We are at the point in this digital age where virality is taken for granted. Andy Warhol’s prophecy of everyone’s fifteen minutes of fame has never been more true—and more shallow. But there was a time not so long ago that the sheer concept of hundreds of millions of people sharing in the same online experience was unheard of. In many ways, then-fourteen-year-old Ghyslain Raza—better known as Star Wars Kid—was patient zero for this phenomenon, and in the new documentary Star Wars Kid: The Rise of the Digital Shadows, he speaks out on just how damaging this “hunger for content” can be.
A National Film Board of Canada production directed by Matthieu Fournier, Star Wars Kid: The Rise of the Digital Shadows represents Ghyslain Raza’s first time speaking out about the treatment and consequences that befell him after a video of him, non-consensually posted, went viral. For the few who may not know, the Star Wars Kid video depicts young Raza in the film studio of his high school in Trois-Rivières, Quebec imitating the lightsaber moves of the character Darth Maul from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in an attempt to aid a classmate in figuring out some special effects. A group of students discovered the tape and uploaded the video to ridicule Raza, and the snowballing effect was unprecedented. He was soon the target of derision across the planet, all for a film he wasn’t even much of a fan of.
The Rise of the Digital Shadows holds tight to central emotional themes as Raza extrapolates on his experiences. Above all, the documentary seems to hold up the importance of human connection and compassion—two things that are abundantly lacking in today’s world of disposable media and two things that were clearly not offered to Raza as he grappled with this unwanted burden. The choices for interview personnel highlight these aspects passionately, from a professor of culture and media studies Kate Eichorn to meme archivist Amanda Brennan to the person who housed the video and dubbed it Star Wars Kid Andy Baio, all communicate with Raza with familiarity and admiration, as well as deep regret on the part of Baio for the part he played in Raza’s unwanted virality.
Visually, the film is striking in its simplicity and recurrent styles. Suffocatingly intimate closeups on technologies and digital screens exude the sense of the relationship we now have with the web, a nearly inseparable connection. Profoundly serene aerial shots depict humanity as such tiny parts of their massive world, both emphasizing and reducing the individuals lost amongst things much larger than them. Pixels are prominently represented, from the original video expanded or tiled en masse to Raza walking across an intricate carpeting that resembles those bits of screens; digital vector animations and patterns flow between the human content and seem like the stitching of this flesh and flash synthesis—the raw components of virality.
What strikes above all else across The Digital Shadows is the sheer poise and strength of character exhibited by Ghyslain Raza, a person many of us have seen but almost nobody online has known. Now working towards his doctorate in law, Raza is a man of care and understanding. He seems keen above all else across the documentary to share his experiences with youth, whose inherent relationship—and near-addiction—to social media is displayed soberingly. There is not a single sense of anger or vengefulness in this new exploration or his reflection on the legal battles that had ensued across the debacle. Instead, there is a man who wants the people of today to look critically at the way that our consumption trends have taken over, and the humanity that is lost along the way. Raza embodies the essence he shows across the film and the self that only he truly knows in the simple statement at the end of the film: “I love life.”
Star Wars Kid: The Rise of the Digital Shadows is an incredibly insightful look into part of the foundation of the modern internet. An icon that never wished for it finally takes the chance to speak to his experience, and using the same tools that caused him such pain, he aims to do good for the world. It’s nothing short of a noble endeavour on a digital stage that values entertainment and materialism above all else. Ghyslain Raza urges us to remind ourselves that the person on our screen is human, and so are we.