There's a sign on the front door of the local cinema commanding patrons to take off their helmets, hats and, especially, their hoods. All right, it doesn't exactly say "especially hoods," but you know that's the sentiment. Hoodies, and the youngsters who wear them, are the subject of a bit of hysteria these days.
It's not that the theatre manager is concerned about his patrons suffering from hat head, or overheating in the claustrophobic dark. The rule is in place to ensure that everyone's faces are clearly visible to the closed-circuit TV cameras that monitor the cinema.
This local theatre is not showing a terrific new British movie called Red Road, and that's too bad. Even though it won the jury prize at Cannes in May, Red Road is a little too arty for this rough stretch of north London, where pubs outnumber coffee shops by about five to one and where CCTV cameras outnumber pubs by a greater margin than that.
It's a shame the film isn't showing there, because it has interesting, if oblique, things to say about the omniscient eyes and ears monitoring everyday life in Britain, which by some measures is the most spied-upon country on Earth.
The main character is Jackie, one of the CCTV operators on an unspeakably grim housing estate in Glasgow. (All postcard pictures of rosy-cheeked, sporran'd Scots will be burned from your mind forever.) With one hand on her control joystick, zooming in and out of locations, Jackie wields a god-like power to track, and eventually influence, the behaviour of the people she watches. One person in particular, anyway: Jackie catches a glimpse of a troubling figure from her past and stalks him via the camera until she breaks the frame, so to speak, and enters his life.
To give away any more would be unfair, because the film moves in jagged and unexpected directions. Andrea Arnold, the director of Red Road, says she didn't set out to make a movie about surveillance -- her themes are much more subtle than that -- but she was stunned to discover that 20 per cent of the world's CCTV cameras operate in Britain. In fact, there is one camera for every 14 people in Britain, and you're liable to be captured up to 300 times a day on CCTV, according to a report issued this week by Britain's privacy commissioner. The report, which begins with the admission, "We live in a surveillance society . . . 24/7," paints a foreboding picture of a possible future when spy planes hover overhead, refusal to carry an ID card earns you ostracism, and cameras are hidden at eye level within lampposts.
"Surveillance fosters suspicion," reads the report, perhaps self-evidently, but it's a fact that filmmakers and visual artists have been using to their advantage for years. Michael Haneke, an Austrian, used the power of surveillance to make a chilling statement about memory and repression in France in last year's thriller Caché (Hidden). Hitchcock taught a university-level course in the psychology of voyeurism in Rear Window, and Francis Ford Coppola warned that eavesdropping will drive you buggy in The Conversation.
But it's the Brits who seem most entwined in surveillance culture -- on one hand, accepting it blithely as a part of life, and on the other, unashamedly enjoying its toxic fruits. I'm not even going to imagine what torments George Orwell suffers in the afterlife when he contemplates that one of the biggest hits on British TV is Big Brother, in which a group of one-eighth-wits live for three months in a house while under constant camera supervision. No books, no newspapers, no music -- just turnip-headed conversation and the occasional grope in the hot tub, all for a viewership of millions.
Then there is Surveillance in the City, a show on the Crime & Investigation network. (There's no way I could have imagined, growing up in a three-channel household, a future that promised something as darkly seductive as the Crime & Investigation network.) If it's a crowd-pleasing, vigilante angle you're looking for, Surveillance in the City is happy to oblige: the scourge of "happy-slapping," for example, in which young yobs smack strangers in the face and then film the encounter on their mobiles.
It seems inevitable that serious artists would begin addressing -- not necessarily condemning, but at least examining -- a social issue that has such a subtle impact on people's lives.
And it's happened. In east London, the city's hub for young artists, a duo named Manu Luksch and Mukul Patel use digital video to turn the cameras on the watchers. (In the privacy commissioners' report, this type of activity is called "sousveillance.") Their film Faceless, set in the near future, features surveillance footage with everyone's faces obscured, except the protagonist's.
The writer Jonathan Raban (born in Britain but a resident of the U.S.) has just released a novel called Surveillance, about the paranoia that results from endless snooping, both personal and political. "We are sleepwalking into a full-blown surveillance society," Raban wrote in a recent article for The Sunday Telegraph, arguing that chipping away at small liberties does the work of the West's foes for them. "Were I jihadist, I'd be laughing my sorry ass off."
Those are provocative words -- reckless, even. Perhaps it's the kind of recklessness that prompts you to poke a sleeping dog with a stick.
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