Film

Fellini Forward conjures the work of the dead director in a work disturbingly attuned to the contemporary moment. By Anthony Carew.

Fellini Forward

A scene from Fellini Forward, a film created with the help of artificial intelligence.
Credit: Campari

Fellini Forward may be the definitive film of 2021: not because it’s a trenchant work of cinema, but because it’s so attuned to the contemporary moment it borders on satire. For some, it will be a fascinating vision of the future; for others, a nightmare exemplar of zombie cinema.

This picture product has two different titles: Fellini Forward: The Creative Genius of Federico Fellini, which is how it’s billed in the Italian Film Festival program; and Campari Presents: Fellini Forward, the title it bears within the film, with product placed front and centre.

Fellini Forward is at its core pure sponsored content or sponcon, burnishing its alcohol-shilling producers as great patrons of the arts. Fitting into Campari’s lineage of “artistic innovation”, it’s staged as a grand experiment on the frontier of artificial intelligence.

Commercial directors Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper watch as another commercial director, Maximilian Niemann, helms a cinematic cyber séance. The filmography of the legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, who died in 1993, is fed into a computer in the hope that, with the stewardship and curatorship of a human production team, it will turn out a short movie in Fellini’s style and spirit. As the algorithm suggests story ideas, dialogue, structure and shot composition, the question is whether it can identify the qualities of Fellini’s cinema and turn out something “Felliniesque”.

“Felliniesque” is said so often in the film that it, too, feels like a work of branding, as Fellini’s artistic output is data mined for its most recognisable and saleable signifiers. This experiment is really an elaborate exercise in fan fiction and cosplay, with an artist’s visual style worn like a wardrobe. But the exercise suggests a dark future in which works such as this will move past apeing dead filmmakers to suggesting that they’re somehow new works by them. The talk of extracting the “creative DNA” of Fellini sets off “playing God” alarms. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, these liqueur peddlers are so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Dystopian fearmongering is mocked by one of the project’s consultants, Marcus du Sautoy, a British mathematician who wrote the book The Creativity Code: Art and Innovation in the Age of AI. “Hollywood loves to frame the story of AI as a dystopic one, where our species gets wiped out at the end of the story,” he says. Given how limited and task-specific machine-learning currently is, such Terminator/Matrix realities are far-fetched. But AI dystopias are not summoned only by Hollywood thrillers.

Australian journalist Yaara Bou Melhem’s documentary Unseen Skies, screening at the Sydney Film Festival, chronicles American artist Trevor Paglen, whose artworks are explorations of state/corporate surveillance. His 2019 piece, From Apple to Anomaly, shows the limits of feeding datasets to an AI program. When presented with Magritte’s painting Ceci n’est pas une pomme, recognition software identifies it not as a painting of an apple, but an apple itself, offering an ironic juxtaposition with the painting’s title, “This is not an apple”.

In Unseen Skies, Bou Melhem and Paglen burrow down to the ideological notions underpinning the rise of biometric data and surveillance capitalism. As with Shalini Kantayya’s eye-opening 2020 documentary Coded Bias, it explores how supposedly “neutral” neural networks are structured with judgements and prejudices.

These questions do come up in Fellini Forward, largely voiced by Dr Emily L. Spratt, an American art historian and data scientist. She challenges the idea of taking emotional cues from facial expressions and wonders about the ethical responsibilities of using automatic tools in artmaking, the ramifications for the notions of authorship and whether this process clips “the wings of imagination”. Spratt connects this experiment and its nascent technologies to a bigger picture. “One of the concerns for the use of AI in creative pursuits,” she says, “is the implication that will have on the mass production of culture.”

These queries are never really addressed or answered; perhaps they’re too big to be contained in this work of brand-building. “Who made this movie?” Niemann asks earnestly. It’s a question that has no easy answer, but that we have no time to ponder. The title Fellini Forward suggests the impetus of the project, which hurries along as the realities of budget and deadline outweigh philosophical deliberation.

Niemann oversees a team of AI thinkers (du Sautoy, Spratt), former Fellini collaborators (cinematographer Blasco Giurato, production designer Dante Ferretti) and brand stewards (Campari “creatives”, Fellini’s niece/heir Francesca Fabbri Fellini). “It was like creating the team from Money Heist to look into the genius of Fellini,” he jokes, as the assembled squad meets at the “AI Research & Development Lab”, a high-tech meeting room of glass and flat screens that is clearly a purpose-built set.

The newcomers offer enthusiasm, the old-timers offer scepticism and fear.

“It scares me a lot,” Giurato says, “that a machine can come into my world and visualise what I can visualise”.

As we barrel through the AI-powered process of “data extraction”, scriptwriting and “previsualisation”, we’re pushing on past those pesky unanswerable questions to the grand reveal of the experiment.

The short film turns out to be exactly the sum of its influences. A Felliniesque figure named Federico follows a mysterious woman and ends up in a carnivalesque land where reality, myth, dream and imagination mingle, before we end up in a bar that serves Campari. Giurato marvels that it’s like the “synthesis of [Fellini’s] 8 ½ and The Clowns”, but that underlines a greater point: what’s going on here is more remix than revolution, not tapping into the spirit of Fellini so much as mimicking his existing movies.

It’s easy to dismiss Fellini Forward as an advertorial undertaking, an artwork “in the style of” as opposed to “from the mind of”. But it also seems a harbinger of films to come, with future features destined to be written by robots. Given the Star Wars universe’s love of bringing actors back from the dead and shameless fan service, it doesn’t seem unlikely that there’ll be an instalment from a galaxy far, far away that’s authored by an AI.

Although it’s a snappy piece of cute content, just 45 minutes in total, Fellini Forward serves as a fertile conversation starter. Its innovative, problematic project summons big questions about artistic output, narrative authorship, content ownership, digital dystopia and surveillance capitalism. It doesn’t really address them, but leaves them with you as a takeaway, hoping that you’ll go off and talk about it. Perhaps over a drink of some kind? 

The Italian Film Festival is showing in different cities through November and December. The Sydney Film Festival is showing November 3 to 21.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 30, 2021 as "Ghost in the machine".

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Anthony Carew is a Melbourne-based critic