The unquestionable stand-out of this year’s Sci-Fi London was Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here, an original, inventive and engagingly cryptic film that is left wide open to interpretation. Billed as a ‘meta-detective story’, it is a non-narrative, abstract meditation on the processes of the mind that is intellectually stimulating, as well as charming and playful.
It starts with a lecture in which the speaker tells the audience ‘You are here’, before explaining that the self exists in time and in solitude. Next, a voice-over narration explains that the crowd of people we see on the screen is called ‘Alan’. ‘Alan’ picks up a red ball and almost gets hit by a taxi. Although ‘Alan’ avoids being killed, he feels that ‘something has already gone wrong’. ‘Alan’, represented by a multitude of characters of both genders and various ethnic backgrounds, goes through his day and performs his daily tasks, but cannot log into his computer at work because he’s forgotten his password. He sees a door high up on a building, which does not lead anywhere, and wonders what its purpose is.
Another sequence of the puzzle shows people in an office controlling agents out on the streets, charting their movements in a bizarrely pointless activity that they all take very seriously. Elsewhere, a man invents a prosthetic eye that allows blind people to see, but it turns out that he has a sinister agenda. In another strand, a woman has built an archive of documents - tapes, videos, photos, etc. - that she has found by accident. One of these is a videotape that shows a man in a room in some sort of institutional facility; we later learn that he is a scientist performing an experiment. Locked up in a room, he has to translate and respond to sheets of Chinese characters that appear under the door, without knowing a word of Chinese, and with only the help of a multi-volume reference book. We are told that the experiment is meant to represent the way the brain works.
In the end, the various situations set up during the film unravel: ‘Alan’ falls out of the door that opens on nothing; the woman’s archive starts re-ordering itself and she decides to give it up; two street agents find themselves in the same place, which is not supposed to happen. Neatly concluding the situations set up at the beginning, the film culminates in death and disorder.
As noted by Chris Chang in Film Comment, the reference to John Searle at the end of the film gives some indication of the ideas behind it. An American philosopher interested in the workings of language and the mind, Searle devised an experiment called the ‘Chinese room’. The point of the experiment was to show that a computer can use language without actually understanding it. Literally representing that experiment and placing it at the heart of the film, Cockburn investigates the way in which the human brain perceives, pictures and orders the world around it, including its own self. The various surreal and seemingly absurd activities performed by the characters may be representations of the way the brain works, including processing information, mapping out one’s surroundings, and remembering things and events. Alternatively, the characters could represent computer processes - albeit those of an archaic and inefficient machine. All the situations construct systems of information storage that gradually become overloaded, leading to their destruction, which may be a comment on our world made in an oblique and deliberately low-tech form (see the enormous mobile phones used by the street agents). There is certainly a subdued sense of disquiet running through the film, which comes from the collapse of the systems, but also from the creepiness and paranoid feel of some of the stories, including the street agents, the eye inventor and the brain experimenter.
The film has many layers and their relationships are complex, with characters from one strand appearing in other stories: the scientist in the Chinese room experiment appears in the archivist’s story; she herself appears in the street agents’ story; and while the lecturer who opens the film seems to have a framing role, he later returns ‘inside’ the film, with a trio of kids turning the camera on him while he films the very images of the ocean that we have seen him use in his initial lecture. As we watch the film, our own brain is perceptibly working to organise and understand what it is seeing, so that You Are Here also leads us to dive into our own consciousness and become aware of its processes. It is a tremendously rich experience, invigorating and joyous as well as unsettling and thought-provoking, and, when the consciousness we have seen at work throughout the film dies out at the end, a surprisingly moving one too.