The Eye of the Beholder Intimacy in the Age of Surveillance By Rachael Turk
in 49th London BFI London Film Festival
by Rachael Turk
In his 1975 doctrine Discipline and Punish, French theorist Michel Foucault detailed the relationship between watching and controlling. He noted that the most powerful form of control over a person was the mere possibility that he might be under surveillance at any given time. It’s an idea all the more relevant in the multimedia age where the increased capability of surveillance technologies, combined with the collation and convergence of personal data, means that at any time our movements might be tracked on camera or online; and You Tube and reality television make popular entertainment out of life’s most trivial moments. Observation has been ritualised. The prison of the gaze is real.
Through this, a false sense of intimacy is created with the objects of our gaze. By knowing the sum minutiae of their actions, by watching them in their most private moments, we assume familiarity. Several films in the FIPRESCI shortlist at the 2006 Times BFI London Film Festival reflected this concern, integrating digital video techniques in ways that speak of a changing view of recollection, reportage and the role of the viewer. The medium is, it seems, part of the message.
In the disturbing anime-inspired Princess (dir. Anders Morgenthaler, Denmark 2006), home video tapes of porn star Christina are integrated amongst graphic 2D animation as a flashback device, functioning specifically to unfold the personal history of Christina and her five-year-old daughter Mia. The situation becomes more complex when the material (purportedly shot by Christina’s brother August) moves beyond the walls of the home to capture her covert sexual encounters in neighbouring bushes. The lens of the video camera is akin to the mirrored window of the Big Brother household.
Whilst the Super-8 home video has long been used to illustrate flashbacks (often warm hued, the format’s lens-flared overtones are distinctly nostalgic), the digital video, on the other hand, connotes a cooler, almost sinister tone. Pixellated edges are far less forgiving than film grain and the single-camera setup of surveillance cameras, webcams or TV reportage establishes a rigid observational stance. And, whereas the subject of the Super-8 home movie is usually a cognitive, active participant — posing, smiling for the camera — the object of surveillance is often completely unaware of the voyeuristic act (See UK filmmaker Chris Petit’s stalker essay Unrequited Love, which screened at the 2006 International Film Festival of Rotterdam, for a poignant example of the misuse of surveillance technologies for personal obsession. A story about modern technology [e-mail, mobiles, surveillance technologies] as much as romantic obsession, it describes a new breed of terrorist: stalkers are, says the film, “the fundamentalists of love”). Whilst we might know every detail about the object of our observation, he or she does not even know of our existence. Or if they do — as in Michel Haneke’s superb Cannes 2005 acclaimed Hidden (Caché), where a husband and wife find evidence of the fact that their lives are under constant scrutiny — the effect can be magnified to the power of ten.
Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (UK-Denmark 2006), which was highly praised by the LFF’s FIPRESCI jury and went on to win the festival’s Sutherland Prize, is a masterfully accomplished exploration of power through observation. Its protagonist Jackie uses her position watching over a dilapidated Glasgow estate through a network of surveillance cameras to orchestrate a series of events that alter the lives of many including herself. In a modern take on Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the world below is revealed through a panel of monitors. This uneasy video footage is contrasted by poetically lit close-ups of Jackie’s face and beautifully composed images of her world in the moments when she interacts with it directly.
In this astonishing first feature (shot entirely in HD), we are continually reminded of the role of video as evidence, as historical fact; as a vehicle of knowing and even punishing past actions (in zoom, rewind, freeze-frame) and, therefore, controlling the future. As with viewers of reality TV, the audience becomes overtly complicit in this act of containment. It is, quite literally, digital capture.
Whereas film is a precious, costly recording medium, however, digital video is transitory, disposable, re-recordable. There is simply less at stake in both its capture and storage. What does this say about the modern world’s regard for memory and preservation?
In 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost), history is rewritten — or, rather, re-enacted — when a makeshift Romanian TV panel reflects upon a particular moment in its national memory: the time of Ceausescu’s 1989 deposition when the country was freed from Communist rule. The audience’s point-of-view is constructed through the lens of the amateur TV cameraman. However, as his handiwork becomes as shaky as the stories emanating from the panel, the façade of current affairs is inevitably broken down to reveal more personal ones. With humour and wry observation of its own cultural and cinematic mores, this film draws attention to the subjective nature of observation itself.
Resisting both a temptation towards nostalgic reflection and the necessitation for singular truths at large, it deconstructs the very compulsion to define, explain and lock away in the archives.
The irony is, of course, that — despite the potential for greater human interaction than ever before — the proliferation of digital communication technologies often impedes real human connectivity and renders us more isolated than ever.
In Lola (Lo que sé de Lola, directed by Javier Rebollo, France/Spain 2006), which was ultimately awarded the LFF’s FIPRESCI prize, the great disconnect between the socially emasculated Léon and Dolores, the object of his obsession, is portrayed through Léon’s compulsive yet completely contained observation of Dolores. Through windows and across cafes, Léon ekes out a life for himself by recording the minutiae of hers, no more able to connect with her than with the callgirls on the TV channel he watches each night. Under the steady and competent hand of first-time feature director Javier Rebollo, this primary tension — between observer and observed, between seeing and touching — proves not only an effective technique for character and narrative development but a timely and telling thematic preoccupation. And it reveals that, in the prison of the gaze, the observer is equally constrained.