Eternal You

David Cunningham

Directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck

Grief is an intensely personal experience and the ways in which we come to terms with loss are equally subjective. Such loss may be eased by mementos such as photographs, and some people even construct shrines to the departed – leaving their rooms unaltered. There are also those willing to exploit the situation- spiritualists offering, for a fee, to provide a link to the afterlife.

Technological developments already throw up a range of unexpected challenges – concern about if it is disrespectful to delete voice recordings of the deceased. Eternal You, a documentary from Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, explores how the grieving process has become more complex with the rise of the digital afterlife industry. Such technology offers consumers the chance to interact with A.I.-rendered avatars of their deceased loved ones via text, audio, or Virtual Reality (VR). It also offers companies the opportunity to make a profit from people trying to ease their grief.

Project December, the first programme featured in the documentary, arose, according to the founder, when a customer requested the development of an avatar so he could communicate with his late girlfriend. The cathartic benefits of helping to resolve issues left outstanding are apparent; the boyfriend (who did not speak for a month after the death) is chuffed to tell his ‘girlfriend’ he managed to secure her graduation diploma and reports his mental health improved as a result. But the first ethical gray area arises also – the afterlife industry can be perceived as helping people pretend their loved ones have not died rather than come to terms with their loss.

Project December is the only programme featured which shows any technological glitches. The documentary takes a very sensitive approach and does not reveal cause of death, but one may be drug related. An enquiry about the afterlife generates a response that, as it is full of drug addicts, logically the loved-one must be in hell. Needless to say, this is smoothed over with the next exchange of texts.

A grieving daughter asks for a voiced avatar to help her children learn about the grandfather they never really knew. This allows the reaction of people other than the direct customer to be shown. The launch of the voiced avatar at a ‘wake’ is received with the type of cool politeness displayed when no-one wants to say something that might cause offense, but a sibling makes clear she does not regard the avatar as representing her father.

The staging of the documentary is inevitably mundane- talking head interviews alternate with shots of the technology being developed or moody scenes of a customer walking through snowy fields. Therapists acknowledge the digital afterlife industry could be part of the process whereby grief is shared in a communal manner- chatting, as in a support group, with other people who knew the departed.

But the balance between technological innovation and moral responsibility is explored also; and the latter occasionally seems to be lacking. A customer who complains the avatar they requested is not an accurate representation receives an abusive four-letter response from their ‘loved one’ resulting in the company founder saying he cannot take responsibility for the actions of the AI. As the industry needs to generate a profit there is emotional pressure on the customer to keep the programme going as terminating it might feel like losing the loved-one all over again.

The most sophisticated example in the documentary is also the one which provokes the highest moral misgivings. Meeting You a Korean reality TV show offers a grieving parent the chance to physically interact with an avatar of her recently deceased young daughter by way of fully immersive virtual reality. The technology is amazing to observe but watching the mother have an emotional meltdown while wearing a VR helmet through which she is playing with her late daughter feels voyeuristic to say the least. The mother confirms the therapeutic benefits of the experience- she no longer dreams about her daughter- and the scrupulously fair documentary displays a range of negative reactions as well, but it remains an emotionally draining sequence to watch.

The neutral approach taken by directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, ensures Eternal You explores all aspects of the complex issue of the modern-day response to grief. Impressions emerge of a society which remains daunted by the taboo subject of death and of an emerging industry willing to exploit the desire for cathartic relief and, as a result, add to an already complex and confused moral situation.

Eternal You is screening at the Sheffield Doc Fest on 15 June ahead of a wider release on 28 June.

The Reviews Hub Score

Well-balanced but emotional

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