November 6, 2023
Cameras are ubiquitous, and they have a bigger impact on our lives than we think. In their documentary ‘And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine’, Swedish filmmakers Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck tackle the theme playfully.
About 45 billion cameras in the world. 500 hours of new content every minute on YouTube and other social media. 300 million photos published every day. These are just a few of the hallucinatory figures presented in the Swedish documentary ‘And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine’.
For an hour and a half, directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck touch on all kinds of facets of that remarkable phenomenon. How has the technology grown? What does it do to a person to constantly see images of other lives? How authentic is the reality they depict? And above all: what should happen next?
- ‘And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine’ is a Swedish documentary. Directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck reconstruct the historical relationship between man and camera.
- Through fragments, the film underlines the immense impact of visual culture on our lives. A recurring theme is the importance of appearances and illusion.
- The film generally gives form priority over content, but the clips are so well chosen that you remain fascinated.
“We are part of a collective of directors,” Danielson said at the Berlinale film festival. ‘It’s called Platform. Ruben Östlund (‘The Square’) is also included. We all collaborate on each other’s projects. The film grew from our shared passion for this subject. We had been sending each other videos and clips that we thought were worthwhile for more than ten years, and they were often about the impact of the camera on human behavior and on society in general.’
Appearance and reality
The result is an easily digestible documentary about an important subject. She often leaves the many questions she asks open. You will receive a skillfully edited sequence of video fragments accompanied by individual facts and observations. Not very deep, but certainly interesting enough to keep your attention.
The strange title refers to the British king Edward VII. When he saw the film footage of his coronation in 1902, he was deeply impressed, but not in the way you might expect. The famous French director Georges Méliès was commissioned to capture the ceremony. But because the British government denied him access, Méliès shot his own version in advance with actors. Which prompted Edward VII to say: ‘What a fantastic machine the camera is! She even managed to film parts of the ceremony that never happened.”
Appearance and reality, that is often what the documentary is about. The Lumière brothers saw the camera as a scientific instrument that had to record reality, but it did not take long before others saw the possibilities to bend reality to their will. Sometimes innocent (like the fairy tales and tricks that Méliès put together), later much more sneaky and malicious.
At one point in the film we see a group of Arab young people trying to make a video. Everything goes wrong: the bird of prey they brought with them keeps screeching, the main actor constantly forgets his lines, and the others can hardly contain their laughter. It’s a funny mess, but you’re watching IS fighters recording a propaganda video.
“The great thing about the machine is that it can represent things exactly as they are,” says Danielson. ‘At the same time, you should never forget that there is always a reality next to the edge of the image. And that there is always someone behind the camera with certain intentions.’
If we want to avoid becoming easy victims of propaganda, it is essential that we get as much context and perspective as possible and that we learn to see all aspects of an image. Training plays a crucial role in this, the directors say, and we are failing terribly in that area.
We learn to read and write at school, but almost nothing happens around audiovisual media, even though we live in a society where images have much more weight than text.
Maximilien Van Aertryck
‘At school we learn to read and write, deal critically with texts, and even produce different types of texts,’ Van Aertryck emphasizes. ‘But almost nothing happens around audiovisual media, even though we live in a society where images have much more weight than text. Axel and I closely follow the debate about media literacy in Sweden, and no one seems to know how best to approach it. Not the teachers, not the scientists and not the politicians. However, it is high time we put our heads together.’
Trailer of the documentary ‘And the Kind Said, What a Fantastic Machine’.
“Last year, the first conference on the theme took place in Sweden in October,” says Danielson. ‘Someone from the social media company Meta was also present there. When someone asked him how the company is working on media literacy, his answer was that it is just waiting for regulations and trying to make money in the meantime. We cannot leave control to that handful of big tech companies, even if they boast their own ethics committee. The issue is far too important for that. Our democracy depends on it. We, the citizens, must decide what to do with this fantastic machine.’
‘And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine’ plays in cinemas from this week.