Matthew Wade’s film is in the “dronie” category. Dronie is a portmanteau of “drone” and “selfie”; in a dronie, unlike a normal selfie, the camera zooms out to a scenic, nullifying distance. It’s a selfie with a comet trail. Telling me about it, Wade makes a complex, multi-stage facial expression that moves from pain to serenity. It’s a look that seems to say, 1) Yes, I know how this sounds, but 2) we all do what we can to live in this inhospitable world, and 3), goddammit, I made something.
I take a seat and read the program notes. Festival director Randy Scott Slavin begins his introduction by admitting that drone films are “pretty niche” and recalls his fear, after last year’s festival, that “we had reached the end of the line.” But the straw man is quickly demolished: this year’s submissions, he writes, “truly transcend[ed] art simply created ‘by a drone.’” The venue this year, NYU’s Skirball Center, is twice the size of last year’s, although many of the seats will not be filled.
The ability to move a camera through the air is not much younger than cinema itself, but the technology has never been so cheap and accessible, or so smooth in its execution. Even in a festival designed to celebrate it, the drone does its job so well that it’s easy to forget. Watching the footage, one inhabits a kind of Emersonian disembodied eyeball—“I am nothing; I see all”—though it would be hard to argue that all mean egotism vanishes as a result. We dream of flight, but drone videos aren’t dreamlife, so much as high-tech wish fulfillment: here, supposedly, is what all of us have always wanted to explore, access, and capture. The majority of the films are made by professional drone cinematographers, and there’s a general sense of portfolio-building; the emphasis is on production values and technical skill.
The nearly 400 submissions from fifty countries have been narrowed down to thirty-two, and are divided into categories. Each category includes three or four films, all less than five minutes in length. Winners receive a trophy and a Samsung gear kit worth thousands of dollars, every piece of which the judges are obliged to rattle off each time they make the announcement. A description of all thirty-two films would be similarly redundant; the following sample is representative enough.
Cala d’en Serra – Drone Parkour
Guy with serious expression freeruns in the seaside ruins of a Spanish hotel: backflips off walls, leaps between ledges. The camera levitates from one level to another in smug contrast to the runner’s exertions, occasionally backing out and turning slightly away in an artful loss of interest. This will be one of a couple parkour videos, which are an ideal fit for the medium: What better device than a drone to pursue a man running away?
Dune buggies and dirtbikes slide around in the desert to a soundtrack of heavy EDM. A drone flies between the wheels of a moving monster truck, eliciting murmurs of approval from the audience.
Winner: Cala d’en Serra – Drone Parkour
An Aerial Perspective of Nordland
Green-capped mountains shrouded in gold fog, backed by pipe music. The sky reflected in the water next to a motionless village. Fog creeping down a hill. A nice fantasy about a future where everything is dead.
Australia – The Eagle Eye
This one features wild animals, such as camels and crocodiles. In one segment, the camera flies among thousands of chattering geese. This video is rare for using actual recorded audio, rather than arid chillwave. The drone’s rotors have been filtered out, and the orchestral score is low, so in the scene you can hear the birds, hundreds of them, barking, perhaps in terror.
Desert, forest, ocean, etc. The same way airplane travel deadens you to landscapes, the constant jumps between different biomes make it hard to tell what you’re supposed to be in awe of—Earth? Geography? More likely the drone itself, a DJI Phantom 3 Professional, a thinkable $1,820 on Amazon. The disembodied eye roves in search of novelty across a planet whose abjectness is implied by its failure to resist becoming an ad for disembodied eyes.
Winner: Australia – The Eagle Eye
Featuring Drones (films in which drones are characters)
Drone Cake Baking
A ragtag murder of DIY drones builds a cake in a workshop in Norway, an advertisement for the Norwegian telecom company Telia. Antics ensue. The drones are tiny and made partly out of wood, and they spray drops of chocolate out of pneumatic launchers with gleeful haphazardness, like tasty Hellfire missiles.
Dron’t You Love Me?
In the most narratively dense film of the festival, a lonely young woman has a DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter ($886) FedExed to her house, and it becomes her boyfriend. They have a picnic, go fishing on a pier, and play tag around a clothesline. But then she meets Alex, a human boy, and trades up. For some sadistic reason, the new couple allows the miserable drone to tag along for their own romantic montage. It displays jealousy the only way it can, by buzzing loudly and toppling card towers. The audience, post-humanist or just starved for a story, utters a collective moan of pity when the drone crashes to the sidewalk. In the final scene, the poor machine is deposited in a trashcan.
