FANTASIA 2021 REVIEW: ‘Dear Hacker’ (2021) is a Thoughtful Thinkpiece on Technology

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
A young woman with brunette hair, as seen through a computer screen. She is smiling and her hands are in front of her face.
Image courtesy of UniFrance

Most people probably wouldn’t give too much thought to their webcam light turning on for no apparent reason, much less make a documentary about it that is part of Fantasia’s lineup this year. Yet this strange occurrence is exactly what French filmmaker Alice Lenay has chosen to center her debut film Dear Hacker on. While interrogating the inner workings of technology may seem like a mundane subject to pursue, it is one Lenay approaches with fascination and curiosity. She believes that this blinking light is the result of someone — or something — taking up residence within her camera: a technological parasite or some kind of supernatural being. Lenay attempts to get this entity to manifest again in the hopes of understanding the purpose of its presence.

Dear Hacker feels like it could only be made in this day and age, at a time when the world is more reliant on screens than ever. From text messages to Zoom calls, technology has seamlessly integrated itself into everyday life — especially over the past year and a half.The notion that at any given moment an unknown virtual entity could become a silent onlooker upon one’s private space is unnerving. After Lenay notices her webcam’s odd activity, she conducts video conversations about it with several friends. Everyone she talks to has their own theories and approaches as they become involved in her investigation of the topic, and she ultimately finds herself with more questions than answers. But over the course of the film’s hour-long runtime, her attempt to unravel the mystery that surrounds this strange blinking dot gradually becomes something more profound.

A man with dark hair, a moustache and beard, and glasses shown through a computer screen. His hand is in front of the camera in extreme close-up as he examines something.
Image courtesy of UniFrance

While Lenay frames her quest to discover the identity of the intruder within her camera as the film’s initial focus, this becomes secondary to examining the role technology plays in her day-to-day life. During a conversation with her friend Robin, he raises an existential question:  are they really talking to one another during these supposed conversations that are shown to be taking place? Or are their exchanges in fact artificial, merely facilitated through the perceptions they have formed based on what their computer screens tell them? “But I think it’s interesting to interrogate these images from inside, from the heart of the object I’m interested in,” Lenay says to Robin at one point. The experience of watching Dear Hacker adds yet another level of meta-reflexivity to this idea, since the viewer interrogates the film’s images as seen through a screen on a screen. Is the unedited footage Lenay presents here really as authentic as it appears, or has its very medium turned it into a facsimile of the truth?

Lenay takes an entirely virtual approach to filmmaking, generating her content solely through screen-recorded videos rather than bringing the camera into the physical world. Candid conversations and acknowledgments of technical issues that arise throughout also contribute to its authenticity. At times she references the fact she is filming her participants; however, this is not to prompt them to respond to her questions in a certain way, but merely to reinforce their awareness of the act. The film’s intimate nature also makes it easy for the viewer to feel as if they are in the room with Lenay, or perhaps more accurately, inside the screen themselves. Despite its bizarre premise, Dear Hacker is surprisingly introspective, encouraging its audience to think about the transgressive nature of technology — and the silent mediation that occurs even when supposedly alone.

Dir: Alice Lenay

Prod: LLUM, Don Quichotte Films

Release date: 2021