The “helper robot” character is a science fiction staple. From the likes of Rosie on the Jetsons to the darker, more existential realms of HAL in Kubrick’s 2001, we have often envisioned cinematic futures where robot servants are commonplace. Director Courtney Marsh’s ZARI is another entry into this very specific canon. Like Ruairi Robinson’s Blinky before it, this short takes an established science fiction trope and manages to infuse it with some new (artificial) life.
The basic story is one that actually feels quite familiar (robot attempts to “feel”), but the storytelling itself is quite innovative. To be more specific, Marsh really manages to put the viewer into the central robot’s point of view by utilizing a diverse set of cinematic tools. From precise shot composition to nuanced sound design to a defined edit style, ZARI is a measured and restrained film. Ironically, it’s this film’s detached style—its technological coldness—that makes it all the more heartbreaking. The humans in the film (all of which, should be noted, are essentially background elements) clearly don’t care about their little housekeeping-bot. So, the film seems to be challenging the audience to do the opposite. This isn’t to say that ZARI is emotionally manipulative. Rather, it’s the opposite—a story that evokes empathy via a completely hands-off approach. The fact that it succeeds in this mission is truly a testament to director Marsh’s vision and skill as a filmmaker.
Slow moving and nearly dialogue free, ZARI isn’t the type of film we often feature on Short of the Week. After all, as curators for an online environment, we tend to be very cognizant of pace when viewing films. I won’t make excuses. This is a patient film—perhaps too patient for your average online viewer (there will be desire to scrub ahead). But, still, we were quite taken with what Marsh was attempting to do here. The methodical pace is essential to the overarching point. It’s vital that the film slowly builds, patiently laying out character with nothing more than the depiction of the robot’s mundane tasks. And, thus, small moments take on great significance. For a science fiction film—a genre that is often populated with whiz-bang special effects—ZARI is refreshingly lo-fi (apart, obviously, from the impressive practical production design). It’s an incredibly human story—which, I realize, is an oxymoronic statement considering the central players are a robot and a golden retriever. If anything, ZARI is a film of contradictions: cold, yet emotional; human, yet artificial.
Communicating via e-mail, Marsh explains her cinematic motivations: “In late 2011, I had to travel home to Florida because my dog was dying. As I sat there, he on my lap, his life slipping away, unable to speak to one another, there was a silent connection I couldn’t shake. Something that transcended communication, something that brought us to the same level of being. This was also around the time when Apple’s SIRI had just been introduced and I wondered if one day, when artificial intelligence advances to become part of our household, alongside our pets, what will our relationship to it be like? Will household robots have an inner world of their own? And if they do, will we be able to notice?”
It’s a cinematic “what-if” that Marsh explores with an impeccable sense of craft. Shot on actual film, the project is given a natural grain that prevents it from ever feeling too crisp, too shiny. This isn’t some sterile, glossy futuristic vision—rather it feels like a plausible evolution of current technology with just a few more advancements. In what is perhaps its greatest achievement, ZARI is a film that might actually make you want to give your Roomba a hug.
Marsh is currently hard at work promoting her next project—Chau, beyond the lines—a documentary that follows the life of a teenager who grew up in a camp for kids disabled by Agent Orange but dreams of someday becoming a professional artist and clothing designer. The film is slated to have a brief theatrical run in Los Angeles before screening at several film festivals across the world. Be sure to keep up with both this film and rest of director Courtney Marsh’s work via her website.