In 1914, the Czech author Franz Kafka wrote a novel titled The Trial. Published against Kafka’s wishes following his untimely death ten years later, the book technically classifies as a crime story, albeit one totally unlike any other. It tells the story of Josef K., a cashier who—one unsuspecting morning—is arrested without ever receiving a proper explanation why.
The accusation baffles K., as he has no knowledge of ever breaking the law. What’s more, the government agencies that persecute him refuse to tell him what exactly he did wrong, no matter how many times he asks. The novel, which Kafka fittingly never finished, follows an increasingly despairing K. as he is tossed around by an indifferent and seemingly absurd justice system.
Kafka’s writing left a huge influence on generations of writers and artists, who felt that his nightmarish novels anticipated and captured the direction in which modern society is headed. Most recently, Mexican-American screenwriter and filmmaker K.D. Dávila took inspiration from The Trial when creating her Oscar-nominated short Please Hold.
The Arrest of Mateo T.
Please Hold, which is now available on HBO Max, takes place in the not-so-distant future. Mateo Torres is on his way to work when a police drone flies up to inform him that he has been arrested for an undisclosed crime he knows nothing about, and that he will be subjected to “non-lethal” force if he refuses to turn himself in.
After putting on handcuffs, Mateo is taken to a fully-automated holding cell, where an interactive screen—his only form of communication with the outside world—informs him that he has less than a 20% chance of winning his trial and that he will be sentenced to 45 years in prison unless he pleads guilty, which would reduce the sentence to between 5 and 7 years.
The screen shows Mateo a number of ads. Some are discounts for nicer prison cells. Others, commercials for crooked lawyers. He tries to place a call, but is placed on hold. After several hours, the call disconnects and the screen informs Mateo that he has insufficient funds. Calls, it says somewhere in the prison’s fine print, cost about three dollars a minute.
The Kafkaesque of Modern-day Bureaucracy
Please Hold is undoubtedly “Kafkaesque,” a term which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, can be used to describe social processes that have a “nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” Similar to The Trial, writer-director Dávila uses this concept in relation to the arbitrary and downright malicious practices of federal bureaucracies.
The “Kafkaesque” is not an abstract concept but a concrete feeling, experienced every day by those who are forced to deal with said bureaucracies. Think spending a decade waiting for your green card application to go through, or being arrested for selling weed in one state when it’s perfectly legal in the state next door.
In a sense, all these individuals are their own versions of Josef K. and Mateo T.: innocent bystanders at the mercy of nameless, faceless arbiters that—for some inexplicable reason—seem hellbent on making their existence as tedious, inconvenient, and insufferable as possible, despite there being nothing to gain in doing so.
Technology and the Criminal Justice System
Their experience is timeless, yet also changing rapidly. Although Please Hold channels the same feelings Kafka captured more than a hundred years ago, its execution is particular to the twenty-first century. Specifically, Dávila is concerned with the nefarious role that artificial intelligence and automation are playing in today’s criminal justice system.
Aside from a group of teenage girls filming his arrest, Mateo is the only human being shown in the film. Throughout his imprisonment, he struggles in an attempt to talk to a real person who can listen and understand his situation. Instead, all he gets are answering machines capable of processing a select number of predetermined responses, none of which concern his innocence.
Like the most insightful episodes of the Netflix show Black Mirror, Please Hold shows that technology, despite its potential for bringing people together, is generally used to keep us apart. Dávila’s dystopia is not far off; contemporary viewers can recognize themselves in Mateo’s frustration with obnoxious advertisements and insufferable Muzak.
Unequal Before the Law
Mateo’s story, however familiar, is not archetypal. Rather, it describes the unique and indeed nightmarish experience that people of color face when they are persecuted in the United States. “The idea for the film,” Dávila told Variety, “came to us after I read this article about a Latino man who got arrested and jailed because he had a common Spanish name.”
“It’s not unusual for people of color to fall through cracks in the justice system,” the director continued, “and we wanted to look at this all-too-common story through a sci-fi and dark comedy lens … ‘Please Hold’ explores what it means for people of color when the remaining human element in our justice system slowly gives way to automation and privatization.”
Please Hold, as mentioned, is now streaming on HBO Max as of March 17. Rights to the short were acquired by WarnerMedia OneFifty, a subdivision of the entertainment conglomerate dedicated to providing a platform for emerging artists, especially those who come from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds.