In the film, which reminds you of the interactive Netflix film Bandersnatch, the viewers are confronted with all kinds of dilemmas in the life of protagonist Robin. In most cases, these decisions relate to ethical dilemmas created by new technological developments. “Technologies that are already available, or which are just around the corner. We’re not talking science fiction here,” emphasises De Mey. Last month, ROBIN simultaneously premiered at four different locations during the Night of Science. The entire cinema was allowed to decide on Robin’s fate.
Robin (who can be either male or female – depending on your choices in the film) has to decide whether he/she wants a human judge or a computer to rule on a particular case. When Robin decides to become a scientist, he/she can decide to publish – or shelve – a paper about a super-fertiliser that can also be used as a poison gas. Each choice has consequences for the course of Robin’s life or for his/her surroundings.
ROBIN’s producer Stefan Heijdendael involved De Mey in the film from a very early stage. “My daughter wanted to organise a mini-festival about philosophy at her school,” explains Heijdendael. “And she’s a fan of Tim de Mey’s work. She really enjoyed his book Het voordeel van de twijfel (‘Benefit of the Doubt’). So I said, ‘why don’t you invite him?’”
The power of dilemma's
So she did. De Mey presented the motley collection of parents and pupils with a variety of ethical dilemmas. “All of a sudden, all these people who never give a second thought to philosophy where engrossed in a discussion of, for example, the trolley problem. This made me aware of the power of dilemmas,” says a smiling Heijdendael. This idea would become the germ of a new, interactive film.
It only took six months – and tons of work – to develop the idea from initial concept to premiere. Going through each of ROBIN’s scenarios yields a total of 90 minutes of animated film – about the same time length as an average Disney film. “And we wanted to avoid viewers ending up in loops, so you keep watching the same fragments of film – the way you get in the interactive Netflix film Bandersnatch. Each of your choices yields its own, unique storyline. It was a massive undertaking,” says Heijdendael. To get the job done in six months, the animators at Public Cinema decided to use a ‘concept art’ style. De Mey: “This style, which omits many details, actually suits the content quite well. We want to get the viewer thinking, and it works the same as in literature: if something isn’t spelled in detail, your start picturing it in your mind instead.”
They gave careful thought to the dilemmas. “To start, we didn’t want to tell people a load of nonsense, so it had to be correct in scientific terms. But we were also aiming for dilemmas in which responses would split more or less evenly down the middle,” says De Mey. They couldn’t even out the odds altogether though: in most cases, audiences voted 60%-40% in favour of a specific option. “It was a bit of a shock when it turned out during the premiere that all four cities had made the same choices,” admits Heijdendael. “But on closer inspection, we did see that the ratio differences were quite small.”
Tim de Mey played an important role in fine-tuning these choices: “I was asked to hone and simplify them without sacrificing their layered quality.” And he did a good job, according to Heijdendael. “The scientists I’ve spoken with were pleasantly surprised by the dilemmas we included.”
The decisions the viewers are faced with can be quite challenging. “In a number of dilemmas, both choices actually turn out wrong,” reveals Heijendael. De Mey: “Nevertheless, we hope that by the end of the film, people still feel optimistic about the future.”
You can watch the film yourself (and make your own life-changing decisions for Robin) at robindefilm.nl.