In Great Britain, we are perhaps the best candidates for most watched citizens in the world (in the Shetlands, there are more CCTV cameras than in the San Francisco Police Department). Facebook and Twitter stalking, closed-circuit surveillance, and network television coverage have in many ways erased freedom from the public realm and replaced it with forms of tracking, trending, but more importantly, control. Michael Palm, director of the science fiction pseudo-documentary, Low Definition Control – Malfunctions #0, talks to us about it as well as the idea of fear and film’s power to document it.
Palm’s documentary is a voyeuristic, grainy account of how we perceive each other. The camera stalks people on the street and mirrors a state surveillance which is Big Brother-esque in its ability to pervade and spy almost everything. Palm, along with other intellectuals from radiographers to criminologists, debates the nature of control and narrates the film as images and scenarios are played out on-screen.
‘There are two reasons for why I made this film’ starts Palm. ‘The first is that it is quite obviously a reference to 9/11 and the whole development we have seen since then; the paradigm shift in security politics, the new metaphors such as “sleepers” which have become very public. That’s the current situation, at least in the western world. ‘The second one is a very personal thing because, at the time, my wife was pregnant and had undergone some imaging procedures. It makes you think about what’s connected to those images. These are two very different fields. The connections between imaging, surveillance and control technologies are used to get knowledge about something which is hidden and this is linked to decisions you have to make on a personal or political scale. That’s what led me to open up this film on an interdisciplinary level’, explains Palm.
‘In a sense, the film is about fear, but it’s not a natural fear like being afraid of darkness or death. It’s a produced fear. It’s a fear which has been played on and has become a factor in security and insurance policy. It’s become a kind of capital, and of course, there’s a huge industry making money off that, all of which is connected to a kind of prevention technology. By this, I mean the system makes you frightened of something in the future that may or may not happen. Economies try to narrow down the field of options for the future and somehow get a grasp on it – by means of mathematics, technology, science, etc.’
‘These fears have been created for us in many ways’, Palm continues. ‘Over the last ten years in particular, they have only been proliferated. I think there’s a big urge to have security because life has become more complicated. Everyone lives through a kind of crisis now, something which neoliberalism has undoubtedly brought about.’
In Low Definition Control, there is a moment when the speakers discuss the role of film – both in the surveillance and cinematic sense. Could there be an irony in that Palm considers how film acts as a form of control, yet has used it here to voice his concerns? ‘Through film, we have a more concrete view of the world, a sharper eye, a more tactile and direct contact with observation’, Palm argues. ‘We have learned how to observe, we have learned how to interpret certain gestures, movements, which maybe at some point were not so important. In this sense, we have been educated through film. Indeed, it’s a kind of control, but while we have a sharper eye on our surroundings, that is not to be understood as an orthodox notion in the Big Brother sense. Film should always be a democratic medium. That’s not the same as the surveillance context.’
Palm looks towards film as a potential tool for examining our future and indeed harnessing our current attitudes. ‘Envisage that all of the images and recordings have somehow been stored in a large memory vault. This is of course a science fiction aspect because it’s a way to survive. In a medium, certain aspects are lodged there, the future is faced with a question of what you could learn or observe. This is a very challenging vision, how we are being transferred to the future, how this surveillance and data are like a time capsule.’ Palm seems to be alluding to the fact that we may not be remembered for what we have done, but rather what we were filmed doing. Within this, there is a comment on our loss of social value, a kind of senselessness which has drawn attention away from accomplishment and diverse introspection. These human features are slowly being reified, a long process which looks set to materialise in a not too distant future.
Low Definition Control is a meaty philosophical encounter, something which discusses our position in an observed world with an honest line of enquiry, searching for the root of our reclusiveness since the turn of the millennium. Of course, these discussions are necessary in film, experimenting with cinema’s position in documenting our anxieties and conditioning, and at the same time, exploring how we can address these issues.