Last year it was Rodney Ascher’s THE NIGHTMARE, this year THE BLACKOUT EXPERIMENTS fills the becoming-mandatory doc spot in the Midnighters at Sundance. In the film, director Rich Fox follows a number of participants who voluntarily go to an undisclosed and ever-changing location to have bags shoved over their heads, be verbally humiliated and subjected to physical ordeals that really do qualify as torture (on sequence featured waterboarding). After their evening, the ‘survivors’ find themselves dumped, often pantsless, into the open world, branded but also forever changed. For most, giving themselves over to terror for one night satisfies whatever strange urge drives to Blackout. However, a select few go to the ‘show’ again and again, eventually being invited to participate in more elaborate and more frightening levels of the Blackout.
The Blackout Experiments is the kind of documentary film that frustrates at every minute of its running time. Though we know fairly well what the experience is like for the participants by the end — we see countless hidden camera videos if their sessions, often quite repetitive — there is no attempt to put the ‘show’ in any sort of context. The creators of the experience never give an on camera interview, appearing only as a voice over the phone informing the documentary filmmaker when they are coming to town, and in behind the scenes footage preparing and very specifically not discussing anything process oriented. So we never learn anything about the history or the rationale of the people behind it. By the end of the film I was desperate to know how it all works. How much are people paying for these experiences? Does the price go up as they progress further? Have they ever been sued? Do they really think their waiver would hold up in court? Have they been through the experience themselves? We never learn anything. Maybe (and possibly for good reason) the Blackout creators want to remain mysterious and in the shadows. I get that, but it doesn’t make for quality filmmaking.
Another thing never explored is any sort of psychological investigation into why anyone would want to do this, or what effect the experience might have, from a medical perspective. They desperately needed to be interviewing doctors and psychologists about the power of fear and our adrenaline response, and checking in with the participants months later about long term effects. In fact, there are next to no contrary views in the film at all. A few participants question the methodology briefly, but their issues are neve examined, and the next time we see them, they seem okay with everything, without ever seeing why. There wasn’t anyone the documentary could find that had an issue with what Blackout Experiments did and wants to speak out? No one? I seriously doubt that.
As a result, the film feels less a documentary and more like a promotional piece, something used for recruiting subjects to the fear industry. In fact, as we get deeper and we meet these survivor groups and hear about people rising to new levels of the experience, it feels less like a show and more like a cult, where people are paying to be tortured. Seriously. I’m not judging these people at all, they are free to do whatever they want with their money. I am judging this documentary. It’s bad. And now no one else will ever be make a documentary on this subject. What’s interesting is that I don’t even really know how disgusted I am. If I knew how much people were asked to spend and especially as they rise up the levels of the Blackout, then I would know how wrong the intent of this film is – because it feels like and commercial for a cult.