In our modern digital age, where virtually everyone is tracked and traced using credit card transactions, social media and online cookies, how hard is it to completely disappear?
A new documentary streaming on Max (formerly HBO Max) weaves a tale of mystery, online sleuthing and a man whose identity was unknown for 2 1/2 years. The film, “They Called Him Mostly Harmless,” which had an advanced screening at last year’s Florida Film Festival, centers on a hiker found dead in his tent in Big Cypress National Preserve along the Florida Trail.
A pair of hikers came across his emaciated body in South Florida in July 2018, reporting their finding to 911. Though the deceased hiker — who was known on trail as “Mostly Harmless” — had food and a “considerable amount of cash,” he was skinny and had no credit cards, cell phone or ID. The case stumped detectives for more than two years.
Filmmaker Patricia E. Gillespie decided to delve deep into the story of this hiker’s past and the vigilant online sleuths who worked countless hours to identify this man. After learning about the mystery of the unidentified Mostly Harmless hiker, Christie Harris and Natasha Teasley took to Facebook to collaborate and work on giving the deceased hiker a name.
“Because all of this happened on Facebook in a digital space, you could really watch this space unfold step by step and look at the dynamics between people, or even what people were doing or feeling on certain days. I began my research there,” Gillespie said. “You have this story about ‘Mostly Harmless,’ but you also have these stories about these strangers who care, and why? There is an altruism in caring about the fate of a stranger, and there’s always a story behind why someone decides to do something good.”
In making the film, Gillespie used these online forums, messages, texts and records, as well as interviews with people who had encountered Mostly Harmless, to paint a picture of who this man was, and to share the generous efforts of those who were dedicated to identifying him.
“I grew up working-class, and I see a lot of women like Christie and Natasha in my life, and I don’t always see them on screen. I think they’re fascinating, complex, important people who do a lot for themselves, their families and society,” she said. “I think they’re worth taking a deeper look at and treating with a little bit more respect.”
Ultimately, using DNA evidence to locate potential relatives of the hiker, the sleuths and detectives uncovered his identity more than two years after he was first discovered, and also some not-so-savory details about his past. Gillespie said it’s worth considering how we project ideas onto people we don’t know, especially in an online space.
“We are all complex, and the internet has a way of distilling that down into simplicity,” she said. “We live online in sort of an outrage economy, but it doesn’t support the reality of how multi-layered and dimensional and complex we all are.”
While the film centers on this particular mystery and the characters surrounding it, Gillespie said she hopes this documentary makes viewers think about the thousands of other missing and unidentified people out there.
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“These cases get solved by visibility. Some people are less likely to have their image shared,” she said. “People of color, Indigenous people, LGBTQ+ people, sex workers and immigrants don’t necessarily attract as much online attention, but they are equally human and their families love them and these people deserve closure.”
Watch “They Called Him Mostly Harmless,” which debuts on Max on Feb. 8 on max.com.