Spencer McCall embarked on a peculiar scavenger hunt through San Francisco four years ago. His experience set the foundation for “The Institute,” his first feature-length film, that last month screened to great acclaim at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
‘The Institute” is a mind-bending documentary about an alternate reality game, known as the Games of Nonchalance, that unfolded throughout San Francisco between 2008-11. Approximately 10,000 people participated by following cleverly hidden messages in posters, stickers and various other forms of street art.
McCall, 26, was a recent SF State graduate in cinema production, when he too followed the signs and discovered a world that blurred the lines between real and fake.
His film explores the game’s enigmatic world as seen through the eyes of its participants and creators.
The film introduces audiences to the Jejune Institute — the game’s headquarters quietly nestled on the 16th floor of 580 California St. in the Financial District.
While at Jejune, players first went through an induction process where they were given instructions for a series of missions in San Francisco. Those missions ranged from answering mysterious phone calls in specific locations to searching for clues in maps and props hidden at local businesses.
What ensued was a series of challenges where players found themselves as part of the elaborate narrative.
“To be honest, it really creeped me out,” McCall, who teaches graphic arts part-time at SF State, said of his initial encounter with the institute. He only made it through the induction phase, but the experience left a strong impression. “It stuck around in my head,” he said.
Having recently been laid off from his video production job at BioArts International, a firm that specialized in bioengineering and dog cloning, McCall decided to volunteer his services to the institute. He made promotional videos for them and as a result had access to hundreds of hours of archival footage.
“By the end of it I had so much footage that I didn’t know what to do with it other than to make a documentary,” McCall said.
What McCall discovered was an endearing look at a quasi self-help organization that wanted nothing more than to unite the city under a bold and unconventional game where its participants were challenged to view the world around them through a different lens.
Despite its somewhat complicated premise, McCall said that his film is meant to encourage its audience into an exploration of the unknown.
“It’s really easy to go from point A to point B and to just live in your own little bubble, “ McCall said. “But when you’re willing to break out and look past the cave you live in, I think you get so much out of life and you realize that there are these hidden underground worlds that exist within the fabric of our everyday society.”
Since its sold out screenings at Slamdance, “The Institute” has been riding a wave of positive word of mouth. Village Voice and LA Weekly named it the best of the fest saying, “McCall recalls this all in a playfully subversive fashion, attempting to replicate in cinematic terms the experience of participating in the game itself.”
Joe Bendel from Libertas Film Magazine said, “McCall taps into our deep, abiding interest in secret histories, conspiracy theories, and urban legends, as well as our fear of cults.”
For McCall, the attention has afforded him several distribution deal offers and a possible theatrical run later this year.
“I am so honored and appreciative,” McCall said. “We were definitely on people’s radar at the festival, which is really cool.”
Last Fall was McCall’s first semester teaching at SF State, and his film’s recent success at Slamdance has not gone unnoticed by his students.
“It makes me really honored and enlightened to know that one of my own professors is having success outside of the classroom,” Anthony Buada, 26 and visual communications major, said. “After finishing “The Institue,” it made me look at the world from a different angle.”
Uriah Findley, the film’s co-producer and one of the masterminds behind the Games of Nonchalance, said that he has moved by what McCall was able to convey in the film.
“The motive was to change the way people lead their lives through play, creativity and unexpected activities in an urban space,” Findley said. “It was gratifying to see what we’d done through a different lens.”
The Jejune Institute closed in 2011, thus putting an end to the Games of Nonchalance. However, Findley said that there are definite plans to start up anew this summer, but would not reveal more than that.
The new game will follow in the same vein of what they did with the Jejune Institute. Findley says it will “blow the lid off everything we’ve done in the past.”
As for McCall, he will resume teaching at SF State next Fall, and is currently working on a handful of projects including a found-footage horror film that he was hired to direct after his successful showing at Slamdance. He is expected to announce distribution plans for “The Institute” in the coming weeks.