-based terrorist group, and is planning a suicide bomb attack in Washington, D.C. He talks about this proudly but casually with his friends, and in the film’s glimpses of his life online, there are select moments doing casual internet searches on the likes of the history of terrorism in America, or information about the contamination in the water supply. The internet has become a type of black hole for Eugene, but it has offered him a connection, and a sense of purpose, albeit one of the most evil imaginable.

Seemingly innocuous conversations clue the viewer into different lives around the world. Eugene has mundane, sometimes explicit chats with them about their interests, like a man’s love for rollerblading or a kid showing him a police event outside, and sometimes it’s Eugene telling them casually about his radical beliefs. Kotlyarenko the director makes Eugene the character a fascinating enigma who embodies so many ideas about being online, while having a voiceover that speaks poetically about his curiosity with the world, connected with his contempt for the American government as an indie filmmaker turned suicide bomber-to-be.

Given the time of 2010, tech for Kotlyarenko and his peers was more limited to desktop video chats. That causes many scenes take place in extensive takes, with Eugene just a box in the corner. Compared to the screenlife films that would come soon after it, “Skydiver” is far less about movement of the eye, even though there are select shots that zoom into certain windows on his computer at specific moments.

But the the film is not limited by these constraints, creating a world with these different characters, and the space that they naturally have. In a more dated but incredibly honest joke, there are even moments in which Eugene turns on the animated backgrounds supplied by iChat, including the roller coaster and the fish bowl. Part of the film’s aesthetic too, derived directly from its DIY roots, is the constant lag on the many of the conversations, chopping up interactions but in a way that’s entirely recognizable.

The making of “Skydiver” shows the expansive potential of screenlife, but also the need for an exact vision. Speaking with Bullett Media Kotlyarenko said that he had “very little explicit idea of where I was going,” and shared the process of finding material within very real chat logs: “around four hours of chatting, two hours of searching for chat-opportunities and then another eight to twelve hours turning that plethora of material into six to ten enjoyable minutes.”

There is a pioneer spirit to “Skydiver” that makes the film a must watch for screenlife fans, especially for filmmakers who embrace that screenlife is an arguably more honest way to depict modern existence. It is a movie that creates two vivid realities, that of real life but also of screenlife, while inspiring the viewer’s imagination with its pure storytelling.

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