The AFI DOCS Interview: AUTONOMY With Director Alex Horowitz – American Film Institute


The AFI DOCS Interview: AUTONOMY With Director Alex Horowitz

AUTONOMY explores the history of automated cars and the impact this technology will have on our society. As the value of our time has changed, it is unavoidable that automation affects the economics of our everyday life.

Executive-produced by Malcolm Gladwell, AUTONOMY asks questions about who will benefit most from this technology, and about the liability and safety concerns of self-driving cars. Futurist thinkers, engineers and researchers share stories of innovation and how new design will shape our experience of traveling by car. By reflecting on the automotive industry’s past, AUTONOMY prompts an important discussion of how Silicon Valley approaches this issue and the policies we should consider during this mobility revolution. We spoke to director Alex Horowitz about the film.

AUTONOMY plays as part of the Spectrum program at AFI DOCS at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington DC on Saturday, June 22. Buy tickets to the screening here.

AFI: What led you to pursue documentary filmmaking?

I started working in New York production with small jobs on big movies. Then, when I got tired of getting coffee, I started working big jobs on small movies. I wrote and directed a zombie love story called ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD, which made the festival rounds. Then I stumbled into editing, working mostly on docs with RadicalMedia. I worked with Joe Berlinger (BROTHER’S KEEPER, PARADISE LOST trilogy) on several projects and even got to cut a short film for my hero, Terry Gilliam. I started filming a documentary on my own with the creative team of “Hamilton”as they started creating that show, before anyone had heard of it. That grew into HAMILTON’S AMERICA, and all of a sudden, I was a documentary filmmaker. It snuck up on me.

AFI: What was the inception of your documentary and what inspired you to tell it?

I suppose that when it comes to self-driving cars, I came to the subject initially from a sci-fi junkie’s point of view. On the face of it, this technology is the realization of decades of speculative writing. It’s science fiction becoming science fact. The film will satisfy the tech nerds to be sure, but I also saw the opportunity to make something that would appeal to everyone. It’s about trust, control, fear and how we relate to the things we build. It’s really a movie about people, not machines.

AFI: How did you discover the subjects in your film?

It is my good fortune that Car and Driver had already collaborated with Malcolm Gladwell for their November 2017 issue on self-driving vehicles, and then had the great idea to follow that up with a film. Diving into the research, I identified the pioneering engineers, thinkers and policy makers who most interested me as interview subjects, and we reached out. I also used some great non-fiction casting agents to help me identify a handful of “regular folks” who have connections to the material and are articulate on the subject. But it was tough to narrow the field for all of these characters because the topic is so big.

AFI: What was a particular obstacle you faced while making the film?

The toughest thing about AUTONOMY was that it’s a big subject with no clear lead character. I had no apparent central narrative to latch onto, apart from the development of autonomous vehicle technology. We found supporting characters and created “mini docs” within the film. I’m proud of those portraits. But we also got to find Sadayuki Tsugawa and Ernst Dickmanns, retired engineers on opposite sides of the world who created the first cars that could “see” and drive themselves. Up to now, they’re usually footnotes in technical literature, but deserve to be revered as giants. I’m very happy to showcase them and their work.

AFI:  What do you want audiences to take away after viewing the film?

AUTONOMY is a documentary about the future. It’s the first deep-dive documentary about self-driving cars — how they work, how they don’t work and how they stand to change society. I make no specific predictions about how the details will play out because I don’t think that’s the job of a documentarian. But, broadly, I do believe that this technology will change society for all of us and that most of us haven’t even begun to think about it seriously. Apart from those few who really follow the industry, we don’t really discuss self-driving technology much at our dinner tables, but I think we should. I want AUTONOMY to give a general audience an objective framework for discussing something world-changing while it’s still in its relative infancy.

AFI: Why is Washington, DC an important place to screen your film?

On a personal note, I grew up mostly in the Washington DC/Maryland area, so AFI DOCS is a bit of a homecoming for me. But I also think it’s important that DC educate itself about self-driving technology. As these vehicles evolve and these companies grow up, we will have to rely on even-handed, rational regulations that keep us safe while encouraging innovations that will improve everyone’s quality of life. So far, I don’t think we’ve heard much substantive, informed talk on the subject from our policy-makers — certainly not at the federal level. AUTONOMYis by no means a replacement for a thorough, technical education on AVs, but it’s a great introduction. I’m grateful to Senator Gary Peters of Michigan for participating in the film, but most of his peers don’t share his expertise or interest in the subject, and I’d like AUTONOMY to be a small part of changing that. If everyone in Washington spent 80 minutes watching the film, we could increase the “AV IQ” of the nation by at least an order of magnitude. Can you tell that I’ve been hanging out with engineers a lot?

AFI: Why are documentary films vital today?

I’m guessing that most documentarians have a similar answer to this question nowadays especially, but it cannot be overstated how important it is to share stories with audiences that illuminate objective truths. Trust in journalism is at an all-time low, and the internet is clogged with so much spin, out-of-context noise and outright lies that society has lost its grip on reality. So, if the news isn’t trusted, documentaries offer us a chance to spend more time with subjects, to offer context and personal perspectives on stories that make them resonate with audiences and, ultimately, shape a shared, objective understanding of what’s going on in the world. That’s not to say that documentaries can’t be emotional and subjective. Of course, they can. But that’s what gives them their strength. By making “real” stories engaging and entertaining, we can reach hearts and minds at the same time. That’s an immense power and responsibility which I take very seriously.

Buy tickets to AUTONOMY here.

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