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Black Code: Under the Unblinking of Eye of the Surveillance State

MEET THE AUDIENCE | 19/04/2017

Just how big is Big Brother?

 

Canadian filmmaker Nicholas de Pencier provides some answers to how the power and influence of the internet has shaped global events, first in his film Black Code, then by addressing the HKIFF audience following a well-attended screening on 17 April at the sky cinema.

 

De Pencier’s documentary, based on the book of the same name by Ronald J. Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs (who is interviewed at length in the film), reflects on the overwhelming muscle of the surveillance state—governments that use communication technology to monitor their citizens’ every move. De Pencier traveled around the world, examining censorship and authoritarianism in hot spots such as Tibet, Syria, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Brazil, stitching together a tale of technological horror—and hope—as people across the globe come to grips with the impact of the internet.


Noting that surveillance and computers were outside his area of expertise, De Pencier admitted that he learned “so much” from Deibert’s book and wanted to bring those ideas to the screen. We are living in “an entirely new media environment—and that goes for news, and it goes for documentary films and it goes for fiction films,” he said. “The internet has really changed, certainly, the business model, but a lot of what is possible—what stories can get told easily, and what stories are really a struggle in this new dynamic.”
 


BLACK CODE

The film shows how governments use the internet to monitor, track and crush political dissent; it also highlights ordinary citizens who use video and other relatively inexpensive technologies to bring illegal police tactics and extrajudicial abuses to a worldwide audience. “I’m humbled by the bravery of many of my subjects [in the film] who’ve had real challenges. I think it’s the privilege and also the responsibility of someone in my position who can raise a budget” to show audiences the critical issues.

 

Making a film about censorship presented a challenge, de Pencier said. Rather than having a gaggle of talking heads and university professors, “I decided in the film to try to get first-hand accounts” of those who’ve suffered under government surveillance, such as exiled Tibetans and Syrian dissidents.


Host and director Nicholas de Pencier


Many governments, of course, use surveillance to protect its citizens from real threats, such as terrorism. And one audience member asked how the world can reconcile the legitimate use of technology with the abuse of authority. “That’s the most difficult part of this equation,” de Pencier admitted. “There’s no question we need security, and I think electronic tools will be a big part of that. [But] there are ways they can still use these tools appropriately without abusing them. Checks and balances existed before for national security organizations, but we haven’t caught up to this paradigm.” And if the world doesn’t address these issues quickly, he added, “there’s the potential for bad things to happen.”

 

The second screening of Black Code will be held at 7:45 p.m. on 19 April (Wednesday) at the Grand Cinema. De Pencier will meet with the audience for another post-screening Q&A session.


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