Have you ever been sceptical of the pressure to perform a branded version of yourself for an online audience? You know, all the time-consuming moments of worrying about how others will perceive you on social media in the exact way you want. Well, a new documentary by Canadian queer filmmaker Matty Flader reveals the underbelly of our culture’s narcissism by portraying controversial pop author Alex Kazemi as a mirror of the normalised self-obsessed behaviour that defines the 2020s.
Flader followed Alex Kazemi with an iPhone for a week to explore his public persona, the digital loneliness that permeates our era and the isolation of building yourself as a virtual avatar. The film’s ambiguous tone leaves the viewer suspended between the realities of believing Kazemi’s performance and watching him overcalculate his every move on camera. There is a queer sarcasm to how Flader chooses to produce Kazemi’s character, contrasting earnest shots of him getting rejected by WitchTok influencers, scanning Kabbalistic symbols to remove curses and opening up about childhood trauma.
The documentary pays homage to Madonna’s Truth or Dare and Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana, capturing the horror of watching someone so obsessed with the production of their self-image.
Today’s cultural producers are constantly pressured to create relatable versions of themselves to come off as likeable but Kazemi seems uninterested in being anything but a glamorous vision of who he is in his own head.
Watch the Wonderland TV premiere of The Real Alex Kazemi and read a Q&A with the filmmaker, Matty Flader, below…
Matty, what was it like receiving the random email from Alex after he saw your gallery up at a local university you are currently attending in Vancouver?
I was leaving my class, and I got an email which was so weird because my personal email wasn’t even listed online at the time, because my website was down. His tone was so creepy, and even just googling him felt like I was going to get kidnapped or something. After researching him, I realised that Alex occupies this weird space in culture. He has this effect on people where nobody knows who he is but when people do find out, he portrays the image of a celebrity. But how can you be a celebrity, if no one knows who you are? At the same time isn’t that the current moment of influencer culture? We can follow someone with 600k followers on TikTok but no one on your street might know their name. Crazy.
The documentary left me feeling very confused. I kind of felt like this could just be another infamous media stunt for Alex to control us to perceive him in a specific way that contributes to his mythology. Are we watching a serious, vulnerable real-time reveal of the worst aspects of himself that you captured on camera?
I wanted the viewer to really feel the tension of him controlling his public image, while also documenting our real friendship forming on camera within the week that we spent together. Kazemi clearly plays roles both outside and inside this film, and I like that people feel confused by what is happening as they watch the world I captured unfold. Is this scripted? Is it reality TV? Is it a commercial for his book? In today’s world, what’s the difference anyway?
I think Alex is an analogy for how it has become normalised to perceive yourself as a brand. After you watch the documentary, If you end up feeling superior to him, then what does that say about you and your own relationship with constructing yourself online?
But did you ever feel, in the moments you were getting to know him – that he was still performing, even off-camera?
I do feel sometimes, even when I’m around him with the cameras off, that he’s still performing. He’s still in character and that makes it easy to believe he doesn’t trust me. But, I honestly think the most real moments I got to have with him are captured on film and are in the documentary.
There’s this contradiction about him – he has all the confidence in the world but at the same time is extremely insecure, which gives him this clawing need for approval. His self worth is inextricable from his career’s achievements and the validation he gets from the public. It’s his whole life.
I found it very stimulating watching a documentary stylized like a TikTok because, for some of us, that’s the only kind of media we are consuming these days – you see this style as the future of documentaries and reality storytelling?
What better platform to critique social media than on social media? My natural instinct was to use the visual language of TikTok and present it as cinema. I don’t have the attention span to watch movies or consume long-form media.
Are you working on any future documentaries? What’s next for Matty Flader?
I want to get hired to do film and photography for celebrities, so if you’re reading this and your name is Charli XCX! Call me, girl!