Words || Georgia Drinan
In the early 1960s, a man named Stanley Milgram performed a now infamous experiment while attempting to uncover more about the darker aspects of human nature; namely, the capability of ordinary people to be galvanised into committing genocide. Equal parts cutting-edge science and dramatic performance art, Milgram asked volunteers to administer electric shocks to a volunteer in the name of a “learning and memory experiment,” and famously claimed that 65 per cent of individuals obeyed orders to the point of administering shocks so strong they could kill. The participants knew the voltage of shocks they were administering to the volunteers was potentially lethal. And yet, the majority continued on.
Turns out the volunteers were actors and the shocks were fake, but nonetheless, the potential of normal people to commit murder just because they were ordered to is chilling.
In her film Shock Room, Macquarie-based filmmaker, researcher and self-confessed Milgram obsessive Kathryn Millard re-imagines the shocking experiment, creating an engaging and fascinating glimpse into the psychology behind obeying and resisting authority.
“I found Milgram’s black-and-white footage of ordinary people grappling with their consciences compelling,” Millard revealed in her Director’s statement. “So much so that Obedience [Milgram’s documentary about the experiment] was one of the films that set me on the path to becoming a filmmaker. But I was always uneasy with Milgram’s conclusions. Were we really programmed to obey?”
And so, this became the central question of the film. Are humans just creatures designed to submit to authority? Under what circumstances do we rebel? It was discovered that Milgram undertook his experiment 25 times, but he only filmed and released the results from one. So are are we as disposed to following orders as Milgram has led us to believe?
“I wanted to show that the default setting of human beings is not to blindly follow orders” Millard says to me during our phone interview. She is softly spoken and extremely eloquent, and her passion for the experiment is abundantly clear. ‘We should always question things. No matter the situation, we always have choices.”
The nature of decision making, and exercising a choice to resist, is a deeply complex one which rides heavily on the social and emotional contexts surrounding a situation. Steeped in history, Milgram’s experiment was fresh out of the wounds of the World War II. Stanley Milgram was determined to find out exactly why ordinary people had come together to commit the atrocities of the Holocaust. Was it a flaw in human nature, or an extreme form of cognitive dissonance which prevented the Nazi soldiers and detention camp guards from understanding what crimes they were committing? Or was it simply a case of following orders; that as humans, we accept authority, regardless of how objectionable the orders may be?
Shock Room features professional actors who created characters they would embody while the experiment was re-created. According to Millard, none of the actors knew the true nature of the experiment; they were asked to improvise in-character as the experiment was recreated using them as the participants.
“The Milgram experiment was really a product of a time before ethics approval for experiments,” Millard explains. “In fact, it was one of the things that led to experiments having to obtain ethics clearance before they go ahead. The original obedience experiment would have been quite traumatic for volunteers to participate in; you wouldn’t be able to do that today.”
Despite the simulated nature of the footage in SHOCK ROOM, Millard is adamant that these dramatisations are as true to the experiment as possible.
‘‘A lot of research went into creating an authentic atmosphere for our actors to really perform those kinds of extended improvisations. Everything from the dialogue to the appearance of the shock machine, was made to be as close to the Milgram experiment as it could be.”
Millard first started collecting data for Shock Room in 2008. As part of her research she acquired access to Milgram’s original notes – and the culmination of her almost decade-long journey is a film that is brave, sensitive and powerful in its unabashed exploration of the unexplained aspects of human nature.
The experiment increases in intensity over the course of the film, from participants being objectively told that they must continue administering shocks, to bluntly informing them that they have no choice but to continue. Interestingly, in light of Milgram’s claims that people are naturally disposed to submit to authority, every participant reacted by resisting upon being told they have no choice.
“What do you mean I don’t have a choice? I’m exercising my choice right now,” one participant claimed after refusing to administer any more shocks to the volunteer.
“Everybody has a choice,” stated another participant.
Watching Shock Room was an emotional experience. Millard states that she was determined to create a piece of art which would be something more than simply entertaining; she wanted to delve deep and start discussions about the complex nature of resistance.
“Art has so much potential,” says Millard. “I love the idea that film, and theatre, and art, can explore really big ideas about human behaviour and get us involved in discussion. Being interesting or aesthetically pleasing is important, but I feel that art has so much more potential than to only be entertaining.”
A fascinating, beautiful and thought-provoking watch, Shock Room certainly delivers on its promise to engage its audience in some complex ideas. Millard challenges the notion that humans are design to obey; through Shock Room, we see that people are complex, empathetic, fascinating creatures. Quite to the contrary of Milgram’s original assertion that humans are “programmed to obey,” Millard makes clear to us through this film that all of us have a choice. Often, making that choice is hard- but if people do have a ‘default setting,’ it’s to do what we feel is right. Our resistance is a powerful thing, and absolutely nothing can ever take that away.