If you've had any experience with the Jejune Institute, it's probably similar to my own: I was introduced to it by a friend, who first took great pains to pronounce the name correctly -- je-joon -- and then refused to say another word on the subject. "I can't tell you anything more about it," he said, "but you should definitely go try it for yourself."
Catching on largely through word-of-mouth, the now inoperative Institute was an alternate reality game and beloved not-so-secret secret created by Oakland artist Jeff Hull. Also named the Center for Socio-Reengineering, the Jejune Institute has long been the subject of misinformation and rumor, with many mistaking the game's smattering of devotees and obscure operations for the trappings of a cult. In truth, it was a multi-level urban scavenger hunt, and an opportunity to better familiarize oneself with San Francisco and explore the landscape through appreciation of the small details: a graffito, or a plaque stuck at the base of a forgotten statue. It was, at best, a game both meticulously planned and unpredictably spontaneous, revealing a hidden, less-appreciated San Francisco.
Before closing in 2011, the Institute was located on the 16th floor of 580 California Street, in the heart of the city's Financial District. Visitors were given a key with instructions directing them to an enclosed, automated room where an "induction" process began: an orientation film -- the stuff of an '80s instructional video -- briefed viewers on the origins of the Institute and the phenomena of poli water, explaining the "vital orbit" and "the algorithm." If you've been there, you likely watched the nonsensical video, laughed nonchalantly with your friends at the absurdity of it all, and secretly worried the door would lock behind you at any moment.
Spencer McCall documented this experience in his new film, The Institute, which comes out next month and screens at Oakland's Underground Film Festival on Saturday, September 28, 2013. McCall follows the game through all its levels, conducting interviews with a handful of the most devoted ex-participants. His film reconstructs the Institute's constructed reality -- from its relatively tame first level, taking players on a tour of San Francisco's Chinatown, then providing access to the increasingly bizarre narrative turns of the game's higher echelons.
In its upper levels, the game becomes progressively more complex and ambitious, establishing overlapping narratives. There's the one about the sensitive punk woman gone missing, and another chronicling the rivalry between the Jejune Institute and the fictitious Elsewhere Public Works Agency. As they follow their piecemeal instructions, gamers wade through underground water systems and find themselves party to impromptu dance sessions with a sasquatch in the Mission. Fittingly, all the adventure ends anticlimactically in the conference room of an Embarcadero hotel.
The film is situated much in the same province as Hull's fabricated reality, where real and fictional worlds blend, and gamers are asked repeatedly to reevaluate if all of the game is but a lucid dream. The film's own take on the fuzzy borders of reality and construct take on their own life, too, and viewers are offered the burden of distinguishing between what is real documentary, and what is merely reenactment. Note two things when attempting to make these distinctions (though perhaps they need not be made at all): McCall was previously an employee of the Institute, shooting short videos on their behalf; "documentary," here, is a loose word.
To critique the movie is also to, in part, critique the game, of which the film clearly plays a supporting role (it's hard to imagine that a project organized like this one would allow for a documentary any less manufactured). And for those viewing The Institute, it too has its own level of play: Viewers can find instructions for a film-scavenger hunt experience on the movie's website. But while The Institute loses momentum in the unraveling of the original game's too-ambitious narrative of the missing punk girl, the film is successful in that it mirrors both the mood and tone of the original art project. Like the game itself, the film inspires the same skepticism and intrigue, too.
The Institute screens this Saturday at the Oakland Underground Film Festival, which runs September 25-29, 2013 at both the Grand Lake Theater and Humanist Hall in Oakland. It's one of several independent films showing -- all situated neatly outside the realm of classic narrative filmmaking -- that take the festival's commitment to "outsider" film to heart. Other works of note include opening night film Citizen Koch, which examines the billionaire Koch brothers and their bitter fight against labor unions. The Punk Singer, which tells the story of Kathleen Hanna, the prototypical riot grrrl of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre fame, has its Bay Area premiere on opening night as well. Short pieces get their share of the attention at the festival too -- and certainly deserve yours. Saturday's Locals in Shorts program screens animation, narratives and short documentaries by Oakland filmmakers.
The Institute plays the festival Saturday, September 28, 2013 and will open in Bay Area theaters later this fall. For more information about the Oakland Underground Film Festival, visit oakuff.org.