For someone who had directed only documentaries thus far, Henry Alex Rubin has manged to create a very human and genuine first feature that’s both thought-provoking and full of and heart. Disconnect is an up-close and in-depth look at various forms of social media, and how we use the internet to draw us all closer together, while also examining how it can be abused to drive us further apart. It features a brilliant, all-star ensemble cast, including Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Alexander Skarsgard, Max Thieriot, Paula Patton, Frank Grillo, Michael Nyqvist, Andrea Riseborough and many more.
Several separate and distinct stories at first appear to be completely unrelated, but which all slowly weave together in this film to become a complete tapestry that explores the way people relate to one another in this very technological age. Disconnect covers a myriad of subjects that have been ripped from today’s headlines. There are strangers bonding in chatrooms, online gambling as a way to deal with grief and loneliness, identity theft victims turned vigilantes, an intimate Facebook friendship between two people when one is not at all who they’re pretending to be, cyber bullying, teen suicide, the online sex trade involving youth and large sums of money, and so on.
This film explores how people seem to be less and less comfortable dealing with one another face to face. A wife can have a connection with an online stranger that is, in some ways, stronger and more intimate than the one she shares with her spouse. Kids can text and email one another – even someone they’ve never met – much more honestly than they can be with their own families. And yet, now more than ever before, just turning on a computer or a cell phone can often expose us and backfire on us far more dangerously than can in-person contact.
There’s a line in the film about how the media are the ones exploiting people, rather than the people behind, say, an online sex ring involving minors. I think what Disconnect shows us, however, is that human beings tend to exploit others when we remove ourselves from other human contact. It’s much easier to say harsh things to a computer screen than it is to hurt the feelings of the person standing right in front of you, for example. On the flip side, it’s also easier to be more open and honest when you feel like no one is watching; like no one can see you. In that sense, the internet has made it easier for people to be themselves, or to experiment with who they may be, though it’s without the safety net of internal editing much of the time.
What Disconnect shows us very well is how our ability to expose ourselves online can indeed make the world feel much smaller, but it is also very much a cautionary tale about just being careful, and not instantly trusting the face you can’t see, especially not over the faces that you can. Don’t exist so fully in the cyber world that you forget who you are in the physical world. They need not be mutually exclusive, either. Disconnect is about people struggling to find the balance – to find themselves between the bytes – and to discover that which they hold most dear and to hang onto it. In its most basic form, really, Disconnect is about remembering how to connect.
Disconnect is screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival Sunday, September 16, 2012 at 9:15am