In the years following any artist’s speculation about the future, it becomes clear that what his predictions really reveal most about is the time in which the predictions were made. The present, with its apocalyptic visions of a primitive future—seen in The Road, the sixth section in Cloud Atlas, Michael Haneke’s Time Of The Wolf—lead one to observe a backlash against the technology-soaked present.
This idea of a backlash against technological development was foremost in mind as I watched Brooklynite filmmaker Ben Dickinson’s debut feature First Winter, at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film is about a group of yoga-loving twentysomethings trapped without modern amenities at an Upstate retreat after an apocalyptic event. They must resort to a primitive existence to survive: making fires for warmth, rationing food, hunting deer. Through this ordeal, they still have quotidian arguments and desires that no one would find unfamiliar— sexual jealousy, greed for resources. One of the striking things about the film is how it depicts young people remaining very much themselves while living a technology-free existence. Does our future hold a rebellion against technology, a return to the land, perhaps engineered by the same kinds of people who embrace technology today? The question First Winter poses is, if technology is polluting how we think, will returning to the land be enough?
“I don’t think that this is a problem that can be solved with better design,” Dickinson tells me as I interview him and his producer/actress Lindsay Burdge. “We have this idea —it comes from our obsession with the scientific method—that if we could just design things a little better, things would work better. If Facebook would just turn off every ten minutes, it would be okay. The solutions are always like that—if you could just have this chip that keeps your kids from watching porn, you’ll be okay. If we could just come up with the perfect way to teach, or if the school was just designed better. The conversation in progressivism is always about design—how do we design out our problems?” His voice reaches an impassioned pitch: “But I don’t think we can because the problem is us. The problem is humans and how we interact with each other. In a yoga community, even though you’re removing yourself from the madness of the technological world, the same problems are all there.”
Dickinson and Burdge both went to NYU, and had been living in New York for ten and seven years, respectively, when they were introduced to Heartland, the yoga retreat in Campbell Hall, New York where the film was shot. After graduating from NYU in 2004, Dickinson co-founded Waverly Films, a production company, and cut his teeth directing music videos for The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. Living in Brooklyn, Burdge explains (her in Williamsburg and him in Clinton Hill), she and Dickinson felt like “We were doing as much as we could. We were riding our bikes, we had a garden on our roof, we were going to the co-op. It was basically a moment where it was like, are we going to move to California, or are we going to find some way to make this work?” “I think like we felt like we were spinning in a hamster wheel,” Dickinson adds. “I was making commercials to make money so that I could live here to make more commercials to make more money. Lindsay was producing, and we both had this feeling of, what the fuck are we doing? We came here to make movies.”