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Rod Watson: Student film makes you wonder why the future can’t be now

Bots. Trolls. Russian hackers. Online bullying.

The downsides of technology manifest themselves daily. But those perils were not enough to stop a group of Buffalo high school students from tapping the idealism of youth to peer 300 years into the future and remind us of what is possible.

The teens produced "A Long, Long Now," a 20-minute documentary/futurist narrative that challenges viewers to confront their prejudices as well as rampant inequality and their own government’s unwillingness to take on such issues.

The name reflects the look into the distant future, but also the fact that the film deals with "issues we have now," said Health Sciences Charter School junior Breanna Roberts, a member of the Buffalo Youth Media Institute team that produced the thought-provoking short film.

Through skits plus interviews with elected officials and artists focused on the future –  including Skype breakup that just adds to the film’s futuristic aura – the students propose solutions for issues obvious to anyone who follows the headlines.

What do they envision? How about a technology that could transfer the experiences of everyday people to those in power?

With inequality rampant in the wake of the financial crisis, and government policies like the GOP tax cut only fueling the divide, the teens may not be able to vote yet, but they subtly prod those who can to grasp that those in office have done little to help most of the people who put them there.

Then there’s the Tolerance Inducer 3000, the headset unveiled after one student/actor says he hates blacks, while a black student says she hates gays. Order within the next five minutes, and you get a second one free.

"This machine, once you put it on, will let you understand people. So no more arguing, no more bickering, no more intolerance. All love," says the film’s character, describing the society we seem incapable of creating without the help of such technology.

An "apple machine" – the high-tech version of the old-fashioned apple cart – would use facial recognition technology not to find criminals, but to recognize who is hungry and then provide them food. It may be possible in the future, but it’s also a cogent reminder that 40 million people – including 12 million children – face hunger today in an America wallowing in abundance because of an economic system that won’t allow resources to be devoted where they’re needed most.

Assistant X, a free robot "assigned to you at birth," follows you around to take care of your immediate medical needs by monitoring vital signs, administering medicine and alerting first responders when necessary. In other words, it’s universal health care on steroids – while the Affordable Care Act remains under constant attack.

Funded by AT&T in a partnership with the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology and Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center, the collaboration was designed to expose students to both the skills needed for, and the power inherent in, technology and art. The film was unveiled recently at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, will be shown at next month’s Buffalo International Film Festival. The goal of the project is to prompt reflection on how to ensure "equitable access to technologies that can benefit the greater community."

But while set in the future, the students realize it also imparts lessons about the present.

"Don’t forget what’s really important," is what Bennett High School sophomore Kasseem Harris took from it.

Tapestry Charter School junior Gabrielle Wallace put it this way: "Don’t get lost in technology."

In fact, in using the construct of magical devices, the film forces us to rethink our biases, selfishness and myopia to recognize that – gadgetry or not – we have the capacity to change ourselves and the society we have created.

What’s lacking is not so much the technology, but the will.

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