presenting outsiders without interrogating drives ends up fizzling, but the flatness makes it effective.
-by Jak Ritger
I was really excited for “TFW NO GF”. The documentary debut from Alex Lee Moyer was set to be a context shifting portrait of the open wound that is inceldom. Using the Wojak meme, a cartoon white-faced, blank staring, dispossessed young man, as a frame the film set out to dig into the conditions of members of a 4Chan message board community called /R9K. The only rule of this message board is that posts must always be new, never reposts or old content. This created a market of one-upmanship doom-posting. Since no one can replicate the anonymous hell you are living through these personal accounts became the gamified vertical of the board: the more depressed, abject, disgusting, or taboo your post was the more terrible response you would get thus making you feel something. The Wojak meme is product of this game, a manifestation of the desensitization and internalized plotlessness created by this community.
With /R9K and Wojak as the backdrop, we move into a devirtualization of the meme through human avatars of isolation. We follow four prolific twitter profiles through their day-to-day lives. We are introduced to the terminology they use to describe themselves, NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training), and the behaviors that form habitual internet addiction: smoking, drinking, scrolling, wallowing. The film then pivots from infamous shit-posters, to chronicling the musings of KANTBOT, debased tweeter and reactionary/hoaxer podcast host of TEKWARS.
The reason I was excited for this film was that I felt a massive blindspot in the media coverage of this world: everything fell into the political valence of “incels are a racist death cult converting the young into murders” or “young white men are being targeted by hateful ‘progressives’ and made to feel dispossessed”. Without playing into both-siderism or providing coverage for truly damaging antisocial networks, I cautiously looked forward to something that promised to break this binary and offer a new POV: a critical look at a seemingly little understood subject. Unfortunately, the film failed to deliver on this promise. Moyer did not press her subjects to defend terrible positions or to offer specific stories of the demoralizing lack of mentorship. All we got we’re the expected “it’s all satire”, and the reoccurring story of broken family destitution. Half-way through I realized that the film was not going to pivot to something more revealing, just tediously replay the same scenarios over and over again. It’s not that I needed the film to take a wider, macro-societal look at the issues uncovered, this POV is already so prevalent in media, but the core mission of empathizing with the films subjects (something that I was interested in doing) was left uncompleted as the controversial beliefs swirling at the center of this community were left unchallenged. Instead the director opted to let the surface nihilism expressed over and over again become the through line. Nothing new to see here folks.
A good comparator in terms of filmmaking strategy (but not skill or execution) would be 2016 profile of Jullian Assange by Laura Poitras: Risk The film catalogs the inside of Assange’s world with unprecedented access, challenging compositions, and prescient ideas of freedom, security and surveillance. Assange, like the subjects in TFW NO GF, is seen as a hero/martyr by some and evil/criminal by others. Poitras did not shy away from this dichotomy, instead she dives into the complication of platforming such a charged voice. We are left with a devastatingly human portrayal of a complicated, sometimes misguided, idealistic, deeply pessimistic and crucially powerful figure. We are forced to confront our own biases and allegiances throughout. Assange fans are forced to reckon with his wrongdoing, critics must acknowledge his bravery in the face of terrifying global structures, and the filmmaker herself must come to terms with her own role in the production of the film. The effectiveness of the project is born from deep questioning and resulting revelations. The lesson of Risk is honesty: make your subject look like shit to win over critics. In TFW NO GF no such investigation takes place, no layers pealed back and no dark corners exposed. Moyer’s film reads like a corporate sizzle reel in comparison, taking the coolest shots, most self-aggrandizing pathos stories, and bloomer turn-it-all-around angles to create a document that functions as a game piece in online meta-discussions. After digging into the film’s producers it becomes more clear as to why TFW NO GF fell short in illuminating.
Contrary to my criticism, the films shortcomings as a formal documentary will make it a more effective piece of viral media under platform economics. It is unchallenging, it gives you an inside look into a novel subculture thus making you feel in the know, and it helps reify your viewpoint. If you thought incels were objectionable losers, the film has plenty for you to characterize as hateful misogynistic behavior. If you sympathize with massively online young men, this film provides plenty of moral agency to bring into your next debate. If you are like me, and find 95% of Netflix / Amazon straight-to-streaming content to be utterly devoid of new ideas and filled to the brim with aesthetic filler than you will be disappointed to find le epic drone shots where you would want revealing silences or unanswered questions to be. For those interested in how online life is changing reality I would suggest diving into radically more vulnerable documentaries such as: We Live in Public (2019), Life 2.0 (2010), InRealLife (2013), Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016), People’s Republic of Desire (2018)