Review: Dear Hacker — Fantasia Festival 2021

“To what extent is the computer a presence in itself?” Filmmaker Alice Lenay asks this near the midpoint of her documentary, Dear Hacker. She is on a webcam, interviewing people she knows (in some cases, it seems, people she knows solely from web-based interactions) about the possibility of a hacker hijacking her webcam. The film begins with her describing the blinking of the LED indicator light next to the webcam, which has made her fear that someone might be watching her. Although, fear may not be the most accurate word. More curious than afraid.

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Dear Hacker is not really a documentary about a hacker. It is only tangentially about hacking. In essence, it is a film about the internet as an inhuman medium, yet one which draws humans closer—kind of, in just the communicative sense.

Depicted as a series of Zoom conversations between Lenay and her friends, discussions range about the likelihood of remote voyeurism in her case. But the conversations often return to the dividing wall that is the screen. For some of these people, they are not speaking to a person; they are speaking to a microphone embedded in a laptop monitor. By the midpoint of the film, the interview subjects may as well be answering an essay prompt on a philosophy midterm.

The film talks a lot, circling this idea of technological barriers to connection, but it says very little. The concept, initially intriguing due to its framing, is in need of elaboration. The film attempts to take a more metaphysical approach to the technology which defines our daily lives, which only allows it to scratch the surface of its topic.

Lenay more or less addresses this near the film’s conclusion. She wants the film to be shaped by her interview subjects and their philosophies. But they essentially come to the same conclusion: the computer screen is an entity, a filter, an obstacle separating us in the same instance that it pulls us together.

In the contemporary internet age, none of this seems particularly novel. We may have felt this strange contradiction more strongly in the past year or so, but it has always been that way. Technology, since at least the advent of the printing press but likely further back still, has shrunk the world while maintaining the vastness of geographical divide—it has made use feel closer, but intangibly so. If this notion fascinates you on a fundamental level, this hour-long doc may sing for you. I found it slightly lacking.

Dear Hacker is screening as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs from Aug. 5 to Aug. 25.

Dear Hacker: C+


As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)

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