Award-winning filmmaker Max Stossel creates status-quo-challenging videos representing an array of human voices, from sexually abused children to the families of gun-crime victims. I caught up with Max in his home borough, Brooklyn.
WJ: So you just delighted us with your latest three-minute film, "This Panda Is Dancing"—highlighting a future where technology is built on human values, not screen time. If you could pick five values for technology makers to focus on, what would those be?
MS: [This Panda Is Dancing is about the fact that] I don't want to pick. I want every human being to pick. Let's build a level of consent between us and our devices so we can tell our technology what matters to us personally. It can feed us the type of content and experiences that we want.
I would love for my device to help me be compassionate and caring, to value my time as much as I do, and for it to know what is a positive and a negative net life experience for me.
To say, "Max, you just spent six hours watching Netflix. Would you like to prevent this behavior in the future?" It's something that we can all relate to, losing that time. The content is so compelling, designed with such a hook. All of a sudden there's a cutoff. Netflix doesn't ask you, "Do you want the next episode?" because it's in their best interest for me to be watching more. And your cursor is already hovering over the next episode as it counts down to playing.
WJ: You want technology to help you tune into your values and authentically define them?
MS: Yes, helping me to understand me better. Honesty is something that's important to me, and if I'm being my authentic self I'm being my honest self. It sounds scary. Whoa—what? Technology is going to help define who I am? But it's already happening, so let's start that conversation with our developers to build based on our values.
WJ: Did you get any feedback from the families of gun crime victims on the video "Stop Making Murderers Famous"?
MS: Yes, from a group called NoNotoriety. They lost their son in the Aurora shooting. Imagine losing a child and being in that media cycle where what you see is not your child's memory but the person who murdered your child, plastered everywhere. The video came about after I saw the clip of an Oregon sheriff saying, "We are not going to name the shooter. We are not going to give him credit that he probably sought." And I cut directly to CNN saying, "We have his name, here it is, and we have a quote from him…" Think about the next shooter. The copycat phenomenon is real.
WJ: Did you talk to policymakers about how the media sells advertising space using fear?
MS: I sat down with five media organizations and had a digital roundtable on how to establish a policy where we tell the stories of what happened but not in a way that perpetuates future killings. Why not cover the stories of the heroes who tried to save people or the families talking about gun control? So we created a policy.
WJ: I link courage to happiness in my book, naming fear as the principal cause of unhappiness. How can we challenge the perpetuation of fear by the media?
MS: Fear is everywhere. It's an incredible motivator. It gets us to buy stuff or turn to the powers that be to protect us. But the one thing to remember in our world right now is that by most standards the world is safer than it's ever been. But we have cameras now. We can see them. We can fix these things now.
WJ: If you were to triage the world's problems, which would you address most urgently?
MS: What's closest to my heart is child sexual abuse, rape, and mistreatment of women. The world needs more femininity. We've leaned heavily into masculinity for a long time. I surround myself with incredible, strong women.
I think the Time Well Spent initiative is incredibly important for our future because it's moving quickly and we are going to lose ourselves in our devices. That sounds dystopian, but we're going to lose our humanity.
WJ: In the child abuse video, "Whose Side Are You On?", you use the language, "bury the pain inside, dull the pain inside." Is that something you can relate to?
MS: That was one of the first videos I did for a client. I was not abused as a child. I locked myself in a room and watched a whole lot of speeches and videos of people who were, trying to find the most painful aspect.
One of the things that really stuck with me was "When you can't turn to your family, you turn to the bottle."
People who are processing what happened to them self-medicate, replacing human support with drug and alcohol abuse.
WJ: You provide portals to different perspectives. In your "Subway Love" video, you suggest that if we allow ourselves to drop ego and fear and increase vulnerability and curiosity, we will increase our chances of finding love.
MS: I had this deep longing to make it easier to connect, looking at the amount of potential in the number of people in New York on the subway, standing there, miserable.
Imagine the possibilities in that car, whether business or romantic. The train car is such an example of potential completely wasted.
That fantasy is something that all New Yorkers can relate to, breaking out of the monotony of routine and just seizing the moment.
WJ: And it won the Gold Coast International Film Festival?
MS: They asked, "Can we put this film in the festival?" So I said, "Sure," and it won. If there's anyone reading this article out there who knows the festival world and wants to reach out to me, I would love to submit to other festivals.
WJ: There are a few reasons you remind me of Bob Dylan (not least how you look). Were you inspired by Dylan? Who or what drove you to poetic filmmaking?
MS: My Bob Dylan game is pretty weak, considering the comparisons I get. I started doing this because a poet came and performed in my friend's living room. His name is In-Q. His style is different from mine, but he opens up your creativity. I remember a lot of what he said and started scribbling what I liked about his performance on the way home. The first two lines of what I wrote rhymed, and I thought, "Oh. I could do this."
WJ: What's your next project?
MS: I'm going to tackle this piece about porn: how it affected my relationships and sex life and overcoming that. I worry that young people are getting their sex education from porn. I did and that was damaging and took a lot of undoing and unlearning. That's the next thing I want to put out into the world.
WJ: You're helping a lot of people.
MS: Someone told me there's this new idea of a billionaire and it's not someone with a billion dollars but a person who has touched the lives of a billion people.
WJ: Would you ever consider a documentary-length film?
MS: I have one project lined up that involves a lot of travel: It's around the words I love you. In Bengali, there are no words for it. They have, "I love the essence of your being." It's beautiful. We use 'love' for "I love my coffee," "I love my mum," and there's no uniqueness between the situations. In Arabic, love and death are intertwined and there are four ways of saying I love you. In Filipino, they use the same word for expensive. I want to travel the world and interview people about their love stories.
WJ: I just watched Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary, Before the Flood—a plea for action on climate change. I believe your storytelling techniques could have more of an impact than a 90-minute film. Would you consider a short film project with Leo?
MS: He keeps calling, but I'm not answering. [Laughs] I'm drawn to this short-form format from my background in social media. Short films are a good way of keeping people's attention. We just need to figure out how we link short form with depth of information so we don't lose the message. How can you distill the essence of something and still provide access to the resources?
WJ: But you can distill the essence of a lot of communications. It's a growth area.
MS: For the world.
My favorite Abraham Lincoln quote is "I'm sorry I wrote such a long speech. I didn't have time to write a short one."