Until very recently, the closest I had ever come to viewing a documentary was watching a 4 minute clip of “Titicut Follies,” a 1967 documentary about the horrors of mental institutions, on Youtube. The clip was more enthralling than a piece of 47-year-old film (replete with the telltale crackle of primitive sound tech) had any right to be, and it completely changed my perceptions of documentary filmmaking.
When I sat down to watch Kevin Kunze’s “Mobilize” several days later, my newfound interest in documentary filmmaking shattered faster than an iPhone screen hitting pavement.
Kunze’s “Mobilize” (2014) is a smartly titled documentary about cell phone radiation. Deep within the iPhones and Androids and occasional flip-phones we’ve all got pocketed is a lurking danger — made even more terrifying by the notion that the cell industry knows, and is actively campaigning to keep consumers unaware. There’s certainly interesting details in Kunze’s documentary: longitudinal studies of heavy cell phone users show increased risk of cancers near where people use their phones the most, children’s brains absorb more radiation than do those of adults – yet companies like Fisher Price market products for their tiny hands to play with smartphones, and (my personal favourite) President Obama appointed the former CEO of a prominent cell industry group to lead the FCC – a questionable choice, asking an ex-industry bigwig to regulate the companies he used to work for.
With so many interesting morsels of information, it’s a shame that so much of it is muddled by Kunze’s constant narration. Whereas the aforementioned “Follies” ingeniously dropped viewers into an argument between two men with no context at all, forcing them to engage with the action onscreen and work to draw their own conclusions, “Mobilize” tugs the story along with a plodding, one-sided conversation that no one asked to be a part of.
It’s no fun being babied through a story one can follow along on one’s own, especially when the ceaseless voice-of-God narration style draws an 84-minute-long film into what seems like twice the length. Why not cut half the narration and use only what absolutely needs to be said to clarify and tie the film together?
Kunze features a plethora of prominent and eloquent speakers on both sides: Steve Wozniak and a delightfully sleazy snakeoil salesman-cum-PR guy for CITA representing Team #cellphonesaretotallysafewepromise versus prominent SF politicians Mark Leno, Gavin Newsom and Eric Mar, independent political darling Dennis Kucinich, 9 or so Doctors of various scientific know-how, AND famed DJ Steve Aoki discussing the dangers of cell phones. So many heads with so much information to share should’ve been allowed the chance to joust, so to speak, unadulterated by excess commentary.
A particularly confusing bit of commentary surrounds celebrities who are paid to do cell phone commercials, suggesting that they are partly at fault for promoting dangerous products. Ok, sure, celebrities are definitely kind of capitalist puppets, but introducing that tangent largely out of nowhere and during a second half of the documentary that was otherwise quite strong just muddles the previous arguments. What happened to blaming the cell phone industry for buying studies to spin as “inconclusive research” and shoveling money into lobbyists pockets any time dastardly politicians try to regulate their products? If the point was that the government and industry alike aren’t doing enough to protect their citizens/consumers, why not stick to strengthening that completely valid argument instead?
Yes, Kunze’s documentary got me thinking harder about how much time I spend on my phone and what that might mean for my future. No less than five times since I viewed his film have I caught my phone too close to my face and whipped it away, terrified of the eventual repercussions. I’ve spoken to at least three people about how crazy it is that iPhone manuals are hazardous but no one knows that (a fact mentioned in Kunze’s film), and have strongly considered ditching my phone-under-pillow morning alarm system in favour of something less likely to kill me – but I haven’t once recommended that anyone watch “Mobilize.” Nor do I intend to.
I wanted to like it, I did. I love any medium of information that sets out to make serious changes regarding serious problems. I like learning of things I’ve never heard, and otherwise may never really have paid attention to. But I’m going to abide by the same harm reduction principle the film exalts and say that if anyone wants to learn about cell phone radiation, there’s probably a more interesting way out there. I could even easily have forgiven the cheesy ‘90s graphics, the occasional grating sound quality (most unforgivable during Steve Wozniak’s interview, a very important one) and inconsistencies in audio volume throughout the piece — if a film at least has some heart to match the drive I’ll forgive the blemishes.
“Mobilize,” however, suffers from a micromanaging directorial technique that seems to place concept and presentation above allowing the actual content to shine. That’s extremely detrimental, especially to someone like myself with little interest in documentaries but a strong desire to learn. I wouldn’t wish this film on anyone interested in delving into the dangers of cell phone radiation, but I would scour the Internet to find an episode of 60 Minutes or something, perhaps a nice multimedia New York Times piece to educate them better (and faster).
I’d even consider pointing interested parties to the “Mobilize” website so they could find further reading on the topic, and learn some facts without having to watch the actual movie …but there aren’t any external sources or further reading present on it.
1.5 stars out of 4.
If you insist, you can view “Mobilize” next on
Wednesday, December 17th @ Koret Auditorium / SFPL
(100 Larkin St, San Francisco)