Game on – and on, and on

Living with, and documenting, 4 J'lem gamers was a powerful life lesson for filmmaker Gal Fridman.

Gamers: Working Title 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Ofek Gilboa)
Gamers: Working Title 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Ofek Gilboa)
The subjects of Gal Fridman’s second documentary, Gamers: Working Title, are all young, brilliant and could easily be making a lot of money in hi-tech jobs, in fact, most of them had at one point. They could just as easily be academic stars; each holds degrees in several subjects no average student would even think of tackling simultaneously, such as math, biology or computer science.
Instead, they dedicate their lives to playing games.
Eyal Spitzer, for example, holds graduate degrees in biology and neuroscience and is also a self-taught programmer. In the past he worked as a consultant to a company developing computer games.
Uri Peleg has five graduate degrees, including in math, physics and psychology.
Both say they have tried in the past to live a normal life with a 9-5 job, but just didn’t enjoy it.
FRIDMAN WAS a third-year art student at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design when she was accepted to a student exchange program in Dresden, Germany.
When she arrived, she was told she could not sign on to third-year courses and was welcome, at most, to work in the school’s studios. So she made a decision to leave Dresden. She took a bicycle, a backpack and a video camera and started touring Germany. That’s where she may have found her calling as a filmmaker.
Her first film documents the lives of people living in old vans which they had converted to houses. Many of the vans were no longer mobile, and the residents are squatters to a certain extent, although some are connected to the city grid and pay for their electricity and gas.
Wagenburg, German for “wagon city,” is made up of the interviews Fridman conducted during her travels around Germany.
During her fourth year at Bezalel, back in Israel, Fridman moved in with four roommates living in a sprawling Jerusalem home. For her final project at the academy, she decided to document the way of life of the villa’s tenants – the gamers.
THE GAMERS’ house is an independent economic unit: the roommates play for a living and share their expenses. All roommates share expenses to a certain extent, but the gamers actually maintain a shared budget, like a mini-kibbutz. Some are living on money saved when they were still employed, others earn their keep via online computer games.
The gamers are so extreme they refer to any of the things needed in order to enable the gaming experience to continue under the collective (and derogatory) heading of “real life.” Thus buying milk, going to the dentist, even sitting in a café – are all “real life,” and for the gamers, a necessary evil only useful in that they allow one to continue “living” in the games on-screen.
The movie is funny in many respects, especially thanks to Spitzer’s razor-sharp wit, and although it is evident that these people are not leading healthy lives, Gamers: Working Title is unsettling to watch not because of that, but because the film questions the viewers’ own way of life.
Fridman’s camera is a witness, not a judge. By simply presenting the subject, viewers are left questioning the validity of their own choices, and whether the dictates of society have any real substance or are entirely arbitrary.
A significant amount of the footage was taken by a bank of webcams stationed around the house and fitted with motion sensors. In this way, Fridman got hours and hours of raw footage of the gamers in their natural environment, ignoring the cameras and just being themselves. The graininess of the webcam footage pulls the viewer into the gamers’ view of the world.
In one scene, the window of a Gmail chat session is seen not in the corner a computer screen, but embedded in the film itself, blurring the boundary between “real life” and what – to the gamers – is the only life worth living.
Gamers: Working Title was recently accepted for entry in DocAviv’s student film category, and Fridman is now also looking to show it at festivals around the world. It was warmly received at its premiere at the Bezalel graduates’ exhibition in July 2012, earning praise from several well-known artists and curators. The film is expected to show for a month as part of a group exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in September.
Ahead of the screening at DocAviv, Fridman answered some questions for The Jerusalem Post.
Why is the film called Gamers: Working Title? Shouldn’t it just be Gamers?
The way I envision it, ‘working title’ is actually part of the movie’s name. I use ‘working title’ to signify that the phenomenon of gamers is still viewed in Israel as unusual and weird. If you ask the gamers, they are the normal ones and everyone else will be like them in the not-very-distant future. So in that sense ‘working title’ means a phenomenon which is now defined as ephemeral but may very well become permanent.
You are obviously different to the gamers. How did you get along with them?
Well, when I started living there I didn’t even have my own computer, and when Spitzer upgraded his smartphone he gave me his old iPhone so that I could more easily communicate with them.
You see, most of the communication inside the house is done digitally. It is not unusual for two of the roommates to communicate through chat or SMS, even when they’re both at home. This allows them to minimize time away from the screen and their game.... Mostly we got along well. We lived our lives according to our own way and no one criticized anyone else’s choices.
How did you get to live with people so different from you in the first place?
I met the gamers through chess tournaments, a ‘real life’ game that the gamers and I enjoy. While I was still in Europe, they suggested I move in with them after I came back, and they were willing to give me a discount on the rent if I cooked for them (I love cooking!). So I did! Can you say what you have learned, personally, from this experience? I learned mostly to stick to my dreams and ambitions regardless of what society tells me, as these people do every day of their lives. I learned also to accept the different-ness of people and the need to be attentive and patient to people leading lives drastically different to your own.
These people tried to live a normal life and it didn’t fit them. Their way of life is a choice, not a mental illness or an escape from the world, as some people tend to think. They choose an alternative way of life and stick to it despite a lot of criticism, which really is not justified since they hurt no one by their choices. I think it takes a lot of guts to swim against the current of what society dictates and after living with the gamers, I believe there’s a lot to be learned from them.
There are some funny monologues in the film, especially when the camera shifts from Spitzer to Peleg and we can see how both react to the same questions...
Ofek Gilboa, the editor, came up with many excellent ideas during the editing process. We had a very good connection as a team and I learned a lot from him. It was quite early in the making of the film that we became partners in its creation.
Are you working on your next project already?
I started a screenwriting course and am working on my next film. It will be a feature this time.
Gamers: Working Title will be screened at the DocAviv Festival in Tel Aviv on Thursday, May 2 at 10 a.m.