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Natalia Almada's "Users": Sundance Winner Doc about Hyper Tech Life

Staring into the future: Natalia Almada's son faces the screen in "Users" / Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.

Staring into the future: Natalia Almada's son faces the screen in "Users" / Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.

Natalia Almada's "Users" finally opens on June 9, 2023, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York and June 16 at the Laemmle Glendale in Los Angeles. Back in 2021, the movie earned her the Best Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival. If you are lucky enough to live there, book your tickets now. "Users" is an epic essay film in the tradition of Godfrey Reggio's "Quatsi" trilogy and Ron Fricke's "Baraka" (1992) and "Samsara" (2011), but speaking of the most intimate, pressing issues of our times. This is the real deal if you want to see an indie movie that feels relevant and necessary.

After giving birth to her two boys, Almada began interrogating how technology was changing life around her and how it would shape the world her kids inherit. Her ideas blaze across the screen in fascinating images, beautifully edited to the strains of an original score performed by the Kronos quartet.

The first image is one of Almada's babies, rocked to sleep on a "smart" crib. In everyday life, screens surround us as we pillage and transform the natural world. But how are all these changes transforming us? We spoke with Almada - appropriately via Zoom - from her home base in San Francisco, CA.

Making "Users": a Family Affair

Popflick: Do you have a defense articulated in case your children complain about you filming them for this movie when they are grown up?

Natalia Almada: It is a strong, ethical question: when can you film your children? There was a clear line for me because my children are acting here, in a way. Except for a single shot, where Elias is giving his first steps, they were aware we were making a movie together. It’s not that we are shooting them in their daily life, and we are using them. I think that’s a very important difference. Some other people film and shoot their kids in other ways, and I don’t mean they are necessarily wrong about it. But I do feel it’s an important difference.

Little man, what now?: the future awaits in "Users" / Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.

Little man, what now?: the future awaits in "Users" / Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.

Popflick: This movie feels like a family enterprise. Your children appear on camera. Your husband, David Cerf, is the Cinematographer, and your brother-in-law, Bennet Cerf, is the composer. Is it harder or easier to work with family?

Natalia Almada: I had just had a baby when we began, on top of a little 2-year-old, so it would have been very difficult to make this film in another context. I’m very grateful for how we could work as a family and for the time we spent together shooting since it was so much fun. Everybody who worked with us was very flexible. It would not have been possible to make it any other way. I avoided the conflict of abandoning my children to go to work. I was able to do everything at the same time, and I loved it. It has its difficulties, but David and Bennett brought special things to the movie, particularly who they are and where they come from.

"Users" at the Heart of the Tech Revolution

Popflick: Where did the original idea for "Users" come from?

Natalia Almada: It’s a combination of things. We live in San Francisco most of the year. It is ground zero for technology. David’s father is one of the inventors of the internet, so our family is deeply rooted in tech. Once we had kids, two things happened. First, I contemplated the future very differently, imagining how it would be for them. I can’t articulate how my thinking changed, but it did. And the second thing is that many things about being a mother were not very interesting to me. What diapers to buy? What carriage to get? It stressed me a bit. All these logistical choices related to maternity did not interest me too much! I rather fantasize. What if instead of a traditional crib, we get a smart crib? What would it do? How would it make a difference?

Popflick: Making an essay film like this one, what comes first? The ideas or the images? What was your process like making this movie?

Natalia Almada: The way I work is I shoot a little, then I edit. Then, I write and shoot some more. It’s like sculpting, building bit by bit. The root idea is solid but can change as the movie manifests itself.

Nature is watching: an owl looks upon "Users" / Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.

Nature is watching: an owl looks upon "Users" / Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.

Popflick: The movie has fascinating images. I was alarmed during the sequence that takes us through a forest on fire. Were you always there when they were shooting?

Natalia Almada: Yes. For the worst part of the forest fire, we went with a news still photographer who knew how to get around and work at an event like this, which permission to apply to. Bennet went afterward to get some extra footage. Some other images Bennet got on his own for logistical reasons, like the airplane cabin. Sometimes, it was the two of us, Dave with a camera assistant or a sound guy. At the most, we would be a five-person team.

I care a lot about the image. I care about the experience of the movie as something aesthetic and visceral. For me, cinema brings us ideas. These are tools to say something. I care about what I say, and I care so much that I will say it in a way that moves you.

Popflick: When you use these impactful, eye-opening images, you might risk taking the viewer out of the movie’s discourse. Can we get distracted by wondering who you shot it? Or is this just a movie-critic problem?

Natalia Almada: Somebody who makes or thinks about film might wonder how we got some images, but I’m not against that. The movie is ambiguous in the real sense of ambiguity. Its point of view about technology is that it’s incredible what we can imagine and achieve as human beings. But then, there is also this dangerous side. We can’t quite fathom what could happen and its negative consequences. That’s what the movie says, more than saying something is good or bad. It says we have to think about it. In all my movies, I care a lot about the image. I care about the experience of the movie as something aesthetic and visceral. For me, cinema brings us ideas. These are tools to say something. I care about what I say, and I care so much that I will say it in a way that moves you.

