‘MIT: REGRESSIONS’ sparks debate over the Institute’s past and future
Film reveals tension surrounding the Institute’s developing sense of strong internal culture
The second screening of MIT: REGRESSIONS, a documentary created by Lucas Igel ’22 and Wesley Block ’22, took place Sept. 18. The film depicts the history of MIT from World War II up until just before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Attendees of the screening and the documentary’s creators spoke to and wrote to The Tech, reflecting on the film’s implications for institutional memory at MIT, looking back and moving forwards.
The film’s premiere was received very positively among students, staff, and alumni. The first screening “was really incredible…. Wes and I, we didn’t really know what it would be… and so it was very new to every single person in that theater,” Igel said in an interview with The Tech. “The second [screening] was more polished, more rehearsed… I think it allowed people to focus on the content of the movie itself.”
The second screening was surrounded by a similar type of anticipation as the premiere. “I had not attended the first screening. I’d seen all the posters around campus…From reading about it, I expected the film to be a somewhat critical view about the history of MIT,” attendee Rujul Gandhi ’22 wrote in an email to The Tech.
Other students noted curious uncertainty regarding the film’s content. “I had been seeing posters plastering basically every wall I looked at on campus for a couple weeks,” Ben Osborn ’26 wrote to The Tech. “A lot of them emphasized the tagline [of] ‘Who is MIT?,’ which I thought seemed interesting as I don’t have much knowledge of what or who MIT is, being a [first year]. I was expecting a standard documentary about the history of MIT.”
In many ways, the history of MIT pictured in REGRESSIONS mirrors broader sociopolitical forces in the U.S., including the postwar scientific boom in the 1940s and the social justice movements of the 1960s. “We… find it interesting because it seems like America changes so drastically during each of these core periods,” Igel remarked “You could say that… the before and after of MIT is a good microcosm of that.”
The student activism documented in the film, particularly with the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, provides a historical contrast to current critiques that allege political apathy among the MIT student body. “I think a decent criticism of our movie is that we don’t show as much of what life is like when times are normal,” Igel said. “People usually only took out their video cameras when crazy moments were happening… when thousands of students would stop going to class and take to the streets… in the late sixties.”
Nevertheless, visual shots of these “crazy moments” — aided by the film’s artificial-intelligence-enhanced archival footage, which Block and Igel created a deep learning model to produce — resonated with the film’s viewers this fall. “I came out at the intermission feeling like I had a lot more context about the institution I’m at, and even more desire to be a meaningful part of it and create positive change,” Gandhi wrote. She also mentioned her awe at the old footage, which allowed her to “witness what [MIT alumni] had actually witnessed and maybe even been a part of.”
The latter half of REGRESSIONS turns inward, revealing tension surrounding the Institute’s developing sense of strong internal culture. This tension becomes apparent in the film’s footage from the 2010s, central to which are the controversial removal of undergraduates from Senior House and demolition of Bexley Hall. As a viewer, Osborn noted “[t]he extraordinary dichotomy between MIT’s free-willed, revolutionary members at the center of counterculture…and [MIT’s] connections to the military-industrial complex and government.”
The film’s coverage of MIT’s recent history left a strong impression on its viewers — with mixed reactions. Ben Weizer ’23 wrote in an email to The Tech that REGRESSIONS “brought up an emerging dynamic of administrative control vs. student autonomy, showing the growing trend of the institute taking on legal liability for its students at the cost of imposing more rules and restricting freedom.”
Weizer expressed concern, however, that the film “elucidates this dynamic by focusing on the countercultural elements of the student body, particularly Bexley and Senior House.” He wrote, “In doing so, a large majority of the undergraduate [body] is alienated as a picture is painted of the administration vs. counterculture. In reality, I think the vast majority of undergraduate students would resonate with this issue.”
Ultimately, the varied responses played into the film’s broader aim of sparking awareness of institutional memory among the student body. “Through the film, I’ve begun to feel the thread that connects MIT students across time and I think with college students everywhere. The outfits change but the students don’t really,” Block said in an interview with The Tech. “The only thing that gives this place, or any community, any character is that students leave something behind.”
Attendees of the screening echoed Block’s sentiment. Luis Becerra Solis ’22 wrote in an email to The Tech that a “film screening encourages students to come together, relevant to how the film highlights the importance of student organization throughout the history of the Institute.”
Such questions remain pressing as MIT moves forward into its next era. The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the school and the relationship between students and administration: the debate over a closed campus provides one current example.
“The film has an important message to share: we the students exist at the nexus of technology and prestige,” Becerra Solis wrote of his main takeaways as a viewer. “Across many important moments in American history — slavery, women’s suffrage, worker’s rights, protests against war — there has existed a privileged class, who have the collective ability to enact progressive change, but have a conflict of interest because they are the beneficiaries (or at least not the targets) of the unfair system.”
How might projects like MIT: REGRESSIONS encourage more students to take an active role in preserving institutional memory, for the goal of shaping and informing the Institute’s future? “The decision presented to every graduate of this institution is in what form we will change the world, because whether or not we will has already been decided,” Becerra Solis continued. “It is our responsibility to decide whether our labor will benefit the accumulation of wealth, or towards a better world for humanity.”
“This is my hope for REGRESSIONS, that more students will do, say, make, break, try, fail, or paint something, and do so thoughtfully,” Block concluded. “And that by more of us leaving more of the right things behind, we’ll make our community a better place.”
MIT: REGRESSIONS will be available to view online via YouTube and Vimeo at https://regressions.net. Throughout October, the site will be updated with sources, the AI-enhanced footage used in the film, the soundtrack, and additional bonus content.