'Alice Cares' ('Ik ben Alice'): Rotterdam Review

ik ben Alice Still - H 2015
Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam

ik ben Alice Still - H 2015

Like the robot at its heart, socially-themed documentary functions effectively within certain limitations.

Sander Burger's Dutch reportage observes a prototype "caredroid" interacting with a trio of elderly ladies.

The benign side of artificial intelligence enjoys a rare cinematic showcase in Sander Burger's Alice Cares (Ik ben Alice), a small-scale Dutch documentary that reinvents no wheels but proves as unassumingly delightful as its eponymous, diminutive "care-robot." Touching lightly on social and technological themes that are increasingly relevant to nearly all industrialized societies, this quiet charmer bowed at Rotterdam ahead of its local release and deserves wider exposure via festivals and small-screen outlets.

The near-simultaneous appearance of Alex Garland's A.I. feature Ex Machina certainly won't impair international prospects for Alice Cares, whose most obvious fictional counterpart is the classic Ray Bradbury Twilight Zone segment from 1962, "I Sing the Body Electric." In Bradbury's story a robot mimicked the appearance of an elderly woman, acting as caregiver to young children; 53 years later the tables are now turned. Developed by the US firm Hanson Robotics, "Alice"— has the stature and face of a girl of eight, but an adult female's voice—is primarily intended to provide company for lonely seniors.

Burger shows Alice "visiting" the apartments of three octogenarian Dutch ladies, the contraption overcoming their hosts' initial wariness and quickly forming chatty bonds. This prototype "care-droid" represents the technology at a relatively early stage, with Alice unable to move anything apart from her head, eyes (which incorporate tiny cameras) and mouth. Her body is made much more obviously robotic in appearance than the face, to minimize the chances of her interlocutors mistaking her for an actual human. Such design-touches are discussed by Alice's programmer in meetings with social-workers, which Burger and his editor Manuel Rombley intersperses between the domestic exchanges that provide the bulk of the running-time.

Eschewing voice-over and captions, the film doesn't delve into the wider ramifications or deeper background of the care-droid phenomenon—the fact, for example, that technology is now starting to fill a void left by social atomization and the fracturing of the extended-family unit in so many countries around the world. And this could only be the start: "It might be the future of health-care," muses one social-worker with a note of cautious concern. 

Burger and Rombley's emphasis is on Alice and her interlocutors, personalities emerging not only from wrinkled flesh but also from shiny plastic in a manner which Philip K Dick would doubtless find fascinating. By the last scene many viewers will have warmed to the tiny 'droid in much the same way as the three elderly women: seeing "her" being locked away in a cupboard evokes unexpected feelings of compassion.

While Alice is in some ways an avatar of the future, Burger—previously best known for 2010's drama Hunting and Sons—is content to operate within the established contours of current, mainstream-oriented documentary: the doom-tinged stylizations of Jeroen Arts' score providing incongruous touches of Hollywood in the opening stages. Much more effective is the 1950s pop-song by Lita Roza which emanates from Alice's chest when she's in the company of a retired chanteuse during the film's final scenes: "Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?" is its title and haunting refrain. That there's something amiss isn't in doubt, but the question of whether high-tech band-aids can heal the impact of traumatic social transformations remains hanging in the air.

Production company: KeyDocs
Director / Screenwriter: Sander Burger
Producer: Janneke Doolaard
Cinematographer: Sal Kroonenberg
Editor: Manuel Rombley
Composer: Jeroen Arts
Sales: KeyDocs, Amsterdam
No Rating, 76 minutes