It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam’s quirky film Web Junkie. It seems almost ludicrous that scores of young people are being sent to bootcamps (now over 400 in existence) to teach them order and discipline simply because they are hardcore gamers. One boy, sitting on the edge of his bed in floods of tears, is asked what on earth he did. “I went to an Internet café”, he blubs. For all the nuttiness however, there is a deeper and fundamental question about what drives these youngsters into such obsessive gaming: lack of parenting, an overstimulating society, inadequate schooling, the seduction of simply having fun – undoubtedly many factors play a part.
Talking to these kids however, largely made up of 16 year-olds boys, the directors tease out a cavernous anger they feel towards the world around them. The virtual world is more real to them, more caring and considerate, more understanding of their need to interact online. And yet, while the documentary frames this window into a peculiar world and presents it as slightly surreal, it never really looks at the dynamic entrenching the phenomena. For instance, there is no discussion around the operational management of the camps – how heavily involved is the government or the wider healthcare profession? The clinical staff seem to just make it up as they go along. Can we assume that these youngsters genuinely need to be diagnosed and prescribed to or is this all part of a larger extension of control and dominance asserted by the Chinese government?
What’s truly alarming is how these teens, once inside these camps, are essentially militarised. They recite choral hymns on obedience and service, march around like infantry and are constantly subject to drills at dawn. Can this be the method by which their addiction to the Internet is subdued: the so-called “electronic heroin” the psychiatric staff are ready to fight off? One boy claims that “reality is too fake” – you’d certainly crystallise that view if this was the reality you were now subjected to.
Purely as a result of the absurdity of what we’re witness to, Web Junkie is a hypnotic insight into the ivy-like grip the Internet has over a generation, but equally the very same grip that the government has. This documentary should become properly political and posit questions that are necessary to excavate the nature of this craze; only then will questions be asked acutely enough to generate prevalent action over the State and its impotence to keep these kids off their left-click drug.