I Am A Channel

I Am A Channel (2024)

Brian Wiebe’s debut feature I Am A Channel concerns the rise and transformation of an influencer, played by its co-writer Christine Vrem-Ydstie. The influencer is both a relatively new phenomenon (given that they mostly peddle their mesmeric imprint online), and a figure of contradictions, unquestionably, indeed definitionally popular yet also often deeply despised. Like moving selfies, they present their own personas and lifestyles as models of aspiration or at least of fascination, and offer a hook on which advertisers, promoters and distributors are happy to hang their wares in the race for profit.

The empty narcissism of influencers has made them easy targets for a run of recent films – and while Kurtis David Harder’s Influencer (2022) and Alex Haughey’s Under The Influencer (2023) reserved some sympathy for the trap of keeping up appearances in which influencers can so easily become stuck, far more often their superficiality is skewered in films like Caryn Waechter’s DeadCon (2019), Hannah Barlow & Kane Senes’ Sissy (2021), Marcus Harben’s Followers (2021), Joseph & Vanessa Winter’s Deadstream (2022), Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness  (2022), Kristoffer Borgli’s Sick of Myself (2022) and Travis Bible’s #chadgetstheaxe (2023). 

I Am A Channel certainly falls into the latter category, first introducing us to its influencer protagonist as she appears on her Youtube channel Tigerlily Magic, with Heidi, and then gradually peeling back the layers of her awfulness to reveal the deep void within. From the start, Heidi Tigerlily spins her confessional-style hippie-dippy faux intimacy out of a preoccupation with surfaces. “A lot of us struggle when we look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning,” she says to camera in her living room, practically spelling out the narcissistic neediness that she both has and reflects in her audience of followers – whom she calls her ‘Tigerlilies’. After seeming to bare her soul merely by admitting to a minor imperfection, she will turn to the camera and say, “You love me anyway, right?” – yet soon she will be pushing  beauty products, dietary fads and alternative medicines, pandering to the very insecurities in her audience which she purports to be challenging. 

Heidi is shallow, vapid, insincere, inauthentic – indeed, Heidi is not even her real name. As I Am A Channel constantly switches between the edited version of her show, and its messier making, we see a woman slowly coming apart at the seams, crumpling under the pressures of constantly performing an appealing, charismatic, enviable version of herself even as she suffers hidden debts, has a day job working phone scams, and treats her put-upon slacker boyfriend Rian (Ryan Imhoff) like a prop and a slave. It is this controlling nature which allows her easy transition from lifestyle guru to cult leader, after she parlays a hallucination that she experiences during a drug-taking session with Rian into a whole new spiritual religion, with her as its head.

As its very title implies, I Am A Channel teases out a slippage between the language of online celebrity and cult worship. Heidi may run a YouTube channel, but will soon  be declaring herself a channel between the human world and “the next plane”. She will go from documenting her quackish, week-long ‘Guru Cleanse’ to elevating herself to the status of actual guru, converting her ‘followers’ to faithful fanatics, and upgrading her activities from mere ‘influence’ to hypnotism and brainwashing. 

As the Tigerlilies dance to Heidi’s deranged tune and, under her barked instructions, transfer their love from their actual kin to their ‘new family’ with her, Wiebe’s satire is unearthing the uncomfortable connections between (world wide) web spinners and self-serving Svengalis, where clicking and subscribing are not so very far away from surrendering one’s whole self to an imperfect stranger who only feigns their love for you while taking you for a ride. It goes without saying that, in our age of Trumpian showmanship, salesmanship and demagoguery, this cautionary allegory also comes with a decidedly political edge.    

strap: Brian Wiebe’s satirical feature debut lifts the mask from an online influencer to reveal the narcissistic emptiness beneath

© Anton Bitel