Social media has been prevalent in our lives for more than a decade, although it feels like filmmakers are only now getting the hang of telling stories about how we exist online without succumbing to cheap moralising. This may be because a new wave of filmmakers who actively use and understand different social media platforms are telling these stories, and are innately aware of how they work, uninterested in telling a story for the sake of online scaremongering. So far in 2021, we’ve seen the festival premiere of Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, an unsettling depiction of how our pop culture tastes inform digital identities and the way we navigate online spaces, taking an anthropological look at our online habits without wringing its hands about the potentially dehumanising effects. 

Photo © Courtesy of Natalia Łączyńska & New Europe Film Sales

A similar approach is taken by writer/director Magnus von Horn in his sophomore feature Sweat, which follows three days in the life of an Instagram fitness influencer. It’s a story about how spending too much time in manufactured digital spaces can emotionally detach us from reality, but it never comes across as a moralising PSA; instead, it’s a fascinating study on the near impossibility of reconciling your true identity with a carefully curated one for your online followers. It unsurprisingly makes for uncomfortable viewing. The real surprise is that it’s the rare film about our current cultural obsession with social media that feels like it could transcend the moment, its depiction of a woman’s emotional detachment having reached a certain level of celebrity likely to still resonate even when we no longer constantly check our Instagram feeds.

Sylwia Zajac (Magdalena Kolesnik) is a well known Instagram influencer in Poland, with 600,000 people watching her every move, and she has all the celebrity that comes with it; TV and magazine appearances, her own fitness DVD, and live appearances in shopping malls where crowds gather for the chance to work out with her. We’re introduced to her in a moment of crisis, as the night before her big public appearance a teary confessional where she expressed her sadness at being single went viral, threatening her carefully calibrated image. At first, she just shrugs it off as being honest with her followers, but there are more secrets she’s hiding as she presents her perfect life, from a family relationship that’s grown distant, to the threat of a stalker lingering outside her apartment.

Photo © Courtesy of Natalia Łączyńska & New Europe Film Sales

Magdalena Kolesnik’s lead performance is an early contender for the year’s best; there’s an eeriness to the way she plays a woman who is only able to communicate with others through the facade of her online persona. When we finally see her camera-facing confessional, where she discusses her loneliness at greater depth, it feels like a glitch in her finely tuned algorithm of fitness and diet advice; a woman unable to reconcile her true emotions for the sake of remaining a popular figure who can please a wealth of online fans and just as many advertisers. What is more revealing is the suggestion she struggles to comprehend any social situation that isn’t pre-arranged for the cameras. In one sequence, she bumps into an old school friend, finding herself unable to emote as she is told about a recent tragedy – chillingly, the scene ends with the two women taking a bright eyed selfie, the only time Sylwia is able to engage during their coffee catch-up. It contrasts sharply with her earlier meet and greet, turning a crying woman’s tale of how her videos inspired her into a wider moment of empowerment. When the cameras are off, she is unable to do the same.

Photo © Courtesy of Natalia Łączyńska & New Europe Film Sales 

It’s to Magnus von Horn’s credit that the film never veers into exploitation, despite working with highly charged subject matter. A subplot involving Sylwia’s stalker, who turns up outside her apartment building to masturbate, eventually reveals itself to have more to say about the way in which women are perceived by male strangers online than initially appears, calling attention to a pattern of entitled behaviour towards women in the public eye that doesn’t begin and end with its criminal offenders. And there’s depth to the film whenever it veers into the exclusively offline relationships too. Sylwia’s relationship with her family is written almost exclusively between the lines, but is nevertheless a candid portrait of a strained mother/daughter relationship that adds deeper context to the wider social media drama. Her mother’s coldness, and seeming disinterest in her daughter’s success, gives the impression that Sylwia’s fame was merely an attempt to obtain a parental approval that has forever eluded her. 

Sweat is one of the strongest films yet made about life in the social media bubble, interrogating how it affects real-world identities and relationships without resorting to lazy moralising. It’s also one of the rare few that will resonate with the terminally offline too.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Written by Alistair Ryder

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

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