Low Definition Control - Malfunctions #0

Low Definition Control - Malfunctions #0


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The idea of surveillance used to be confined to cop stake-outs and crime thrillers but with the technological advancements since the Seventies, CCTV is a part of daily life, with The Guardian reporting in March 2011 that there was one camera for every 32 people in the UK.

Austrian filmmaker Michael Palm suggests that, in fact, surveillance in modern society goes much further than that, beginning while we are still in the womb and, in all likelihood, continuing even after we die.

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He explores these issues, Moral Maze style, by assembling a wide selection of academic experts - specialising in everything from biological sciences and IT through to theology - to discuss the ways in which we are being surveilled from cradle to grave and beyond.

Beginning in familiar territory, with the phenomenon of CCTV, the academics explore the idea of surveillance being used as "political superglue" - in a similar argument to that employed by Eugene Jarecki to castigate the US War on Drugs in The House I Live In. The suggestion is that no politician wants to be the first to say that CCTV is a bad idea and so the surveillance animal grows. They suggest that this, in turn, leads to a steady militarisation of the police and everyone becomes seen as "a potential enemy". As one of them puts it, this is not the Orwellian idea of one single Big Brother, but a close relative of the concept, meaning we are stalked daily by "Little Sisters" and come to live in "a panoptic prison".

We never see the academics and they are not formally introduced - a decision that has pros and cons. While in some ways the discussion is more 'pure' because we are given nothing that would lead us to prejudge the contributors, it would be nice to have a little more context about who we are listening to.

The film goes on to consider biological surveillance, such as foetal imaging, asking what is lost and gained from the technology, and also considers DNA technology sequencing and similar advancements that could lead to biobanks storing bits of us long after we are dead.

These debates play out over the relevant types of grainy CCTV footage but although branded an "experimental" film, the argument is robust and coherent. By only using surviellance images, we are able to see the discussion illustrated, so that we understand the finer points, such as considerations of the accuracy of an image when we cannot see beyond the immediate frame. The soundtrack, featuring music by Maurice Ravel and Trevor Duncan is also well chosen.

There is a sense of a lack of organisation, however, when having apparently left behind the CCTV debate to enter the biological sphere - the film is split into segments - we return to it to consider how computers can predict human actions. This latter section is the hardest to grapple with, though I suspect this may be down to the limits of translation. The arguments being raised here are exceedingly complex and I was told by a fellow German-speaking critic that the debate was necessarily being simplified in terms of the subtitles. It is, in fact, the sort of film that could probably even withstand being dubbed over by academics from different countries discussing the same themes - although this would, almost certainly, result in a different tone of debate every time.

Despite the language drawbacks, this is for the most part a fascinating film that makes a virtue of its intellectual standpoint - asking serious questions about the watched and the watchers in society and offering no easy answers.

Reviewed on: 03 Jul 2012
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Documentary considering state surveillance, even before birth and beyond the grave.

Director: Michael Palm

Year: 2011

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Austria


EIFF 2012

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