Winner of the Audience Award at DOC NYC in 2013, Web is a film about getting disadvantaged children online. It follows the One Laptop per Child program to Peruvian families in remote areas where connectivity is a challenge. One village had about one sink per household (no toilets or showers), one road, no Internet, and only usually electricity. However, because of One Laptop per Child, they now have twelve computers for children.
Director Michael Kleiman doesn’t only show us what life is like in Peru in the Andes Mountains and Amazon Jungle, but occasionally provides insights on the modern western thought process and how this affordable laptop program allows these kids to learn similar to the way wealthy American children do (when they can be on working Internet). Whenever the documentary needs to figure something out, it does so by depicting the modern western thought process. So when the director initially ponders an idea, he follows it to YouTube clips, and then to his email conversations, and then to Amazon to buy the relevant book. He’s mimicking how one finds information with a computer. While doing so is more of a struggle in Peru, we still get to watch a lovely, inquisitive young girl explore the universe of information through Wikipedia. The notion that the Internet connects us all, in ways deeper than just communication, is central to the film.
However, while connectivity is universal, it’s certainly not the same everywhere. The film highlights the dramatic difference between connectivity in downtown Manhattan versus Peruvian villages, which is stark and frustrating. Even more frustrating is the inconsistency of the connectivity for students. One boy no longer has access as a high school student, which must be difficult and tremendously limiting. However while this discrepancy is of interest, it’s not what Kleiman made this documentary.
Most fundamentally, Web is about the juxtaposition of the hyper-connected NYC and the remote, mostly disconnected areas of Peru. In NYC, we see images of streets filled with people on their phones. Everything feels cold and detached. In Peru, everyone’s head is up looking at the people around them. It feels like there’s more empathy for those around you. Two jarring statistics are shown that illustrate this notion: 51% of Americans use at least one social network, while only 19% know most of their neighbors by name. The internet is an amazing thing, and Kleiman is certainly not seeking to get rid of it, but there is an awareness of ways in which their less connected culture benefits from a lack of ubiquitous connectivity.
Overall I found Web to be a little too far-reaching. I didn’t see enough in the Peru story to justify much of the film being about the broader social implications of connectedness. These weren’t minor diversions, but major chunks of the film reflecting on stats or speaking with internet leaders like the founders of One Laptop Per Child and Four Square. It’s certainly of interest and succeeds best when it’s in Peru speaking with children.