At times opaque and seemingly incomplete, The Institute is a lazily constructed documentary that doesn’t hide first-time director Spencer McCall’s admitted lack of understanding for his subject. Initially hired to shoot videos for the Jejune Institute, a fake organization invented by the artist Jeff Hull as part of an elaborate fantasy game, McCall, then unemployed in 2011, quickly found himself in Hull’s archives piecing together an approximation of what this elusive, scavenger hunt-like game was and, through interviews with ex-participants, what it was like to experience it. (One such recollection is about visiting the indoctrination room, where a new player would sit alone and watch a cult-like video that pointed them toward the next clue hiding somewhere in San Francisco). The impression given by these interviewees is that this strange game, which alluded to an alternative universe lurking beneath the surface of the mundane (its headquarters were located in the financial district, suggesting a link to the Occupy Wall Street movement), was for them an enticing alternate reality that was in part created by what they brought to it: For some ex-participants the game was a vibrantly imaginative part of their lives, and for others it ignited paranoia, causing them to recoil from it.
But McCall may have had more problems than his own loose grasp on his material: As he’s indicated in interviews, a documentary, by nature of its limitations, cannot adequately capture the different subjective experiences of playing such an abstruse, multi-sensory, location-specific, and time-spanning game. His medium just isn’t suited for the message. McCall wanted the film to reflect some of the confusion participants felt when they engaged with Hull’s world of playful mind-trickery, but there’s a difference between depicting confusion and being confused. Although McCall knew his film couldn’t accurately describe his subject, he figured his story was interesting enough to overcome his slipshod telling of it. Overlooking form for content is almost a sin of necessity if you’re to spend any viewing time in a genre notorious for neglecting aesthetics, but The Institute, far from just needing a beauty makeover, clearly needs a restructuring. Since McCall knew a documentary would inherently be insufficient, why make one?
The Institute can at times be like watching a stranger’s home movies, but instead of the usual themes of birthdays, holidays, and first-times, the events have scant, if any, explanation or reference point, and the people, who, because of all that’s unfortunately left out of the documentary often appear to be reacting to invisible stimuli, seem to be on drugs. You had to be there, it seems, to understand.