Review: Last Year in Utopia
by Héctor Llanos Martínez
- The documentary by German directors Jana Magdalena Keuchel and Katharina Knust uses experimental theatre to reveal the story behind an ambitious yet failing reality TV show
The German directors Jana Magdalena Keuchel and Katharina Knust use experimental theatre to reconstruct the rise and fall of one of the most ambitious reality TV shows in the history of television in their documentary Last Year in Utopia, which recently competed at Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival CPH:DOX.
The film tells the story of Newtopia, the adaptation of a successful Dutch program broadcast on German screens in 2015, with was hotly anticipated. A year after its cancellation and the numerous controversies that accompanied its production, some of the competitors return, in this film, to the forest where the show was filmed. The initial premise of the reality TV show was to bring together a group of 15 people, isolated in the middle of nature, to build their own society from scratch. Everything was to take place in front of the cameras, which recorded every movement without any apparent external intervention.
But real life is never interesting enough to meet the daily needs of television. And the producers of the program almost immediately tried to influence the behaviour and decisions of some of the participants, almost wishing it was them instead living in the manufactured utopia.
In Last Year in Utopia six of those competitors walk through the ruins of what was once their home, torn between the nostalgia of the dream life they had tried to build for themselves and the bitterness of knowing that the rules of the game were not respected. The directors use actors dressed in white, almost like alter egos of each of the participants, to accompany them on their return to the forest. These alter egos act out some of the most significant moments of their experience in front of the former competitors themselves, who act as assistant directors in the dramatisations. These direct memories of their experience during the weeks on the island release the emotions of the former participants and make it easier for them to expose themselves in front of the camera. The documentary thus becomes a reality inside a reality, almost like a game of Russian dolls.
The component of forced coexistence and isolation of these Big Brother style competitions inevitably has something in common with the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Huis Clos. That's why many of them, as was the case for Newtopia, are sold as sociological experiments. There's something about the concept, in spite of what critics may think, and that's what this film demonstrates. Keuchel and Knust choose to use their compatriot Bertolt Brecht to round off the idea. The set where the actors reconstruct some of the moments experienced while on the show consists of a few white lines drawn on the floor and some simple furniture. The austere scenography is reminiscent of the playwright and was also used by Lars von Trier in his films Dogville [+see also:
film profile] (2003) and Manderlay [+see also:
film profile] (2005).
Last Year in Utopia was produced by the German outfit Werkleitz eV and participated in the 2018 edition of Berlinale Talents.
(Translated from Spanish)
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