The director conducts an experiment: he films his child’s entire life continuously from birth. A rotating team of cameramen are contracted to keep a camera fixed on the child at all times, even while he sleeps. An adoptive family is hired to raise him. The camera records constantly, uploading footage wirelessly to an archive of hard drives. Two cameras are kept on standby to continue filming uninterrupted in case the primary camera malfunctions. The financial demands and technical logistics of this endeavor are outrageous, but the director has unfathomable resources and the cameramen are consummate professionals.
This is not the unconscious public spectacle of The Truman Show; the child, as he grows up, knows that he is being filmed. He comes to know the cameramen, though they never speak to him, and at times he addresses the camera. So ubiquitous is the presence of the camera that true solitude is incomprehensible to him. While he understands that other people are not subject to the same mysterious scrutiny, the presence of the camera is so persistent that it does not perturb him. He pisses and shits and commits petty crimes without thinking of the camera, and when he grows old enough, he masturbates before it without shame. Initially, his sex life is hampered by the camera’s staring eye, but certain women find the surveillance exhilarating, an exhibitionist thrill, watched by their lover and a stranger and, someday, another stranger peering through the eye of the camera. They are assured that only one person will ever see this footage, although they are not told who this person is. Most attempts at long term relationships deteriorate rapidly, but a few women take to the camera’s presence quite naturally.
Eventually he marries one of these women, and they conceive twins. This is not happenstance; it is part of the design. It is a difficult and protracted birth, and they are told that one of the twins has not survived the ordeal. The woman asks to see her child’s body, and she is shown a child’s body. The couple raises their one son to the best of their ability.
Their other child is taken to a hidden facility, where they screen the life of the father to the son. Like the figures in Plato’s allegory, he is never exposed to anything else. He lives by watching the life of his father, without ever meeting him. He sleeps when his father sleeps, eats when his father eats. While the father goes on living his life, the son watches his father’s past as his own present unfolding.
It cannot be said how he perceives all of this. The director apparently had no interest in documenting the results of his experiment. Consequently, no one knows how his grandchild regards his own life. Perhaps he takes his father to be himself, a third person existence. Maybe he reveres his father as a deity. Possibly, like the camera through which he sees the world, he does not think about it at all. But he watches his father grow up, and as he himself grows up, he watches his father grow old.
A few things are known about him. Sometimes, when his father seems to laugh for no reason, as if recalling an old joke, his watching son laughs too, with uncanny simultaneity. But then again, not always. From time to time, inevitably, the figure of his father falls out of the frame, and whenever this happens he mumbles frantically to himself, though only snatches of what he says can be heard. If not for those moments, no one would even know that he possesses the capacity for speech. He never tries to speak to the figures on-screen.
Later, he witnesses his own conception, and while he is present for his birth, he sees only his father’s face watching the birth. He hears about his own alleged death, though it’s impossible to tell whether he deduces anything from this passing detail. His father raises his estranged brother, who probably seems more to him like a son. For a second time, he watches first words, first steps, the early wonder of life blooming. Again, he watches it all in silence.
At age 63, his father is diagnosed with cancer. This is years after the director’s death, which had no bearing on the lives of his descendants; the plan continued in the absence of its architect. His father dies at 65, but his life goes on for another 32 years in the lighted darkness of a secret room. Near the end of the film, the son observes the disintegration of his father’s health with the same serene attentiveness that he paid to the rest of his life. When the machine monitoring his father’s vital signs flatlines, the camera finally cuts and the screen goes black.
The house lights come up. An aging man sits strapped into a life support system that he has never stepped out of. He blinks and stretches and yawns and says, “Well that’s 65 years of my life I’ll never get back.”