It is rare that an Internet movie actually captures the Internet successfully.
Zola is fascinated by the sparkling glow of a mirror. Janicza Bravo’s new film opens with its two protagonists, Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough), in a slanted, reflective room, silently adjusting their appearances. Later, they strut around a gallery of mirrors, reproduced in fragments before disappearing around a corner.
There are many ways to tell a story, Bravo seems to say, with countless players and performances. You are doomed to get lost; to see something real in what is only a reflection.
In one sequence, Zola watches herself in a multi-panel mirror, browsing through costumes as she decides who to be for the evening; in another, she stands with her back to a reflective wall while talking to Stefani, whose face splits, circling her on both sides.
This motif, emphasizing image and deception, is apt for the first film to be adapted from a Twitter thread. Social media is, after all, the place we go to watch competing versions of reality.
In October 2015, A’Ziah ‘Zola’ King tweeted a viral thread about a customer she met while serving as a waitress in Detroit and agreed to accompany her on a trip to earn money. money dancing in Tampa strip clubs. In 148 tweets, King described a much more complicated ordeal than she had imagined, a surprisingly violent odyssey through the belly of Florida.
Now, six years later, it’s the first film to be adapted from a Twitter feed, scripted by Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris. Paige is well represented as the titular Zola, with Keough as a seemingly harmless but not really client Stefani. The main cast is completed by Stefani’s boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and the pimp (Colman Domingo), who join the dancers on their trip.
Fortunately, Zola doesn’t shy away from its online roots. The opening line is the now-iconic opening line from King’s thread: “You all wanna hear a story about why me and that bitch had a fight?” It’s a bit long but full of suspense. The suspense in King’s thread is communicated through capitalization and choice punctuation; in Zola, it is produced more subtly through the image and the atmosphere.
The lingering bounce of a basketball around the edge of a stage, tensely mimicking a heartbeat. A lingering shot of a Confederate flag, warning our protagonist that she will never be entirely safe where she goes. A hotel television showing images of cars stuck in the mud – funny, until the feeling of being sinking sets in.
King’s tweets are sprinkled throughout the film, creating a distinction between how stories are told online and what it feels like to experience them. Refracted through her character on the Internet, Zola becomes a witty spectator of a comic and hellish weekend. But in reality, filmed by cinematographer Ari Wegner’s 16mm hazy camera, Paige’s performance is much more reserved. Sitting silently in the back seats, or with her back turned to an exchange she prefers not to watch, Zola is not having fun.
Because the film adheres so firmly to Zola’s dual modes, the issues beyond her immediate perception are at times unclear. Domingo is fantastic at every turn, but his character’s goals and motivations are never fleshed out enough to get a feel for the true nature or scale of his project. Sometimes the same can be said for Stefani. The opacity of certain actors and their position in the story, unguided by King’s still husky voice, strip certain moments of their impact.
bravo kiss by Zola originated as an Internet artifact without exchanging substance for a gadget.
Zola deserves praise, however, for its rare and successful Internet viewing. He is not trying to live in a smooth, clearly demarcated cyberspace. Instead, we find a fully embodied physical world, entangled in the internet, which informs it, reverberating through the way the characters speak and behave.
See, for example, Stefani’s uncomfortable use of “blaccent” and some slang terms, pointing to the widespread adoption of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in online spaces by non-black users. Or, more innocently, how she declares “I’m dying” in response to a funny video.
The film can be described as “terminally ill” in a way that miraculously, given the speed at which online discourse evolves, never seems dated. The stylistic flairs are all there: the whistling of Tweets and sent messages, the chimes of text merging into Mica Levi’s dazzling score, a montage that moves as if you were browsing your news feed.
Bravo mimics the look of an iPhone clock display and volume slider, and dispenses with continuity editing to play around with repeated freezes and cuts. By adopting a shift between virtual and realistic aesthetics, Bravo embraces by Zola originated as an Internet artifact without exchanging substance for a gadget.
