Tekst (smal)

Sitges 2023: Victoria Warmerdam on her film I'm Not A Robot

Interview by Nick Cunningham

In Victoria Warmerdam’s new film, when installing updates on her computer a woman is asked to identify first cars, then bridges, then other objects via Captcha, so that her computer can tell she isn’t a robot. But she can’t, and it transpires that she is…

Still: I'm Not a Robot - Victoria Warmerdam

Captcha is that really annoying process that requires clicking on boxes that contain objects and things, such as cars, bicycles or stairs, in order that the computer device or application you are accessing can be sure you are a human and not a robot.

When music exec Lara (played by Ellen Parren who is nominated for a Golden Calf at the Netherlands Film Festival) attempts to identify cars, she fails. Then she tries bridges and fails again. Then chimneys. Same result. But it’s when she calls customer support that the weird stuff really begins to happen. After a series of personal questions, she is soon facing an 87% certainty that she is actually a robot, at which point Lara’s world falls apart as everything she has ever held certain is revealed to be mere fabrication. 

Director Victoria Warmerdam (no relation to her near namesake Alex van) came up with the idea for the film when, one day, she herself hit a Captcha brick wall, and her imagination began to run riot as to the creative possibilities within this scenario. Right away, she could see a very dramatic beginning and ending for a film (no spoilers) and realised that the process of getting “from zero to one hundred” would not only produce highly entertaining results but could be a brilliant technical “exercise” as well. (For the record, Warmerdam isn’t a robot… or so she says).

So how does she describe her film? Is it a comedy? Is it an existentialist drama? Is it a sci-fi? Yes and no, is her response. “It’s somewhere in between, I guess. I think tragedy and comedy, they are really close. I always find humour in the tragic and the other way around. For me, it’ a very thin line. So it's a mixture of drama, black comedy and science fantasy. It isn’t set in a certain ‘other’ time, because I wanted it to be really recognizable. The technology, like the iPhones and the computers, they are from now.”

That said, the look of the film is very distinctive and little other worldly, shot with rich colour saturation on 35mm in a beautiful curve-windowed brutalist block on the other side of the Belgian border. The building reminds us how architects imagined the future 50 years ago.

I’m Not A Robot, produced by OAK Motion Pictures, was shot in May of 2023 after two attempts to shoot during lockdown.

This fact, and the creative decision to use analogue film stock, seemed to deliver higher levels of concentration on set, Warmerdam points out. “Everyone was like, okay, now we're going to shoot on film and we don't want to mess up the film material. But at the same time, it was really hard for me, because I couldn't see much on the monitor. Shooting on film is a whole different process. You have to make the choices very much in that moment instead of in the edits.”

This isn’t the first time that Warmerdam has created a character who is forced to question their own status in the world. The hero of her hilarious 2019 award-winning Short Calf Muscle (played by Henry van Loon, who also plays the boyfriend of Lara in I’m Not A Robot) one day realizes that the whole world believes him to be a gnome. 

Short Calf Muscle and Warmerdam’s 2020 short Mustachio (Dutch title: Snorrie), also produced by OAK Motion Pictures, have amassed a whopping 100+ awards and 60 further nominations at international film festivals over the past four years. It is highly likely that I’m Not A Robot will be adding significantly to this tally.