Commentary

Skype's "The Impossible Family Portrait" Lacks Emotion

There are instances when my brain tells me that I am supposed to be emotionally stirred by something, and yet the tear ducts don't play along. It happens during graduations and eulogies. It happens during renditions of the national anthem, yogurt commercials and Titanic. I am neither a standard-bearer for old-school machismo nor immune to emotional manipulation; it's just that sometimes I can see the flashing IT IS TIME TO FEEL ALL MOVED AND SORROWFUL AND WHATNOT sign and am tripped by the obviousness and/or shamelessness of the appeal.

I mention this in the wake of viewing "The Impossible Family Portrait," in which Skype cyber-unites a family across oceans, time zones and improbably sturdy rural Internet connections. The clip recounts the tale of Denis, a Ugandan immigrant who arrived in the U.S. without possessions, photos or his son. In the narration, he tells us how much he misses his family and both the literal and figurative warmth of his home country. It builds to a first-ever family portrait, in which Denis stands next to a live Skype-casted image of his family and everyone smiles for the camera, and concludes with Denis taping a printout of the photo to the wall of his modest room.

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So why doesn't my heart sink with sorrow for a family torn asunder? Why doesn't my spirit sing the joyous song of an emotional connection reestablished? Why don't I, for lack of a more elegant way to put it, give a crap?

It's because the clip feels choreographed within an inch of its life. The moment the soundtrack transitions from slow, airy strains of synthesized strings into percussive guitar plunks, we know that we're about to be smacked about the torso with some major-key emotional uplift. The second we see an image of Denis shopping for groceries, we know that a shot of his family shopping in a market of a less urbanized sort will follow (in the parlance of big-time filmmakers, that's called "parallelalizing"). I know how this story is going to end three-seventeenths of a second after it starts. It's not going to involve a "buffering" icon.

Too, a few more details might've helped to flesh out the clip. Denis says that "everyone has a story about how the war affected them." Well, okay. Tell us yours. Were you forced from your family under duress or did you willingly flee to pursue a better future? The answer to that single question could render the clip far more powerful. We're supposed to feel that Denis' smiles are hard-won - and from the limited information we have, they seem to be - but his story seems drastically oversimplified in the interest of keeping the clip from descending into Frontline­ solemnity.

If we're going the detail route, a quick update on the situation in Uganda wouldn't hurt, either. "The Impossible Family Portrait" overestimates the knowledge of the YouTube-ing public - most members of which couldn't pick out Uganda on a map, much less give a half-accurate account of the strife that prompted Denis and many others to depart. Again, more information can only heighten the emotional stakes.

Meanwhile, I'm shoulder-deep into this review and I've mentioned the clip's creative benefactor, Skype, exactly twice. Obviously a brand striving for emotional heft isn't going to slap a logo on every unoccupied frame, but the lack of brand presence makes the campaign as much about video-chat technology as about Skype technology. Seems worth noting.

Branding impotence or no, the real issue with "The Impossible Family Portrait" remains its utter transparency of intent. It's not hard to envision its creators sitting around the table, worrying less about forging a legitimate emotional connection than about making everyone in its path sob as if exposed to a photo album of sickly kittens. Transparency is a good thing in government and negligee, but it's bad in this particular piece of brand video.

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