The rise of internet film
In the larger landscape of internet films, some entrants are just as generous in their portrayals, while others tend more towards crass moralization. Nonetheless, common themes recur: an increased drive towards documentation, an awareness of almost constant visibility, and attempts to exercise that visibility in certain ways.
Instant feedback received from an online audience on the protagonists of the Eggs, sometimes to horrific degrees. Stories weave between different platforms and can unfold entirely on a single screen, such as Research, member of the larger canon of office cinema.
Over the past five years, we have seen the emergence of influential films, which question ideas of authenticity and quantified value (Ingrid goes west, Sweat, Main stream). While some express a genuine interest in what it feels like to be included in cyberworlds, others take a more didactic tone. There is something paradoxical, for example, in a character from Main stream throwing up emojis as a metaphor to purge the artifice of the Internet when the film itself only superficially engages our relationship with the Web.
In more nuanced films like Cam, Jezebel, and PVT cat, which shows women navigating the world of online sex work, entire relationships unfold through webcams. The characters perform enhanced versions of themselves as a form of work, engaging in live chats with strangers. Their publicized identities are never entirely separate from their personal lives, and often the tension stems from a collapse between these spaces, threatening the characters’ control over their personalities.
The people who use them are in a tangible reality. There is no here and there, just a set of unfixed relationships.
As a sub-genre, these films reflect the fact that, as Cynthia X. Hua once wrote, “our experience of social reality is refracted among the media we use to connect with each other; none of us can claim objectivity or ignore the experiences of others.
Much has been said about the difficulties filmmakers face when trying to portray virtual activity onscreen, especially the authenticity of texting. Often times, texts are displayed either next to people’s heads or as captions. Eugene Kotliarenko Oscillating Palace opts for the whole device, devoting half of the frame to the character’s phone screens. As they send text and scroll, we see what they see, witnessing two visualizations of a moment.
Zola, instead, sees the characters interpret their messages aloud, emojis and all. Their online voices merge with those who speak; the language of a realm is not restricted but explodes, allowing the emphasis to be placed on the performances of the actors – their physical bodies and their emotions indistinct from their virtual behaviors. This technique takes into account the fact that while the screens of our devices are apparently flat, the people who use them are in a tangible reality. There is no here and there, just a set of unfixed relationships.
After all, what is the internet really like? We give a lot of our lives and data to these networks, but many of us don’t know how they work, who controls them, or what is hiding on the other end. An amorphous and murky thing, the internet becomes vindictive and spectral in movies like Impulse and Without friend, where being hacked is akin to being haunted.
While these genre exercises convincingly question the complexities of our networked lives, the films that seem most faithful to the experience of using the Internet are those that temper the ambiguity with curiosity.
Another 2021 version, We all go to the World’s Fair, follows the experience of a teenage girl with a dark internet trend. The film explores the feeling of getting lost in algorithmic logic, turning the internet into an unreal dream space where concepts of identity and dysphoria are negotiated. In 2018, Eigth year has brilliantly captured what it feels like to fall back on online performance as a means of self-discovery.
Zola is not about the Internet, but uses it as a way of thinking, talking and seeing. When done right, this is the kind of film that can be made from online narratives – the unique perspectives offered by people who, through social media, have the opportunity to relay their own experiences. Rather than taking the Internet itself as the subject, Bravo’s film asks what a story might look like told from online spaces and flexibly through them.
A moment towards the end of Zola illustrates how digital worlds shape the texture of our thoughts and feelings. In one particularly dramatic scene, Zola sits on a bed in an unfamiliar hotel room. The screen dissolves into an instantly recognizable MacBook-like screen saver: a multicolored starfish-shaped object, its limbs moving smoothly against a dark background.
Eager to disappear from his perilous surroundings, we see Zola disassociate himself in this familiar rendering. The virtual void resonates, in a way, deep within her body.
Tiia Kelly is a Melbourne-based freelance writer with signatures in The Guardian, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue, Overland, Screen Queens and beyond. Follow her on Twitter.