The uncomfortable mirror of the Star Wars Kid

I laughed along with everyone else. Back in 2003 I was an enthusiastic lurker on Metafilter, a ‘community weblog’ where everyone could contribute. Members would write a short ‘front page post’ that linked to something new, interesting or funny on the Internet. In May of that year, someone posted about ‘Star Wars Kid’, a video of a kid dancing around with a pole. It had already been remixed by someone to give him a lightsaber. We thought it was hilarious.

Looking back now, it’s interesting to read the comments.

I suggest you put aside 90 minutes to watch Star Wars Kid: The Rise of the Digital Shadows1. It’s profound, and had me in tears.

Viewed through my 45-year old eyes in 2022, the whole episode is shameful. It amounted to an unbelievable, global level of bullying of Ghyslain Raza, the subject of the video. I cannot imagine what he went through at the tender age of 15, the same age that my eldest son is right now. The video went so viral that it even made it to the New York Times:

…he would have preferred that the video, which he had not intended anyone to see, had remained private.

“People were laughing at me,” he wrote in a follow-up e-mail message. ‘”And it was not funny at all.”

Seeing Raza in the documentary, having come through such an unbelievably intense period in his life to be the deeply thoughtful, intelligent and empathetic person he is today, is inspirational.

Andy Baio’s recent blog post brought the documentary to my attention. It turns out that Baio’s blog — something I have followed on and off for years — was pivotal in the video ‘going viral’ back in 2003. One of the documentary’s most electric moments is when Raza visits Baio in Portland. We were all younger back then; so many of us looked at the video and laughed, and it would be easy to say that none of us knew any better. Some of the comments on the Metafilter post tell me that we did. In the film, to his credit, Baio doesn’t make ‘easy’ excuses such as now having a teenage son of his own made him realise the gravity of what he shared, or that nobody could have known at the time how viral the video was going to go. Looking back at the later posts on from 2003, I can hear some regret in the way he tries to reframe the narrative.

It’s incredible that the kids who originally digitised the video and posted it to the Internet have never apologised. You can hear that Raza has carried this with him. Perhaps this is a consequence of the USA’s litigious culture; if you apologise, you can be seen to be admitting a degree of liability.

The documentary made me think about other Internet memes that I’ve laughed at over the years. I’ve watched and shared Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That so many times. Kimberly Wilkins, the star of the video, made some money and gained fame following the video’s release. From Wikipedia:

The video garnered Sweet Brown many appearances on television, including a visit to ABC’s The View. Brown also plays a cameo role in the Tyler Perry 2013 movie A Madea Christmas saying a part of her line from her television interview during an interview at the end of the movie.

Years ago, I found one of my children laughing at a YouTuber who had been paying ‘rent a video message from Santa’ people to say silly or outrageous things. His video was a compilation of the videos that had been returned. We had a long chat about whether what the YouTuber was doing was okay. How far was this really from people who have paid homeless people to fight each other? In both cases there is a financial transaction which the person receiving the money could refuse. But there is a power imbalance, and bad ethics.

Does the fact that Kimberly Wilkins made money and frame from her video make it okay to laugh at?

There are still videos out there being shared and remixed. A chunk of TikTok culture seems to be exactly this. I’ve ventured onto the platform a few times, but have been put off by videos taken by parents of (presumably) their own children doing or saying silly things, including children who seem to have a disability. I doubt the children in the videos consented to them being shared.  Star Wars Kid: The Rise of the Digital Shadows makes the point that videos with millions of views are now unlikely to ‘go viral’ and make the news in the same way that they did in 2003. So have we just got used to them?

The film gives some hope through Meme Librarian Amanda Brennan, who points out that ‘consent’ is now a word commonly used and well-understood by young people. Back in 2003, it wasn’t so prevalent. People are much more aware of the impact that a shared video can have on their lives.

From the New York Times article:

“I personally feel that he is like me and all of my friends,” said Andy Baio, 26, a Web developer in Los Angeles. “This spread around the world partly because he’s funny and awkward to watch, but also because there’s a big part of him in a lot of us.”

