A sight that has become all the more common is the video call screen. It’s not just the increased time using any such service over the pandemic, but the emergence of films like Unfriended and Searching, studio productions which were shot entirely over one of these services using computer webcams.
Dear Hacker, the debut film of French artist and Paris 8 University researcher Alice Lenay, also utilises this format. While at times it feels so hyper-real that its easy to conclude that it must be fictional, it is in fact a documentary. The fledgling film maker proves a congenial host and, like her namesake of Lewis Carroll’s seminal novel, enters a rabbit hole much larger than it was expected to be, taking the audience along with her.
Lenay begins by explaining her goal: to work out why the green light on her webcam keeps turning itself on and off. Is it just a glitch? Has she been hacked and someone is spying on her? Or is it something more? To try and find out the truth, she conducts a series of interviews with people who know more about such matters than she does, though Lenay seems to be after more than just tech advice.
It is not made entirely clear what the aims of Dear Hacker are. Lenay raises more questions than her film answers, some of them far-removed from the technology itself. While to begin with she is asking whether or not someone has invaded her privacy and what to do to prevent it, she starts going into more existential territory, trying to determine if what each interviewee believes is wrong is in fact down to their personal beliefs.
Her subjects are given no introduction with which to explain why they are there to talk about the subject, but they all give levels of insight and expertise in a number of areas to qualify themselves. Each do well to answer Lenay’s line of questioning, even though some are visibly dumbstruck by the depth of conversation they have suddenly found themselves in.
Dear Hacker raises some interesting discussion points, namely how computers have changed our personal relationships. When video calling someone instead of communicating with other people, we are talking to cameras and screens, making this supposed personal exchange in fact very impersonal and inhuman. It also touches on how fragile our reliance on technology is when hardware can easily break and connections to the online space can be lost.
In addition to the main topic points, there are also some amusing moments: Lenay striking provocative poses for her potential stalker, a technician calming a fussy client’s concerns over their supposedly malfunctioning computer by putting a cactus on their desk.
The film is barely an hour long but there are some clear pieces of padding, such as background shots of Lenay’s empty apartment and a clip of Brian Cox talking about the universe. Moments like this make it an even more confusing experience, whether or not that is supposed to be the point. If it is exploring the subject of how easily our personal devices can be hacked then it, than it falls short. If in fact it is trying to play with the documentary format and provide a somewhat surrealistic mediation on technology, Dear Hacker succeeds for better and for worse.