Counterproductive is the result of the postgraduate theses and research work of Ravin Raori and Yuqing Liu at the Interactive Architecture Lab, The Bartlett, UCL. The film is shot and produced in London in the United Kingdom. The work reflects on the state of AI driven technology and classification algorithms. It adopts a dystopian vision of an uncertain future by exploring the idea of gendered oppression in algorithms.
Fleur Clark is a woman in her mid-twenties, who lives alone in a world where gender determines social dynamics. The differential treatment of women in public and private settings is visibly demonstrated in the daily interactions of people. Fleur is eager to succeed professionally in this world and works hard to achieve her ambitions. Her best friends are her AI powered smart-home assistants. These assistants, who take the form of a smart kettle, toaster and lamp, are manufactured by a company called HomeTech. Fleur is lonely, but finds comfort in the company of her robot friends. Her loneliness resonates with the loneliness of other women in this world.
LA Indies spoke to Ravin Raori, the producer of Counterproductive.
What was the inspiration behind the making of "Counterproductive"?
I’m an architect and an interaction designer. The film ‘Counterproductive’ is the culmination of my postgraduate studies at the Interactive Architecture Lab at The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. I have written, co-produced and created this film with my project partner Yuqing Liu and the film is directed by fellow Bartlett researcher Eva Tisnikar. The film was supervised by Jessica In, Kevin Walker and Ruairi Glynn, with technical support from Michael Wagner and Sandra Ciampone. The inspiration for the film stems from a desire to explore the impacts of AI powered technology on society. There is an ever-increasing dependence on AI in our daily lives. Every piece of ‘smart’ technology that we use today, can be understood as an algorithm or a series of algorithms that allow these machines to make decisions for us. My postgraduate thesis research is interested in the consequences of the biases in these algorithms. As we co-inhabit the world with these technologies, we need to understand how their algorithms work and to what extent they are able to affect our lives. The film investigates the algorithm as a human creation, questioning its perceived neutrality. Biases in algorithms take several forms and manifest in different ways. Our work focuses on biases in training and classification data, how this data is transferred to specific contexts, and the consequences of this, specifically on gender identity and dynamics. Our research found an increasing dependency on algorithms which sort and classify people. This classification is assumed to be objective. Our resulting film is a metaphorical extrapolation of the consequences of this assumption, when living with AI-powered devices has become normalized. We built the devices which serve as characters in the film, and which ‘act’ in real-time during the film. The idea to make a film also stemmed from re-evaluating our position as artists during a pandemic. Initially, we wanted to exhibit these devices as a live installation, so that people may be able to interact with them and understand first hand, some of these problems. However, with the constraints of a global pandemic, this was no longer a possibility. As a result, film as a form of narrative driven media seemed to be the most effective way to communicate some of these ideas and reach a wide enough audience.
What were some of the challenges of making the film?
As a first-time filmmaker, producer and creator, most aspects of the world of filmmaking were completely alien to me. I think the biggest challenge was not knowing the scope of endeavour it would need to become. All things considered, I think filming the exterior scenes of the film were probably one of the most interesting set of challenges. The film was shot in London in the month of November 2020 during a nation-wide COVID-19 lockdown. Some of these challenges included getting permission to film in certain locations, talking to the appropriate councils involved, making sure we had conducted adequate forms of risk assessment, not only for COVID-19 but also the general safety of the cast and crew. Further challenges included ensuring continuity, script supervision and lighting, as well as getting permission to be able to use a haze machine in public. Lastly, as a producer and postgraduate student, one of the things I struggled with initially was being able to manage my time and balance the administrative and production efforts of the film with my design development and theoretical research. Overall, I would say we managed to overcome these challenges as a team, with an incredible amount of support from our supervisors and tutors at the Interactive Architecture Lab.
When did you realize that you wanted to make films and what was the first film project that you created?
As mentioned before, this was my first foray into the world of filmmaking and the desire for it stemmed from the need to be able to communicate my work as an artist effectively, during the constraints and challenges faced by being in the midst of a global pandemic. Having made this film, I feel that I have gained a diverse set of skills and expertise due to the nature of the roles I had to adopt as a creator on this film. I am excited to continue on this path of expression and have started developing my next film project.
