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DOC NYC 2019: “In Bright Axiom” Film Review

Premiering at the Doc NYC festival on November 7 is Spencer McCall’s new documentary, “In Bright Axiom,” a film that covers an alternate-reality game which offers participants the ability to join a secret society.

The Latitude Society, based out of San Francisco, aims to rebuild society by separating themselves from worldly traditions. By offering healthy, constructive experiences, the society can help members develop habits that can be used as a better foundation for a new culture.

Members are recruited by invitation only, sent into the city streets on a labyrinthine hunt for clues — a test of one’s ingenuity and resolve. After reading the Latitude’s main fable and confronting a virtual disembodied head at an arcade machine (I swear, I’m not making any of this up), the new blood is now free to fraternize in this underground world.

Much of what the Latitude is or represents remains amorphous. Their strongest tenet, absolute discretion, is a fancy term for keeping the group and its discoveries a secret. And yet, a documentarian follows them around. The irony can be so much, one almost drowns in it.

At one moment, members of the Latitude share what drew them to this event. At another, an Elder dramatizes an odyssey over sea and land based on the group’s mythology. Occasionally, a symbol will form, bleeping and booping over a black and white picture of past groups of the Latitude.

The documentary covers substantial ground, but by presenting itself as secretive and amorphous as the group, it leads to an often chaotic, confusing result.

What also doesn’t help is that for all the emphasis on spreading revelatory information and keeping secrets, the documentary presents the Latitude’s activities with the depth of a country club. Sure, it would be fun to drink wine, dance, meditate and make art, but I can do all of these things in the comfort of my home. Without the talking heads telling me about how the group gives them an outlet to explore their weirdness in a way they feel they can’t in the real world, I wouldn’t really have a clue as to why anyone would join this.

In Bright Axiom

Nonchalance, the company behind the Latitude, makes live-action social networks through high-immersion narrative gameplay. “The Institute,” McCall’s 2013 documentary, details the story behind their 2008-2011 project, The Jejune Institute: a blend of cult lore, mystery and science-fiction — more specifically, a mystery about a girl named Eva and her father, who’s allegedly developed an algorithm to end human conflict.

“In Bright Axiom” addresses the business side of this venture, as The Latitude’s players butt heads with its creators over rule changes that wall the previously free-to-play game behind a membership fee. For a game whose strengths come from escapism and highly-detailed immersion into a strange, new world, how can its players reconcile this with the ever-so-sobering reminder that they need to pay for the fun? The movie addresses elements from this question, but I wish it would delve deeper.

Ultimately, “In Bright Axiom” is a look into our subconscious obsession with storytelling and escapism. To what degree are we willing to surrender our everyday lives to the pursuit of fantasy, of a world and community we can shape as our own? In a world where technology seems to be making us citizens of a wealth of realities — some augmented, some virtual — where will live-action experiments like the Latitude fall? I’d like to say the answers are here, but this documentary feels more like a conversation starter than a thesis. Perhaps we’ll learn more in the next game.

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