Under Surveillance

Watching Them Watching Us

UNDER SURVEILLANCE | Watching Them Watching Us

Watch out, you are being surveilled. What once might have been an alarming warning for lurking danger has, anno 2021, become so common that the idea of an omnipresent eye watching us has become almost univocally accepted. We all seem to live negligently with the fact that immeasurable amounts of our data is being recorded, archived and analyzed without much of it being noticed or cared about. Most of it does not even deserve our precious attention, right? The easily forgotten audiovisual material, captured by invisible CCTV cameras, appears to stand in sharp opposition with cinema, demanding the full attention of viewers. The shorts from the program About Surveillance at Leiden Shorts neglect this opposition by demonstrating the various forms surveillance can have in the present and the many comforting or appalling interpretations humans can have of it.

 The most widespread conception of surveillance as an ungraspable Big Brother watching over the shoulders of citizens can be found in the animation Forever (2020), portraying the intimate relationship between an alcoholic filmmaker and an AI predicting his death in the near future. The AI, advising against granting the filmmaker life insurance for an insurance company, quickly turns from a demonized Big Brother to a treasured guardian angel, invisibly walking along with the narrator and carefully watching over him. Finding comfort in a never absent gaze turns out to be a privilege in the documentary Dusk (2020), where ‘land guard’ Sandor patrols the Hungarian border in search of crossing refugees. His wandering, alert gaze is never met by the people he seeks, but their undiscoverable presence lurks in the background and freaks out all the Hungarian villagers in the face of the unknown.

The failure of surveillance, which unveils the idea of a perfectly controlled environment as a mere delusion, is proven once again in the documentary Under Control (2021). A botanical garden like manmade Eden is slowly invaded by pests, which are brutally tackled by human gardeners with the release of thousands of cryptobugs. The massacre of the pests by the cryptobugs is insidiously caught on camera, but these cruelties do not seem to suffice for humans to gain control of the garden. Despite all their efforts monitoring the environment, the invading pests persist and defy human control. In a similar manner the radiography Breaches (2020) surveillance proves fraught in the story of a woman being stalked by her ex-husband. His electronic ankle bracelet, meant to control the offender by tracking him, does not only limit his freedom of movement. It also starts to regulate the life of his ex-wife, who is in constant knowledge and fear of his whereabouts and the moments when the technology might have failed her. The limitations of surveillance technologies hang over her and never leave her for a second.

These are but a few of the ways in About Surveillance that the concept of surveillance is being tossed around, turned inside out and thrown back at the viewer as a lot more than just a camera lurking at us. On the contrary, when we start looking back at the cameras, the images they capture or the data they generate, it turns out that surveillance is just another way of trying to make sense of the world and of ourselves. It does not always grant us the peace of mind of knowing everything at all times, but luckily it gives us the belief that we can control our surroundings to some extent. And, in that sense, it is sometimes healthy to harshly break that illusion and remind ourselves that knowing and controlling everything is an impossible, infantile, yet very human thing to desire. 

Mitchell van Vuren; recently graduated Media student; independent filmmaker; huge film snob. Spellbound by: Pulp Fiction, Endless Poetry and A Fistful of Dollars. General state of the spotless mind: Rebel without a Cause and In the Mood for Love.