Which directors have been influential in your work and why?
Amongst others, I would say both Christopher Nolan and Stanley Kubrick have been influential in my work as an artist. For Christopher Nolan, I would say that I’ve been particularly interested in his deployment of temporal narrative structures as an active tool in storytelling, especially in films like ‘Memento’. I also feel inspired by his ambition toward creating tactile physical experiences for his audience rather than a reliance on computer generated graphics (which do of course, have their own place). This was one of the reasons me and my project partner developed the props in the film as robots that react and respond in real time. This also allowed us to give the actor a more natural environment to explore her relationship with them and I think it really comes alive in the final film. One can feel the sense of a real friendship between her and the devices. For Stanley Kubrick, I would say I was really inspired by his style of cinematography and framing, i.e. the relationship between subject and context in each shot.
What genre of filmmaking do you like to work on?
I really enjoyed the short format and would like to continue to make more short films in the future. I’m fascinated with the dystopian genre. The film ‘Her’ by Spike Jonze was also a huge inspiration for this film. I am interested in continuing to explore film through this line of inquiry. I like writing stories that touch on social issues through the otherwise ordinary experiences of a central character, within the context of the world they live in. I think the film ‘Her’ does this really well and we tried to do it in some ways for ‘Counterproductive’. I would like to continue doing experiments in the dystopian genre, focusing on designing dystopias that are not too far from our own reality. I find this especially fruitful. By changing the rules of our world slightly, the viewer is still able to draw parallels between the world of a film and their own reality. I believe this creates a wonderful ground for exploration of social issues.
What is the most challenging aspect of making an independent film?
I would say being able to manage production within a set budget, especially as a first-time filmmaker. Further, to ensure a good quality of production within that budget, leaving no stones unturned. Additionally being able to manage the sheer size of endeavour it becomes, in terms of the people involved, the equipment, locations, food, transport etc. without any prior experience in the field. Lastly, being able to do all these things within the constraints of a global crisis. However, I would say that I feel blessed to have received the generosity of the art-community and the people involved in the making of this film. It was wonderful being able to see the passion of all the people that became a part of this film come to the fore. The film’s success can be attributed to all of the people that put in an incredible amount of effort in its making. It is as much their effort as it is mine. I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and everyone one of them.
What is your plan for further distribution of your film?
The plan for now is to do the film festival circuit in Europe, Asia and North America during the year 2021. Hopefully, the film gets the attention we aspire to achieve and a good number of people can have access to it. With a lot of festivals going online this year, the numbers of people being able to attend them has been increasing. Eventually, once we have achieved this goal, we would like to release the film online, either late this year or in the year 2022 using a suitable streaming service.
How can cinema change the world and have an impact on society?
As mentioned earlier, I think cinema as a form of media is resistant to a global crisis such as the one we find ourselves in. It is largely still accessible from the comfort of our homes, even though we can’t physically go to a cinema as we would like. I think that in itself is incredibly powerful and speaks volumes about its ability as an engaging form of media. As long as we can make films safely, we can continue to spread our messages and raise awareness toward the issues and problems we are interested in. Art has the ability to touch people’s lives and it is our responsibility to use it for the betterment of our world.
What is your next film project?
Although I am currently spending the majority of my time promoting ‘Counterproductive’, I do have a few ideas. I am currently working on a screenplay, tentatively titled ‘Elevators’ and hope to have it written out over the next month. Once the screenplay is complete, I will take it out to the world, with the hope that it can be the next short film I am a part of.
Why do you make films and what draws you to the language of cinema and directing?
I am drawn to films because I like telling stories. As an artist, I try and communicate my work by rooting it in narrative. Additionally, I believe that narrative is often times born out of the subjective experience of physical interaction with a live piece of art. Since we live in a time where that physical and tactile experience has been taken away from us, it becomes necessary to find ways to communicate our ideas in a manner that can continue to create that resonance. I think the language of cinema and art direction are able to achieve this through the craft of narrative structures, character arcs and worldmaking.