I’m not sure that the spread of the video was because people related to the character of the ‘Star Wars Kid’. Perhaps this was Baio trying to make it okay, reframing the narrative to put himself in the place of Raza after having seen the impact of his blog post of the video. The documentary felt like a mirror being held up, forcing me to question my own online behaviour over the years, and the consequences of having a laugh at someone else’s expense. It’s an uncomfortable watch, but an essential one.

  1. I don’t think it has had a worldwide release yet. I had to use a VPN that routed me to Canada to be able to watch it on the website. 

To Sir, With Love

Just watched ‘To Sir, With Love’ (1967). Amazing to see it though modern eyes — I spent half the film thinking about how many safeguarding issues it was accumulating as we went along. A chunk of casual racism that I am sure fit with the times but is astonishing now, gigantic milking of the title song throughout and an obvious plot that didn’t go very far. But strangely compelling. Having The Mindbenders play the finale was fun. 6/10.

Morgan Freeman in The Seven Samurai (well, almost…)

We went to see the Sunday matinee of The Seven Samurai at The Rex last weekend. I’ve wanted to see the film for ages and it was great that a chance came up at our lovely cinema. I wasn’t disappointed – for a Japanese film made in the 1950s it was surprisingly accessible and I could see exactly why it was remade as a western.

I couldn’t help feeling that I had seen the actor playing the main samurai somewhere before. Towards the end of the film it hit me – he was the spitting image of Morgan Freeman. A little digging turfed up this picture of Takashi Shimura – take a look for yourself to see what I mean. I think it was that he was doing so much of the ‘staring in disbelief and not daring to speak’ type-poses that really did it for me. I thought it was really cool that I wasn’t the first person to make this connection – see this review at the Internet Movie Database.

Great film, great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Young @ Heart

If you’re not doing anything right now I suggest tuning in to Channel 4 to watch ‘Young @ Heart’. It’s a lovely film about a group of singers in America who have an average age of 2-3 times my own but perform concerts of alternative music such as Sonic Youth and James Brown. We watched it a couple of weeks back on More4 and loved it. Heart-warming stuff!

Run, Fat Boy, Run

On location filming Run, Fat Boy, RunMy brother-in-law is visiting us this weekend so we thought we’d take a drive to Spitalfields Market in London. As we walked over to the market, past Exchange Square, we noticed a load of trucks, lights and cables all being shifted around. On the way back we saw scores of people hanging around in smart business dress – pretty unusual for a Sunday – and on closer inspection we discovered that they were all extras standing around waiting to be filmed. The director was none other than David Schwimmer of Friends fame.

Not that exciting but worth a blog! The film doesn’t look that original but at this early stage I’m not sure I can judge. Would be cool to see the Exchange Square scene in the final cut, though.

Bollywood season coming to Channel 4

I am very excited to see that Channel 4 are about to start their annual Bollywood season today. I’ve always been interested in Indian culture and music and after much research last year I bought my first Bollywood film – Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. My wife and I loved it (admittedly me a little more than her) and found ourselves singing the songs around the house. It’s a fun movie and had everything I would have expected from a Bollywood film – a big romance, tragedy and lots of comedy. Shahrukh Khan is very good – I found out later that he’s one of the biggest Bolywood stars out there – and Kajol is lovely.

Since then, I’ve bought a few more DVDs but haven’t quite got around to watching them yet. On recommendation from some of my Indian colleagues at work I now have Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Black and the strangely-named Jism. Hopefully now that my project has gone live at work I’ll have a bit more time to watch them. Perhaps I should organise a Bollywood night at my house once we’ve had all our building work done?

If you want to try one out on Channel 4 this year, I’m told that Murder is the Hindi version of Unfaithful which I thought was great. It’ll be showing at 00:45 on 17 November 2005.

