January 2, 2022 – This documentary film about the nature of vision, video capture and surveillance takes some unusual philosophical angles at the subject. It is quite limited in its scope, and leaves out some important things about its own presentation.
Starting out with an examination of the human eye itself, and how there is a blind spot where the optic nerve is, it argues for the significance of the fact that our brains fill in that blind spot to give the illusion of a complete picture. It carries this idea into an examination of police body cameras, which have a wide field of view, but that field doesn't show what the policeman who wears the camera is doing behind the field of view.
The movie goes back to the very beginnings of motion pictures, to astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen, who invented a chronophotographic revolver machine in 1874 that could capture an early form of motion pictures. Later, scientist Etienne Jules Marey and others adapted and refined the same kind of device to study and exhibit motion.
Marey made a portable chronophotographic gun in 1882. It could capture 12 consecutive frames a second, he used it to study the motions of people and animals. While the movie shows us these moving images of people walking and jumping, the voice over says, “These instruments do not reproduce the world, they produce new worlds.”
That is an interesting philosophical point because, as the movie points out, these kinds of photographic devices allow scientists to more precisely measure the transit of Venus across the sun. This provides data can be used to calculate the distance from the earth to the sun, among other things. These precise measurements were not possible prior to the invention of these kinds of devices, because of the limitations of the human eye itself.
The claim that this “produces new worlds” is understandable from an artistic standpoint. When Vincent van Gogh painted “Starry Night Over the Rhône” in 1889, he was creating new worlds (his vision of the sky proved prescient when telescopes, like the Hubble Space Telescope, revealed similar images) and that is the aim of many artists, including the director of this movie, Theo Anthony.
The idea of a surveillance society is a scary one, and the movie hits this in a series of scenes concerning a plan to fly a airplane over the city of Baltimore that is capable of producing real-time video of the entire city. In this way, people and cars can be tracked. The recordings of the city can be run back in time, or forward, in order to track a car, for instance, from the point of a hit-and-run accident to its point of origin, or its final destination.
Ross McNutt, owner of Persistent Surveillance System, is shown trying to sell neighborhood residents on the social benefits of his system. A discussion about being surveilled without consent is brought up, as well as the fact that the people who are going to be surveilled by the police are likely going to be those who live in the poorer neighborhoods of the city, and not in the high rise buildings where the well-heeled live and work, out of sight of the overhead cameras.
This movie seems to take an anti-scientific approach to human observations of various kinds. A telling quote from Donna Haraway's “Persistence of vision” in the film is: “What is a science where the self is held intact?” The movie points out errors by scientists, such as Francis Galton, who tried to predict human behavior by cataloging body features. The movie also closely links photography to warfare at times, such as Janssen's photographic revolver to the Gattling Gun.
Essentially, the ‘produces new worlds’ quote, along with the quote, “What is a science where the self is held intact?” Seem to typify a kind of anti-science slant, namely a preference for subjectivity over science. Introspection reveals feelings, while science reveals data. The film points out historic misuse of data, but fails to point out that the scientific method, which is self-correcting, eventually corrected these same mistakes.
Introspection, or subjectivity, on the other hand, has no such self-correcting method. Instead, subjectivity is subject to a whole slew of rational errors, such as bigotry, confirmation bias, the correlation-causation fallacy, the appeal to authority fallacy, etc.
Through all this the main point seems to be that cameras don't show us what is really going on in the world. The truth of their images is limited. Who is pointing the camera at what and why they are pointing the camera there? True enough, but that doesn't mean the images themselves are false, it just means those images are not the whole picture.
What is left out of this presentation are two important things, the power of suggestion, and the power of video editing. By narration, this film tells you what to think about what you are seeing, such as the peculiar statement: “These instruments do not reproduce the world, they produce new worlds.”
The power of editing in a documentary is of extreme importance because anything that runs counter to the editor's point of view, or the director's point of view can be edited out. You only see what Theo Anthony wants you to see, and you only hear what he wants you to hear. To make the point, there is an epilog in the movie which describes an entire segment about student filmmakers that was left out of the film.
Come to think of it, this movie does touch upon the subject of editing a little bit during the sections about police body cameras, and the student filmmakers who were edited out of the film. Police cameras can be turned on or off by the officer, and we have all heard about body cameras being turned off, or left behind, when an unarmed suspect gets shot. Those are not isolated cases. Somehow, I don't think Anthony would want police to use the this argument to bolster the case for police who don't want to wear body cameras.
To me, the surveillance society is already here, and the scariest part of it is not the cameras, and it is not government surveillance, either, it is what companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple already know about us. Those companies invade our privacy to a much greater extent than any number of cameras ever could.
Aside from the early motion pictures by Janssen and Marey, there is really not much in this film that is out of the ordinary. There is almost nothing about drone surveillance, there is nothing about social media and privacy. This film is limited almost exclusively to cameras and their limits. There are far more important, and scary, new worlds of surveillance outside of this narrow frame of reference. This film rates a C+.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.