Entertainment

Cyberspace and Surveillance Get Visualized in a New Documentary

'Black Code' is the Post-Snowden film that tells human stories behind our changing world.

by Catherine Chapman
05 October 2016, 1:20pm

A scene from the 2016 film Black Code. Image: Nicholas de Pencier

When Canadian filmmaker Nicholas de Pencier picked up the 2013 book, Black Code, he was by no means an expert in cyberspace. Having worked on visually-driven documentaries like Watermark (Watch: The Making Of Watermark, An Immersive Look At Water) and Manufactured Landscapes, the director found that the the book, written by surveillance expert Ronald J. Deibert, provided him with an inside look into the online world of privacy, security, and freedom of speech, and with that, subjects for his next film.

Going by the same name, Black Code follows the research of Toronto-based center Citizen Lab, a group monitoring the impact of the internet and both its produced opportunities and fallouts on human rights. From government spying, to citizen journalism, the film seeks to make the often abstruse areas of big data and online behavior into a piece where the outcomes of the internet, some good, others bad, can be seen.

Having had its world premiere at The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), The Creators Project caught up with de Pencier to find out what it was like to make a documentary on one of the more important—and complicated—topics of our time.  

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Black Code tells the human stories behind government surveillance and social media activism. Image: Nicholas de Pencier

The Creators Project: Hi Nicholas, thanks for your film. Bit different than your usual stuff, wasn’t it?

Nicholas de Pencier: Black Code was a completely different project for me and slightly more journalistic in its form and not at all an art film—it’s interviews, reportage, and stock footage mostly.

I’m also not an internet computer guy—beyond being a heavy user and a documentary filmmaker who’s into media and all that—the world of surveillance is not my world. But when I was reading the book I thought, ‘Wow this is hugely relative and interesting to me,' so then I assumed it would be interesting to other people, too.

Within a month of starting the project, Edward Snowden happened and the whole world was talking about a lot of these topics, what they meant and what the repercussions were. There was a big sort of shift in consciousness but I don’t think a near equivalent shift in people’s practices and changes to some of the negative vectors in terms of censorship, surveillance and lack of oversight. So that sort of became the reason for the film, it was the post-Snowden film about why we should be interested in this.

It’s a great topic but one that’s sometimes difficult to visualize.

When I read the book, what I identified as one of the early challenges was that this was a topic that wasn’t inherently cinematic and that I could have a long parade of middle-aged white guys sitting in front of computer screens talking about the internet and policy but that’s not a movie.

During one of my early meetings with Ron at Citizen Lab, he sort of interrupted the meeting to see off a couple of young researchers who were traveling. Then you sort of project and think—35 hours from now these researchers will have left the University of Toronto and be high in the Himalayas with monks in red robes dealing with computer intrusions from Chinese malware and securing networks. I thought, that’s a movie I’d be interested in.

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Black Code (2016). Image: Nicholas de Pencier

Tell me a bit more about working with Citizen Lab.

Citizen Lab are kind of internet sleuths following this malware all around the networks. They have this incredible network of what they call cyber stewards from different countries and some of the countries where these sorts of themes are not at all abstract. That’s how I decided to translate the book, by actually going to places like Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Rio de Janeiro, and Dharma Shala where they do a lot of their research.

When you see these kinds of hotspots, these crucibles, for people who get tortured for Facebook posts, or governments that spy on their own citizens where there are very real world repercussions, it’s hopefully a reflection on those other places where these topics seem more abstract like. In the West, for instance, these topics can seem more theoretical. These are the dots that I was trying to connect with the stories.

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In Black Code (2016) we learn about the different ways information can travel safely amid state tracking. Image: Nicholas de Pencier

What’s an example of one of the stories that you follow?

In Pakistan, I have a story of an activist who ended up being killed for her social media presence. She was sort of an open net activist and, by so many standards, not at all controversial. The difference, and it was explicit in the film, is that when she spoke in public spaces and when she would write in newspapers it would have a certain effect but go away. As soon as it goes up on the social media platforms and the internet, there’s a kind of landmark for all its adversaries to gather around and a sort of amplification that happens. It gets into this kind of vortex of amplification that turns into crazy hate speech which, in a case like that, tragically can turn into actual physical real world violence. She was basically killed for her social media presence.

How did you choose what to cover?

It was a massive multi-headed beast of a topic and I realized a year into it that I could just keep going with the research. Every week in the news there was some kind of shiny possible distraction, just think of the two years I was doing it in, all of the hacks and breaches, you could just keep going. You go, 'Oh should that be in the movie? Will it still resonate in a year?' That ended up being my biggest challenge, trying to rein it in to one, hopefully coherent, entity in a 90-minute feature doc. You could just keep going forever. You can make a thousand films on this topic.

Is Edward Snowden in the film?

Snowden is in the movie. He and Ron were part of a conference via his usual video link down at RightsCon in San Francisco. He alpines about the philosophy of why privacy is important and why internet privacy is important and useful. The film is more immediately tied to Citizen Lab research, especially where I could tie in their very rigorous academically structured research into some of these things all around the world, where there’s lots of conjecture and anecdotal evidence.

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Black Code (2016). Image: Nicholas de Pencier

There have also been lots of laws proposed or put in place regarding cybersecurity, does their research touch on these?

I don’t get into parliamentary bills and things like that, it seemed too dry and challenging. I’m hoping that the choice to find stories that had more kinetic energy, and certainly cinematic dynamism, will bring people into knowing more and then doing more about changing some of the things like holding governments and corporations to account, which Ron does discuss through the film.

To find more about Black Codeclick here.

Keep up with the work of Citizen Lab by checking out this link.

Related:

Making Of 'Watermark,' An Immersive Look At Water

Surveillance Art Takes Action in a Post-Snowden World

Laura Poitras' First Solo Show Makes the Surveillance State Visible