Directed by Aaron Bevan-Bailey
Starring Jamie Pigott
Short film review by Kira McPherson
Although set in 2097, there is something distinctly retro about “Populace”, a short film directed by Aaron Bevan-Bailey and adapted from Dan Horrigan’s play Still I See My Baby.
It isn’t just the film’s depiction of a Brave New World-style caste system or the way that this system reduces women to a purely reproductive role, as in The Handmaid’s Tale.
From Aldous Huxley to Margaret Atwood, George Orwell to The Hunger Games, there are common threads that we have come to expect from our dystopian futures, just as in romantic comedies and action epics. And it’s not a crime to borrow from the genre (although one can imagine some authoritarian artsnob regime where it is).
“Populace” still mounts an intriguing exploration of some familiar dystopian ideas. Environmental threats are pitted against scientific ones, with overpopulation giving rise to genetic engineering, and society has been transformed into a corporatocracy run by the eugenics research firm Populace.
We see the technology of the future welded to the values of an earlier era. And this is what dystopian art does best: dislodge our sense of time and place, glossing everything with a foreboding strangeness.
This is the retrospective glance of “Populace” – an odd sense that both our past and future are on show in a single timeframe. One of the film’s pivotal scenes illustrates this idea nicely.
John (Jamie Pigott, who plays all the male clones) and his wife, Helen, receive the verdict on whether or not they will qualify to raise their own child.
Behind them, teak furniture is set with silverware and an old record croons off-screen. Right down to the envelope that they tentatively open (it’s one of those hyper-tech societies marked by the absence of personal technology), we could be in the 1950s – not 2097.
In keeping with this idea, it makes sense that a domestic site and the subject of childbirth provide the catalyst for John and Helen’s rebellion.
But unfortunately you can only get so far away from the past before you stumble into the trappings of the present. “Populace” isn’t so much a feminist tract on women’s reproductive rights as a look at what masculine individualism can do to itself. These two halves never really reconcile into something deeper.
It is the men, all dexterously and distinctly played by Pigott, who must reckon with the consequences of a state that denies individual identity. This is dramatised explicitly in a memorable scene where John is interrogated by an enforcer from Populace who shares his exact appearance: the self in opposition to itself.
This visual trick of cloning Pigott is perhaps its best aspect and its most unwieldy. It creates tension and uncertainty throughout the beginning, which keeps the film’s more familiar elements from being turgid. But, in parts, it risks a sort of navel gazing, as the men contemplate their own existence as embodied by one another. Think Fight Club meets 1984.
Meanwhile the women, those who suffer most directly from the brutal population control measures disappear as swiftly from the film’s awareness as they do from the society it depicts.
“Populace” is a polished short film, but one that could have taken a more daring look at some of the issues it raises.