Sergio Toporek made Beware of Images to educate people about the power of images. The documentary’s poster includes the pipe from René Magritte’s 1929 painting “The Treachery of Images,” which shows a pipe and, under it, the words, “This is not a pipe.” The Beware of Images website notes that, when Magritte was told he actually had created a pipe, he responded, “OK, you should try filling it with tobacco then.” (image from Sergio Toporek)
Sergio Toporek worked in advertising for more than two decades before realizing he had a problem – “I had become a tool of the market,” he admits in a 2013 CreativeMornings Vancouver talk that can be seen on YouTube. He decided then to become his own client, and to educate people about how images are being used. The result is the feature-length, animated documentary Beware of Images, which premières at Vancity Theatre July 27 and 28, with Toporek answering audience questions after each screening.
”I first conceived of the idea for a media literacy documentary about 10 years ago, but started working on it two years later,” Toporek told the Independent. “At first, I was doing it part-time, but gradually it took over most of my time.
“The documentary is based on a 24-hour course I teach at Vancouver Film School. The documentary and course have been influencing each other for the past decade and have evolved in parallel. The original script was five hours long, but I have been distilling it to its current 2.5-hour format.
“While the original idea was more focused on current technologies, the final piece has evolved to include much of the history of mediated representation,” he said. “The idea is that the best way to truly understand our current media environment is to understand how it came to be. There are explicit and suggested similarities between past and present technologies throughout the film. My hope is that we will be able to create a better media landscape by learning from past mistakes, mostly by encouraging the audience to be active participants to its future.”
In the 2014 Kickstarter campaign video for the documentary, which can also be seen on YouTube, Toporek explains that his aha moment came when he was given the opportunity to work on a Budweiser commercial in 2007. The way in which the advertising objectified women started him thinking differently, not to mention that he would be working to increase awareness of a product that didn’t need any more awareness, in his view. Add to that the fact that serious issues – many caused, in his opinion, by the corporations hiring him, such as consumerism, environmental pollution, racial stereotyping and glamorized violence – receive little attention, and are even “intentionally underreported.”
“The documentary is divided in 14 interconnected chapters,” said Toporek. “My hope is that educators can address specific media literacy subjects by screening its corresponding chapter. While the best way to experience the film is to watch it in full, short chapters on propaganda, advertising, race/gender representation, etc., can be very helpful to educators to set up and start a conversation.”
He will be promoting the film by screening it in educational and community settings around the world, he said. “I’m interested in the potential post-screening dialogue it can generate. After a year or so of touring with the documentary, I’d like to start writing a new film about the history of automation and its current implications.”
Toporek was born and raised in Mexico City. There, he studied photography and graphic design and earned the bulk of his living designing CD covers for Latin American musicians, work that dwindled after he moved to Vancouver in 1996 because of distance in part, but mainly because of changes in the music industry as it went digital. He was mainly earning his living in advertising by 2005, and joined the Vancouver Film School faculty in 2006. He has a master of education from Harvard University and “completed the thesis for Beware of Images at Stanford University based on research he conducted at the University of British Columbia,” notes the short bio on the film’s website.
“I grew up in a Sephardi-Ashkenazi family in Mexico City,” Toporek told the Independent. “Even though I became an agnostic at a very young age, my Jewish background has been essential…. The great value placed on education during my formative years was instrumental in fostering the constant pursuit of knowledge that has led me to embrace all culture – Judaism included – as a single field of studies.”
Since leaving advertising, making a living “has been one of the most difficult aspects to address,” Toporek admitted. “Commercial design and advertising can be very lucrative careers, particularly when compared to the severely underfunded educational sector. That said, there are many fulfilling rewards in education, even when they can’t be monetized. For now, I’ve made peace with the fact that my income will remain more modest than when I was serving the corporate world.
“For the past years, my income has come from teaching at VFS and from the odd commercial project I do when money becomes an issue. I am very lucky, though, to have a very supportive life partner. She has been an amazing champion of this project, helping it come to life with her constant understanding and encouragement.”
And what an ambitious project, trying to educate people about the power of images. Not only is he up against wealth and power, but ignorance. As he explains in the 2013 CreativeMornings talk: most people believe they can tell the difference between images and reality or are too sophisticated to fall for advertising campaigns, but our reaction to images is emotional not intellectual, and we like the illusions they create. It is our belief that we are immune to images that makes us so vulnerable to them, he contends.
So, he’s up against seemingly insurmountable odds – and others have tried before him (Naomi Klein and Adbusters, for example). In what ways will his efforts be unique or different?
“This is a great question, and one that I ask myself constantly,” he said. “I think that we all have a part to play in the media literacy discourse. There are no simple solutions or absolute victories, and there will never be. It is all just tendencies and gradual improvements. I see my work as a small contribution to a vast field of studies – studies that are as ancient as the Taoist cautious examination of language and as new as virtual reality.
“I greatly admire the work of Naomi Klein and the Adbusters Media Foundation, as well as that of media scholars such as Neil Postman and Jacques Ellul. I think that my work differs from theirs mostly in the way it is being delivered. While I think that the book is still the most nuanced and comprehensive medium we have to address complex issues, we are gradually shifting towards a visual and short-attention-span culture. In that respect, I think that Beware of Images talks about its subject in its own language and terms: images about images.”
For tickets to the July screenings, visit viff.org.