Winner: Drone Cake Baking
X-Factor (films that don’t fit into other categories)
Caos en la Ciudad
Timelapsed aerial views of traffic in Mexico City, inviting comparisons with SimCity. Masses of cars replace each other at traffic lights while “Flight of the Bumblebee” plays in the background. The video basically rips off scenes from longer, more famous stoner documentaries like Samsara and Koyaanisqatsi, but this is still one of the few honest films in the festival: Caos admits that from the drone’s perspective, we’re just, like, a swarm.
Mixed Motion Project
Another parkour video and a clear crowd favorite, this one employs a similar top-down vantage point to follow a man who seems hell-bent on reaching the perpetually receding northern edge of the screen. He leaps gaps, frontflips off buildings, trips half-naked through deep snow. This is the only film to pay explicit homage to video games, whose influence is implicit everywhere else. We see the runner collecting computer-generated gold coins, and in one segment he kills three assailants with a sword and pistol, without halting; numbers sprout from their heads as they die, in a lighthearted turn to violence that feels somehow inevitable.
Winner: Mixed Motion Project. “We would cry but we’re from Bulgaria and it’s forbidden,” says the runner, Ilko Iliev, and gets a huge laugh. Later, when the team wins Best in Show and a $75,000 equipment package, someone in the audience will tell Iliev to do a backflip, which he’ll do.
Beauty & Bounty
The seriousness of the category can’t help feeling out of place, but this relatively light film about a family wheat farm in Kansas eases us into it. “Even for us farmers that have been in the business all our lives,” the filmmaker’s father drawls in voiceover, “we never get to see those views unless the drone is up in the air.” From above, the progress of the combine harvesters is soothing. I wonder what the farmers see—work and more work, for miles and miles?
Centers on the Portoviejo Fire Department in Ecuador, where 2016’s magnitude-7.8 earthquake was the deadliest of a particularly catastrophic year. 673 people died in Manabi province alone, but rescue workers were able to save 113, in part by analyzing drone images to locate survivors through the windows of collapsed buildings. With horror I catch myself assessing camera pans while the department chief talks about children pinned under corpses.
Drone Operators of #NoDAPL
A report for AJ+ about the Sioux water protectors Myron Dewey and Shiyé Bidzííl, who used drones to counter-surveil the treatment of water protectors by federal police. Their cameras were in the air on November 20, the night officers shot Native American protesters in the back with rubber bullets and sprayed them with water cannons at sub-zero temperatures. If you’ve seen aerial footage of that night, it was most likely theirs. Since then, Dewey has been charged with “stalking” DAPL mercenaries. His drones are held together with duct tape, because of how many times they’ve been shot at.
Winner: Drone Operators of #NoDAPL. Dewey takes the stage, a stocky man with a braid down his back, a black T-shirt and, over his lanyard, a medicine pouch reading Digital Smoke Signals, the name of his website. People rise from their seats. In his speech, he thanks “indigenous and non-indigenous allies,” including church congregations and US military veterans who participated in the protest. “To have them come in was not just healing for us, but also for our visitors and allies throughout the world,” he says. The audience, still standing and perhaps leery of a drawn-out thing, applauds these points with caution.
Without warning, Dewey closes his eyes and begins to sing. He sings well, without hurry. Watching the video, I will realize that a full forty-five seconds elapsed during which this prayer was the only sound in the theater.
The water protector leaves the stage, the lights dim, and the dronies begin.
A Man (Almost Two) and a Dog
The transition back into drones-as-usual is so jarring I barely notice this film, which consists of shots featuring a man hiking, sometimes driving, across scenic tundras with an Alaskan malamute.
Cape Town Dronie
Matthew Wade has hiked with his wife to the top of Lion’s Head Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, where, standing dangerously on a precipice, controller in hand, he sends his drone out until he can no longer see it, nor it him. It’s still going long after he and his wife have been swallowed into the cuticle of the mountain. It occurs to me that behind its silliness, the dronie is in fact the selfie’s deconstruction—a humbling assertion of scale. The song is dancehall, by the Jamaican singer Popcaan: All the glory, all to God / I will never be ungrateful.
The filmmaker, winner of the category for the last two years, sits in a paradisic garden on Eleuthera, one of the Family Islands of the Bahamas. As before, the drone flies backwards away from him, this time through a vacation house and out the front door, where members of his family sit motionless in the roasting sun. The ascent continues, bringing the coastline into view, until the farthest shore is visible as well. But now the film reverses at accelerated speed, back to the yard, and the guy. He’s spoiled it, I think. It’s as if he’s claimed possession of the whole island, and all he had to do was move his fingers.
Winner: Family Island