“It freaked them out a little bit. Because they didn’t know where the fiction was and where the reality was. And that was the tension that we thought was really rich, was really compelling.”
– Jeff Hull
It’s been said that every story is a detective story and that we, the audience, are putting together the clues left by the author to solve something: the plot, a study in character, some moral or philosophical viewpoint. As you progress through any narrative, you are amassing insights and leads, discarding irrelevant red herrings, until you come to the conclusion and try to solve the ultimate mystery, “What Does it All Mean?” Sleuthing is not a genre; it is a basic element of our lives that we apply to everything from our addictive TV shows to the very purpose of our existence. That’s a grandiose way of saying that we all like to play detective. But what happens when that line blurs between playing a detective and actually investigating your life?
The Institute, a new documentary directed by Spencer McCall, looks at a game of sorts that was created by Jeff Hull in San Francisco from 2008-11. San Franciscans woke one morning to find fliers around their city advertising personal force fields, the ability to talk to dolphins, and other fanciful delights if they’d just call the number on the bottom. Those that dialed soon found themselves invited to a room in a building in the financial sector, and on the first step of discovering this alternate world complete with mystery, wonder, and competing factions: The Jejune Institute and the Elsewhere Public Works. Soon, participants were going on various scavenger hunts, engaging in impromptu protests, and occasionally breakdancing on the street with sasquatch in exchange for further clues about this mysterious other world. Eventually, the game ran its course and concluded, and McCall interviewed the creators and participants to learn about what they each got from the experience.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Many elements are presented as fact, and some do offer behind-the-scenes insight or reflections of genuine players, but some of it is all misdirection presented with the same straight face. By mixing canon with fact, McCall has managed to replicate the game’s experience perfectly and has created an engaging film that is totally enticing and wonderfully frustrating. Viewers get wrapped up in wondering what the story is, but are then upset when they realize that everything they just heard was part of some scripted bit, but then intrigued again as they want to know what will happen next. McCall creates an entire cast of unreliable narrators in his documentary, all seeming to be truthful but slightly off. It’s so effective that I actually ended up in a Google hole for a few hours after trying to piece together the real story (a large chunk of it comes from this NY Times piece). But rather than be annoyed by this constant sleight of hand, I found myself wishing I had experienced this game myself; I could easily imagine myself pouring over clues or awaiting instructions from the mysterious Commander 14.
Hull states that he wanted to take that same sense of mystery and wonder out of the childhood park and instill it into the city around him. He succeeded by building an Other San Francisco, an Invisible one, seen only by the participants in the game he constructed. Where some people will see a neglected alley in Chinatown, others will remember the important text hidden there that helped them learn more about the sinister Octavio Coleman’s plans for the Algorithm. Where some people see the towering shrines to capitalism in the financial district, former players will remember that was where the ride began. Hull and his co-conspirators were able to transform the city’s concrete into clues, the familiar into the new, and, for the nearly 10,000 people who participated in the game, allowed them to live in a detective story of their own. The greatest compliment I can give The Institute is that inspired me to start digging into the truth and learning more about this game — and it inspired me to start solving a few mysteries, too. McCall’s film perfectly encapsulates the singular experience Hull created — a world of facts and fantasy tensely entwined — and brings the viewers on a strange trip of discovery that will leave them confused but desperately searching for the next clue.