Popflick: There is a sequence in a sound booth where you record your voice and give verbal permission for use in a simulator. That alerted me to the possibility of listening to a virtual voice without knowing it!

Natalia Almada: That’s my biggest doubt about the movie. I’ve been thinking a lot about the sound mix. In a movie theater, it’s clearer when you hear the real voice and when it’s artificial, and it’s not just because of manipulation. It depends on which speaker produces it. You can tell the difference easier in a theater, as opposed to using headphones or watching it at home. You might not notice it there, but the artificial voice always speaks from the future about the present. It only happens twice. It is very subtle, so you might not notice it.

Just connect!: commerce still moves the world around in "Users"  / Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.

Just connect!: commerce still moves the world around in "Users" / Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.

Popflick: After finishing the movie, are you more or less anxious about the future your children will inhabit?

Natalia Almada: I feel pretty much the same! But I’m amazed at the advances happening since we finished the movie. The virtual voice was still developing back then, and now it is the easiest thing to do. In a way, I think "Users" might be more relevant now, which is good. I hope it keeps being relevant. I’ve thought a lot about this feeling that everything will be known thanks to artificial intelligence. Everything will be solved. We will not have anything left to discover or understand. I feel we are far from it! If anything, I hope the machines help us with really necessary things, like a cure for cancer.

"Users" of the Future to Come 

Popflick: The WGA strike has brought to the forefront the use of AI in creative endeavors. Do you think it is a threat to artists?

Natalia Almada: As I say in the movie, we must think about it a lot! On one hand, in this documentary, we get to think about how images function. Now that people are watching it, what do they know, and when do they know if an image is real or artificial? Our faith in images will change. Our sense of what an image is, not just in films but also in photography as a historical record. I started teaching this year at Stanford. One day, a Med student approached me and said she wanted to switch to art because that would be necessary in a machine-dominated future. You’ll have a medical device capable of almost everything at home and will only go sporadically to the doctor. She was very optimistic about art, our need for human touch, and I’m not so sure…

Popoflick: Did you try to dissuade her? Steer her back to medicine?

Natalia Almada: I’m unsure if she’s right, but it was nice to hear her. I question myself a lot. We keep hearing this discourse about A.I. and art, but maybe it’s because I don’t actually use it. I have friends playing around with A.I. tools to see what can be done. They make very interesting stuff.

Popflick: You said in an interview that you identify as a bi-cultural person, Mexican-American, but that your cinema is definitely Mexican. Yet, "Users" feel like the point of view of a citizen of the world. Are you striving for a more universal point of view?

Natalia Almada: It’s more like I have an identity crisis! Sometimes, I feel obligated to make Mexican cinema precisely because I’m half Mexican, half gringa. Sometimes, you limit yourself. Can I only make very Mexican and local cinema? Don’t I have the right to talk about other things? It’s not about universality but about themes, going further, more abstract. I’ve done films about migration, about violence. I made a movie about a cemetery in Culiacán - “The Night Watchman” (2011) -. That’s very specific, but those movies speak of bigger things; I thought about working differently. I feel like I did not limit myself while making “Users.” Do you know the only reason why the movie is in English?

Popflick: Why?

Natalia Almada: Back when we were shooting, they could not make the artificial voice in Spanish.

Popflick: Your previous movie was “Everything Else” (2016), a fiction film. Do you see yourself going back to fiction? Did it change your way of making films?

Natalia Almada: It changed me a lot. All my fears were gone. I am not afraid anymore about production scale or control. I loved that aspect of fiction filmmaking. I did not like having such a narrow, concentrated window to shoot. I’d rather shoot for a few days, go away to edit, and shoot some more. I’ve been thinking a lot about this format of film essay. We live in a time of dislocation, in the sense of not knowing how I am in my present. Am I with you through this screen? Am I worried about something happening on the other side of the world? We have a constant invasion of not just information but of contacts and relationships. It all contributes to dislocating you and leaves you wondering where you are.

We are keen on looking at the bright side. It’s awesome that we can keep in contact with people so you don’t lose connection. We can still communicate in a way that feels intimate. But on the other hand, how does it affect your present? Maybe you are still relating to your immediate, physical space similarly. Perhaps you are not. I think about this a lot, seeing my students at Stanford. They come from faraway places, and they are saturated with the lives they had back home while trying to pursue a life here. It was not like that when I went to college. You left for two years, and that was that. You were gone. It is not possible in any way anymore. I want to make a cinema that reflects this in its form, which goes against direct cinema. Something not so linear in structure, not so concentrated towards an ending.

Update: Icarus Films has released a 5 DVD box set with "Users" (2021), "Everything Else" (2016), "The Night Watchman" (2011), "El General" (2009), "To The Other Side" (2005), and "All Water Has a Perfect Memory" (2001).

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