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  • Surveillance, Spying & Cyber Warfare on Screen


    Posted on: 10/10/2016

    Film critic and writer Luke Buckmaster looks at representations of surveillance and cyber warfare on screens big and small ahead of our Lies and Secrets film season.

    ACMI's Lies and Secrets season screens four new documentaries that explore a range of ethical, technological and geopolitical subjects. Drones, cyber warfare, beleaguered journalists and game-changing whistleblowers are among the talking points contemplated in the docos: Zero Days, National Bird: Drone Wars, Land of the Enlightened and Jim: The James Foley Story.

    These are nothing if not highly topical issues. As ACMI Head of Film Programs, James Hewison, put it: “These films lay bare the fissures of contemporary Western life in the early 21st Century.” If prophetic texts such as Brave New World (first published in 1932) and 1984 (in 1949) imagined eerie dystopian futures, we are currently living in a time when a widespread feeling exists that these once far-out visions are being realised.

    If the dramatic revelations exposed by Edward Snowden can be summarised using a handful of words, it's that Big Brother is indeed watching: the former CIA and NSA employee proved it. When events of the magnitude of Snowden’s document leak shake the collective consciousness, the entertainment industry is never far behind retelling these stories – especially when they arrive with so much in-built drama.

    Jim: The James Foley Story Trailer

    Oliver Stone's recently released biopic Snowden casts Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the brave mild-mannered protagonist. There have been two Julian Assange films so far: The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and locally-made telemovie Underground: The Julian Assange Story, with the lesser-known Alex Williams playing a teenage version of the WikiLeaks founder.

    If one accepts that the two whistle-blower’s histories are interlinked – one perhaps paving the way for the other – their tale in a sense begins on the streets of Melbourne, where Assange lived, not far from ACMI. With such a striking Australian presence in the story, it’s no surprise local film and television is getting in on the act, exploring themes core to their lives and to Lies and Secrets.

    Zero Days shows court footage of cybersecurity expert Sean McGurk, from the US Department of Homeland Security, holding up a USB stick that contains the dreaded Stuxnet virus. “Something as innocuous as this,” he says, “becomes a challenge for all of us to maintain accountability and control of our critical infrastructure systems.”

    Zero Days Trailer

    Foxtel’s acclaimed six-part series Secret City, which premiered in June, incorporates the threat associated with portable storage devices in highly dramatic ways. In the second episode Kim Gordon (Damon Herriman), a transgender senior analyst for the NSA-like ASD (Australian Signals Directorate) smuggles a USB stick and a laptop into a toilet cubicle at work. She is close to political journalist Harriet Dunkley (Anna Torv), who has implored her to help investigate a murder case with far-reaching implications. A cautious Gordon says: “I don’t want to end up in a Russian shared house with Edward Snowden.”

    Nevertheless, she makes an unauthorised file transfer in the loo without knowing her boss has been warned of a breach in security. No spoilers here, suffice to say there are repercussions. Soon that shared house with Snowden doesn’t sound too bad.

    The entire storyline of Secret City, in fact, is triggered by consumption of potentially dangerous files. In this case “consumption” takes on rather literal meaning. The first scene in the first episode depicts a young man being chased across a bridge in Canberra late at night, Parliament House looming in the background.

    The panicked man retrieves a phone from his pocket, removes the sim card, swallows it then jumps off a bridge in an attempt to escape. The next morning the police discover his dead body, gutted like a fish. Dunkley starts asking questions, triggering a tangly plot involving cyber warfare, citizen surveillance and politicians making under the table deals.

    It is through Gordon’s character we see visualisations of what director Emma Freeman imagines an NSA-like surveillance operation in Australia might look like. Which is to say, low key. In Secret City it is a rather sedate and sterile environment. Gordon has an office, where she monitors phone conversations via headset and computer. Other people do the same in a communal space around her.

    Secret City Trailer

    The surveillance set up is more elaborate in season two of ABC TV’s tech-thriller The Code. It premiered in September and also explores eavesdropping snoops, represented with a bit more bling. When the funeral of the mother of journalist Ned Banks (Dan Spielberg) is interrupted by a senior AFP agent (Ben Oxenbould), Banks tells him to “take your little surveillance kit and go and spy on someone else today.”

    Ned and his hacker brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) are nevertheless hauled into spying HQ. It’s a spiffy looking place located in the basement level of a building. There are thin screens and digital projections showcasing slick-looking images of suspects, maps with dots on them and box-like displays with slabs of text and rotating photographs.

    In other words: this is more like it, at least when it comes to fancy looking hubs for internet-enabled government spying. Contrasting The Code’s first season, where Jesse’s computer skills exposed the dodgy dealings of the Deputy Prime Minister (David Wenham) they are put to use for good things in the second.

    The government enlist Ned and Jesse by approaching the brothers with the proverbial offer they can’t refuse, threatening to extradite them to the USA (a vaguely Assange-esque situation) if they don’t play ball. Cyber ops chief Lara Dixon (Sigrid Thornton) get them investigating people involved in the “dark web” including its mysterious founder Jan Roth (Anthony LaPaglia). The point is made that not all online snooping is performed for nefarious or self-seeking government-serving purposes.

    Secrets and Lies Trailer

    Some interesting work is also being explored overseas, particularly in cinemas, exploring the themes in Lies and Secrets. One of the finest films released in Australia this year is the taut, oxygen-draining British thriller Eye in the Sky, which examines ethical and political considerations associated with drone warfare. A less engrossing but nevertheless interesting portrait of a drone pilot can be found in the 2014 drama Good Kill, with Ethan Hawke in the lead role.  

    In National Bird: Drone Wars, which is part of Lies and Secrets, director Sonia Kenneback presses the point that the sorts of situations depicted in these films are far from the realm of fiction. We see aerial drone-shot footage of an American neighbourhood. “This is global. This is getting information from anywhere at any time. Shooting people from anywhere at anytime,” she says. “There's a huge system that spans the globe that can suck up endless amounts of your life."

    - Luke Buckmaster 

    Lies and Secrets screens from Thursday 13 October to Tuesday 25 October.

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