‘Viral’: Film Review | Hot Docs 2021

In this documentary composed only of YouTube videos, Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein follow seven Gen Z vloggers during an unprecedented year.

To appreciate the roving, sometimes gauche nature of Viral, a new documentary following seven YouTube vloggers in 2020, one must consider its experimental form. Premiering at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the film, directed by Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein, is entirely composed of YouTube videos. This means it is at the mercy of its source material, which privileges authenticity, skews confessional and doesn’t lend itself to an orderly narrative.

Nir and Bornstein specialize in this kind of experimentation. For their previous documentary, #Uploading_Holocaust, the duo scoured the web for videos of Israeli teens who documented their school trips to Poland, where they learned about the Holocaust. The filmmakers’ goal was to witness how a younger generation identified with a visceral historical moment and what that revealed about collective memory and trauma.

With Viral, the pair takes a stab at applying their formal approach to more recent history and a broader range of experiences. The film examines Generation Z and the year 2020, two subjects that could be observed, queried and probed from a number of angles. After all, almost a third of the world’s 7.7 billion people are considered members of Gen Z. They live across the globe, their stories informed by the shifting sociopolitical landscapes of their homes, their varying cultures, their religions, their gender and sexual identities, and so much more.

The year 2020 is a task, too: There were 365 days, each of which, during a time of pandemic and global uprising against anti-Black racism, felt like a year in and of itself. It would be impossible for an 87-minute documentary to engage adequately with all of the relevant material, so while the effort is impressive, Viral wobbles under the weight of its own potential.

The film, which is structured chronologically, begins in December 2019, on the cusp of a new year. Clips of vlogs uploaded during that period appear in quick succession, evoking promises of renewal. We meet our protagonists, YouTube vloggers with different follower counts (presumably tracked to show their growing influence) at this hopeful moment: Jessica Cox (@BB Tequila), a Black single mom and stripper in South Carolina who wants to launch a makeup and beauty business; Cassandra Grimbly (@Cass and Jay), a white South African dancer and singer who joins the entertainment crew of a cruise ship, where she later meets her boyfriend, Jay; Shakir Subhan (@Mallu Traveler), a Malayali Indian who embarks on a solo bike ride from India to Europe; Nathaniel Drew (@Nathaniel Drew), an Argentinian who moves to Paris at the start of the year to, in his words, find himself; Tina Mayer (@Tinie Planet), a white woman who lives in a van and has big plans to travel throughout Europe; Justin Marcus (@Justin Marcus), a gay Afro-Latino New Yorker who dreams of moving to Miami; and Riley Tench (@Riley Tench), a white Alaskan light technician working on a cruise ship in China.

For this crew, 2020 was to be the year of new businesses, new friends, new homes and new adventures. Viral leans heavily on its maudlin score to set up the inevitable emotional disappointment that follows. It needn’t have — viewers, who have lived this history, know better.

News of the novel coronavirus hits our protagonists hard and quickly. In these moments, Nir and Bornstein rely on clips of speeches by various world leaders — from Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson to Donald Trump and Jacinda Ardern — delivering virus news and updated lockdown measures to mark the passage of time. Their jovial and naively assured tones are chilling to hear one year later. The early days of misinformation surrounding the virus, how it spreads and how people should protect themselves — most notably the crusade against masks — feel surreal in retrospect.

Crushed and confused, the seven vloggers try to make sense of the impact the virus and the changing restrictions will have on their lives. Trapped on their respective cruise ships, Cassandra and Riley wrestle with the banality of confinement. Shakir and Tina navigate border closures, optimistic about their ability to continue traveling. Unable to strip anymore, Jessica enthusiastically dives into her business. Nathaniel crosses a follower milestone, but finds that this achievement won’t liberate him from his existential dread. Justin, who remains the most upbeat throughout the film, wonders about his future in New York. All adjust to their constantly fluctuating situations while trying to manage emotional states teetering between cautious joy and total despair.

Summer heightens the psychic and corporeal toll of the virus. Impatience — with the government, with staying inside, with uncertainty — replaces idealism. The Black Lives Matter movement and racial uprisings around the world become the focus of the film, galvanizing Jessica and Justin to protest. Jessica, in particular, takes a moment to open up about the challenges she faces as a Black woman in America and what she will do to protect her son. “Jakai, one day if you’re watching this, know that your mom loves you,” she says at one point, addressing her toddler.

Emotional and intimate moments like these, which illuminate, instead of merely displaying, a vlogger’s life, expose the weakness in the film’s broad scope. With so much ground for the doc to cover, the more interesting personal narrative strands — ones that make viewers feel invested, reveal why someone might be drawn to vlogs or consider the inevitable parasocial relationships formed with subscribers — feel like they are competing against, instead of complementing, national and international headlines.

In that way, Viral embraces Gen Z as its subject without sufficiently regarding the conditions of their world. It treats coronavirus as the event instead of an event that revealed (and continues to reveal) the fault lines of society and the ways governments fail their people. (I would have welcomed more clips acknowledging these institutional failures rather than an extended shot of a Greta Thunberg mural or the instrumental and a cappella interludes.)

Throughout the documentary, many of the vloggers rely on narratives of individualism. They ask themselves how they can make their lives better and what they can do differently. And while these questions matter to some degree, they can also be corrosive, failing to take into account just what kind of world these young adults have inherited.

Venue: Hot Docs
Production companies: gebrueder beetz filmproduktion, Udi V Sagi
Directors: Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein
Producers: Christian Beetz, Udi Nir, Sagi Bornstein
Executive producers: Georg Tschurtschenthaler
Editor: Sagi Bornstein
Music: Nils Kacirek & Milan Meyer-Kaya, Lauterfisch Music
World sales: Dogwoof

87 minutes