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Tilda Swinton's The Hexagonal Hive and a Mouse in a Maze struggled to present its purpose at DocFest

Despite an interesting premise of exploring education, Swinton's directorial feature debut is let down by its fragmented narrative and overambitious execution.

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The Hexagonal Hive and a Mouse in a Maze by Bartek Dziadosz, Tilda Swinton.

Described as an exploration of “the role of education”, Bartek Dziadosz and Tilda Swinton's The Hexagonal Hive and a Mouse in a Maze sought to understand “what it means to learn.” Making its world premiere at DocFest, it was an ambitious look at learning across different cultures in the UK, Bangladesh, west Africa, and North America.

Unfortunately, the film’s attempts to cover multiple themes resulted in a fragmented narrative. Its disjointed nature was exacerbated by the confusing choice of a narrator from the year 2042, which the film-makers struggled to justify during the Q&A. This decision, coupled with the inconsistent presence of the narration, detracted from the potential to create a personal and engaging journey.

Even the film's title reveals how it tries to cover too much ground. We see a very short clip of a class learning to make a hexagonal beehive, and another incredibly small section on a robot mouse being programmed to memorise a maze. These two very different forms of education would arguably have been difficult to explore individually in under two hours.

While the film includes some enjoyable moments, such as humorous anecdotes from the narrator, these are few and far between. One major misstep was the jarring contrast between depictions of children in safe environments and those in more challenging circumstances. This felt out of touch, particularly given the privileged backgrounds of the film-makers.

Discovering how different cultures view education was something I’d looked forward to. But watching African children build their own toys from scratch and then help their parents with intense manual labour, followed by clips of the western world digitally monitoring dances and discussing machine learning made for an uncomfortable watch, and felt disconnected.

Another touchy subject was the film’s seemingly pro-AI outlook, with many AI-generated scenes and characters. With many creatives losing work and struggling to survive as their jobs are replaced by these technologies, it felt unfair that these AI depictions earned more screen-time than the educators the documentary was based on.

Some of the human scenes were insightful, such as a young Bangladeshi girl who shared how education gave her the courage to explore and move into unknown territory, set against the contrasting outlook of a teacher who believed it was about adaptation and helping people to survive. Had we seen more of these interviews, the film could have left its viewers considering each point and continuing their own discussions, but instead these scenes were too brief.

A major redeeming quality was the sound. In the Q&A, sound designer Simon Fisher Turner spoke to the organic nature and thoughtfulness of his decisions. Joking that he was “the bloke who is recording stuff that the sound recorder doesn’t record”, Turner revealed that the film’s piano sections were recorded in Swinton’s parents’ home while they happened to be there filming interviews, and is actually the two of them playing.

The inclusion of various media clips felt random and lacked any clear relevance to the film’s central theme. “Is bricolage essential to the film?” asked an audience member, to which the team could only reference their backgrounds in creating film essays (i.e. it was just a habit). This didn’t really answer the question. What has a scene from My Neighbor Totoro got to do with education?

One story that did feel relevant though was Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. Split between Swinton reading extracts and scenes from Jan Svankmajer’s Alice, this perspective seemed to make sense: Alice in Wonderland is a tale of a young girl’s curiosity and yearning to learn (something which Svankmajer elaborates on through Alice’s darker mood).

Despite insightful interviews with scientists, educators, and students, the film's overarching question – what is learning? – gets lost amid too many topics. The film would have benefited from a more focused approach, delving deeper into specific examples such as the unique school that inspired the project. Similar to that school, the film-makers chose to remove all names and sources to focus on the substance. Instead, it felt under-researched, which given it was developed for more than five years, I know is not the case.

While it touched on interesting concepts and visuals, ultimately it struggled to find its footing. Despite its noble aim, The Hexagonal Hive and a Mouse in a Maze fell short of delivering a cohesive narrative, leaving the audience with a sense of confusion rather than clarity.

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