Watching the Detectives ★★★½


One of the year's best experimental films isn't going to be screened in some of the usual places, so aficionados are going to have to keep a special eye out for it (or hell, you could try contacting its maker, in a pinch). A crowdsourced documentary of pseudo-facts and innuendo made possible by our very own best friend The Internet, Chris Kennedy's Watching the Detectives ought to be screening all over the place. It's exactly the sort of film that programmers claim they want. It's rigorous, intelligent, formally accomplished, and it engages with recent history in order to illuminate a contemporary political conundrum.

Watching the Detectives is composed entirely of Reddit posts that hit a couple of designated groups in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. After a few text exchanges that range from distraught to flippant, the real "action" begins. A collection of self-appointed Redditor web-dicks started pouring over police and traffic-cam photos from the bombing site, trying to identify who they thought the killers might be. Anyone in the crowd with a backpack, not watching the runners, or (of course) with brown skin, was a person of interest in the Court of Reddit.

Of course, these "see something, say something" super-sleuths got everything wrong, first suspecting anyone with a black Jansport backpack, then letting suspicion fall on missing college student Sunil Tripathi (who was later confirmed as a suicide), and then finally lighting on the Tsarnaev brothers once the actual cops had closed the net around them. Kennedy charts this collective misadventure in sequence, giving us a compressed version of the real-time hysteria of an Internet mob deputizing itself.

The film itself maintains a brisk rhythm without sacrificing the necessary time for analysis. And it's so replete with text, photos, captions, and charts, that you very quickly forget you're watching a silent film. Kennedy wisely adopts the visual-only mode of dominant Internet practice to make the work progress like a slow-building anxiety attack. Screened in 16mm, the gentle flow of the celluloid's river of dust and scratches aids in the sense of motility. Watching the Detectives is a film that moves rather propulsively, even though you're unlikely to notice it.

And so, why isn't Kennedy's film being more widely shown? Well, it's early yet, and I have faith that it will wend its way through the festival circuit in the months to come. Still, it's such an accomplished work, and it couldn't be more relevant if it tried. Just this week, in the (generally laudible) frenzy to identify the scumbags at the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, a mistake was made. Kyle Quinn of Arkansas was nowhere near that march, but one of the human sacks of blotation looked just enough like him to produce an Internet-vigilante mismatch. So the question remains. Who's watching the detectives?