We’ve reached the end of our sojourn into surveillance and if we weren’t worried about being watched before we’re completely convinced now. Stop reading this and do a little wave for your government, give the poor guy at the CCTV bank a chuckle at work.
Cinema is a visual medium and the theme of voyeurism is recurrent, nowhere more prominently than in the work of Alfred Hitchcock, so the fear of being watched is easily translated onto the screen. The 20th century saw the rise of totalitarian governments on both extreme ends of the ideological spectrum, who treated civil liberties with the sort of disdain we reserve for Natalie Portman. As a genre always concerned with prevalent ideas and issues, sci-fi became the perfect embodiment of these fears as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four provided a touchstone dystopia to articulate the problems of surveillance and authoritarianism.
These dystopian futures are the backbone of most of these films, which you think would get boring but somehow doesn’t; a good dystopia, while an oxymoron, is often the heart of a good piece of sci-fi. Equilibrium, Minority Report and V for Vendetta all survive on the strength of their ideas, despite being fairly flawed pieces of cinema. Unsurprisingly, they use their sci-fi premises to warn us of the dangers of surveillance in highly imaginative ways.
Back in the real world, President Nixon went on television and lied, “I’m not a crook.” His involvement in 1972’s Watergate Scandal would spark a whole new wave of paranoia, with the realisation that even your friendly elected government is abusing its power. All The President’s Men is a compelling account of the scandal, while The Conversation turns that paranoia into one of my favourite films. Its spiritual successor, Enemy of the State, modernises these themes and paints a disturbing picture about the extent to which our private lives can be invaded. Closer to home, the documentary Taking Liberties charts the worrying number of human rights violations carried out under Tony Blair.
We keep hearing about increasingly invasive methods used by intelligence organisations and the really scary thing is that we don’t know the half of it. When whistleblowers do what’s right they face punitive prison sentences and apparently it’s all in the name of our security. Cinema is a powerful argumentative tool and all the films we’ve looked at fall on the same side of the argument, usually by following a character’s realisation that sacrificing liberty is simply not worth it. We’ve barely scratched the surface of this sprawling cinematic theme, but writing these blogs has been an interesting, if frightening, look at surveillance. Let’s just hope the NSA enjoyed reading them as much as we enjoyed writing them.