Curated by a group of MA students studying Film Exhibition And Curation at Edinburgh University, the SURVEILLANCE TO SELFIE leg of the Glasgow Film Festival is scarily relevant. The selected films hark back to the birth of the conspiracy golden years of cinema in 70s America: the era of Watergate, Vietnam, and widespread political paranoia which translated beautifully onto the silver screen. Francis Ford Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION, as professed by student giving the introduction Devin Karambelas, was one of the first films to utilise this idea of surveillance in both form and content.
‘There are so many parallels between surveillance technology and film technology,’ she told us after the screening of Coppola’s classic, which opened the programme of the day entitled SURVEILLANCE: NOW PLAYING. ‘Walter Mulch, the sound designer, wanted people to get that sense of being in Harry’s head space and only hear what he’s hearing. The sound makes you anxious because you can’t pin-point the origin of it.’
Harry, of course, refers to Gene Hackman’s character in THE CONVERSATION: Harry Caul, the foremost surveillance expert in San Francisco, who finds himself unwittingly drawn into a murder scandal through his work. The more he allows himself to feel for the people he’s observing – losing his detachment from them as humans and subsequently losing control – the deeper his personal danger becomes. Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed the film in 1974 just months before Richard Nixon was impeached in the Watergate scandal, making the film a historic moment inextricably linked to the politics of the time.
And you do indeed feel anxious when watching it. ‘We wanted to start with something bleak’, says Devin. Issues of surveillance are, the curators recognise, very 2016-of-the-moment, and characterising this classic film in such a way and then subsequently screening the rest of the surveillance-themed modern films (detailed here) encouraged the audience to be submerged in the paranoid mindset. When you slip into it, suddenly everything feels very apparent and connected – which was the inadvertent point of the event.
This is a topic on the forefront of everyones minds, it seems. Edward Snowden and the NSA are still continuously referred to in mainstream media. James Bond blockbusters, particularly SPECTRE and SKYFALL, are hybrids of spy and paranoia thrillers. One of the most successful shows of last year, MR ROBOT, focusses entirely on online surveillance. Last week head of Apple Tim Cook wrote a controversial and groundbreaking essay coming out against the FBI, expressing the needs for individual privacy. It is increasingly clear that the notion of surveillance is something we are moving closer to in our collective anxieties as opposed to escaping from. Even the humble selfie can be examined within the field of self-surveying; liberating in one sense but also at the same time utterly scary in our need to capture ourselves publicly.
The point is not to view the phenomenon of surveillance as an evil entity but to strike a balance between what constitutes as protection and what is threatening to privacy, Devin suggests. The fear of the reach of technology is time-old, but now the questions the stretch of surveillance raise, when it’s basically a given that most people will have an iPhone in their pocket, seem as impending on the now as possible. ‘What does it mean for the public – having people listening to their conversations with no mechanism for sorting through them? It’s kind of mind-boggling, when you start thinking about it.’
For more information on the program please see below: