Ever since Edward Snowden’s name entered the public consciousness, it’s been tough not to give every internet-connected device we own a side-eyed glance of uneasy fear. If you feel like advancing further down the line of paranoia to the point of considering making yourself a nifty tinfoil hat, then Nicholas de Pencier’s new documentary ‘Black Code’ should do the trick.
Based on a book by Ronald J. Delbert, ‘Black Code’ explores how governments and hackers worldwide have started to use the internet as a means of monitoring, controlling and manipulating their populations. It’s obviously not news that governments treat their citizens with this level of unsettling control, but the technology is new and the reach is horrifying. De Pencier’s film is vast in scope, linked only by this terrifyingly contemporary theme. In the early going, it makes an amusing examination of how Citizen Lab cracked open an international spy ring with a simple Google check. From there, the filmmaker spans the globe to explore the ways in which this sort of technology is being implemented by activists and governments alike in an online battle over truth and freedom.
The various episodes of the film are almost too diverse in topic. One minute, the movie locks in on the ways the Chinese government militantly monitors Tibetan activists to silence their voice, faith and any discussion that implicates the government in such tactics throughout a number of nations. Next we’re off to Syria for a quick-fire exploration of how Facebook made that country’s civil war a global issue (as well as some diversions into how a few individual citizens were targeted and tortured over innocuous Facebook jokes). Then it’s time to hit Rio de Janeiro, learning about activists groups who keep the Brazilian police force’s strong-arm tactics in check through vast online surveillance and the birth of a new media amongst those people. It’s an impressively ambitious and far reaching documentary, but can occasionally suffer from a lack of concise focus.
While Toronto-born documentarian Nicholas de Pencier has already directed a handful of films in fruitful career, he’s primarily been employed as a non-fiction cinematographer involved with projects like ‘Watermark’ and ‘Ghosts in Our Machine’. The guy has one hell of an eye and he always finds ways to make his material feel alive and cinematic. His movie is rivetingly shot and constructed, bursting with energy and righteous indignation. Unfortunately, de Pencier isn’t quite as gifted at compiling all his footage and interviews into the sort of essayistic structure that the material demands. He borrows concepts and arguments from the book his film is based on, but lacks the ability to bring it into focus to form a coherent and concise argument. There are big ideas here, but they never quite snap into place.
Still, what ‘Black Code’ lacks in focus it more than makes up for in its intensity and breadth. The combination of Big Brother and Big Data is indeed terrifying. Given that Donald Trump just recently allowed internet service providers to sell their subscribers’ browsing histories without permission, this ongoing horror story is only getting worse. If nothing else, ‘Black Code’ provides an intriguing catch-all of the number of ways that governments have started to exploit their citizens through online monitoring, as well as the ways in which the people have started to use those same tools to fight back against oppression.
That de Pencier ultimately reaches few conclusions and offers few solutions is likely a frightening sign of these deeply paranoid times drifting into uncharted waters. No one knows where all this is going because we’ve never been here before, and even fewer can offer solutions because most have yet to be determined. For now, the best we can do is stay informed and stay paranoid. ‘Black Code’ will certainly help with that, even if it also makes it more difficult to sleep at night with a cell phone in view.