The Rex Cinema

Soon after moving to Berkhamsted my wife and I were quick to find out about the Rex Cinema, a beautiful art-deco cinema built in 1938. The cinema had actually closed in 1988 but reopened in 2004 after three years of restoration from its derelict state.

The cinema is an absolute feast for all the senses. The films that are shown are fantastic – they tend to only be on for one or two days but vary between modern blockbusters, excellent foreign-language movies and classics that may not have been seen for some time. We’ve already been twice in the four weeks since we have lived here – the first was to see 5×2, a recent French film, and the second was to see five short silent Buster Keaton movies accompanied by live piano! We thoroughly enjoyed both of them, but the Buster Keaton night was particularly special for the sheer fun and novelty of the evening.

The cinema is absolutely beautiful inside. All of the seats are made of a lovely red velvet-like material and are gorgeous to sit on. The best thing for us, though, has to be the fact that in the lower half of the cinema you get a rotating red chair seated round a small table with easy access to the fab bar behind – just for a couple of pounds extra from what you pay for a normal seat in the top half of the cinema. A glass of wine with your film? The movies will never be the same again!

The Red Shoes

red_shoes.jpgLast night we stayed in and watched The Red Shoes, an absolutely delightful film. It tells the story of the Lermontov ballet; how a young talented composer (Julian Craster, played by Marius Goring) and a gifted dancer (Victoria Page, played by Moira Shearer) come to join the company and produce the ballet of The Red Shoes, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen.

Andersen’s story is about a young girl who wants to have and cannot stop thinking about a beautiful pair of red shoes. When she gets them, an old soldier puts a spell of them that makes them dance without stopping – eventually an executioner chops off her feet and ultimately she dies. In the ballet within the film, the shoes dance the girl to her death. This story is reflected in the plot of the film itself, with Victoria ultimately being given a choice between her life and her art.

The documentary on the DVD tells us that the theme of dying for your art has made the film very popular with talented directors such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. At the time of its release in 1948 this theme was quite a statement – World War II had just finished and people were used to people dying for their country and dying for democracy – dying for art must have seemed relatively frivolous and quite offensive. Gorgeous as it is, the film was not promoted extensively in the UK and did not prove popular at first, as this review from The Monthly Film Bulletin on the BFI website shows. However, the film was nominated for five Oscars and won two – for Art Direction (Color) and Music – and went on to become a classic.

Vera Drake

We went out on Thursday night to the wonderful Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley to see Vera Drake, the latest film from director Mike Leigh. I didn’t quite know what to expect – we had seen the trailer a week before, which looked excellent, but I had read the review in Uncut magazine, which didn’t like it at all. It’s a wonderful, if very tragic and depressing film – probably one of the saddest things I have ever seen. Good for a melancholy weeknight.

Having seen the film I completely disagree with the Uncut reviewer, John Mulvey, when he calls the film “crude and unconvincing” and says that the director “drags out his thin, grim plot with sadistic relish.” I felt the film got the pace just right – we got to know the characters and the family before things start to go awry. From the consolidated reviews over at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, it looks like most people agree.

The Kids Are Alright

I stayed up late last night watching the remastered DVD of The Kids Are Alright, which I treated myself to some time ago. I’d never seen any footage of The Who live before and I was completely taken aback. They were the kind of band that just get you grinning with joy when you watch them – Pete Townshend jumping around with a tambourine at the start of Won’t Get Fooled Again, Roger Daltrey swinging his mic all over the place, John Entwistle hardly moving and Keith Moon just bowling you over with his amazing, unrelenting animation.
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Threads again

I finally got around to watching my Threads DVD last night. I really can hardly believe I watched it as a kid – it was so much more disturbing that I remembered, and very graphic. It’s one of those films that needs to be watched once – like Schindler’s List – as it has such an important message, but it’s definitely not something you would watch again and again.
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Cheap DVDs

I’ve been using this site a lot recently – it scans a number of worldwide on-line retailers for the cheapest DVD price (including postage), converted into sterling. Good if you have a multi-region DVD player.