Black Code

Black Code director Nick de Pencier is no stranger to Canadian documentary, having served as cinematographer and/or producer for films like Al Purdy Was Here, Watermark and The End of Time. He’s also directed a handful of made-for-TV documentaries. He’s now expanding his efforts beyond the television screen with Black Code, a doc about the increasingly complicated architecture of data collection and the disturbing havoc that digital surveillance has wreaked on human rights. It’s a subject most of us don’t keep up with, and as the film suggests, our ignorance is our own peril.

From Tibet to Pakistan to Brazil and beyond, this frank, no-holds-barred documentary explores the era of Big Data, and belongs as much to de Pencier as it does to Professor Ronald Deibert, Director of University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. Black Code is largely based on Deibert’s book Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, with his voice filling up the film as if he’s giving a lecture. Citizen Lab is a research organization dedicated to hacktivism – it helped expose GhostNet, an undercover cyber surveillance project conducted by the Chinese government – and it’s connected with and assisted political dissidents from several countries with authoritarian regimes.

The stories Black Code tells are pretty scattered, and not always complete. It does end with one powerful, conveniently pre-formed narrative, however: the case of one Rio de Janeiro protester, who was wrongly accused and imprisoned for throwing a molotov cocktail at the riot police. Live-streaming footage recorded by alternative-media reporters belonging to a group called the Midia Ninja drew the attention of thousands of viewers who were able to trace exactly where the imprisoned protester was when the bomb was thrown, leading to his discharge. (The real perpetrator turned out to be an undercover cop trying to agitate the protest.)

But anecdotes from other activists interviewed for the film are less complete, and the film’s scattershot approach in revealing snippets of these narratives before moving onto another part of the world is annoying and distracting. There’s the story of Sabeen Mahmud, a Pakistani human rights activist who was killed after daring to air her opinions online.

Online spaces, the film argues, are more perilous for attracting dangerous attackers than physical spaces, as dissenters’ opinions carry a permanence that words shouted in a physical space do not, thereby attracting a much more sizeable lynch mob. We meet exiled Tibetan dissidents trying to keep tabs on fellow activists still in Tibet who set themselves on fire to defy the Chinese government. These are people who can’t communicate their actions to comrades from sheer lack of access and inescapable cyber surveillance.

The stories are alarming, and certainly, people should know about them. There’s no doubt the growing complexity of cyber surveillance of governments and corporations — and the lack of regulation over what information should be monitored — already affects apathetic, privileged joe-shmoes – not just activists in totalitarian regimes. We just haven’t had to face the music yet.

But outside of informing us about what’s happening and gently asking us to stay aware about these global issues, Black Code doesn’t have much else to say. It’s a trait of televisual documentary storytelling, and not one that necessarily deserves the cinematic treatment.

Originally published in The National Post (April 12, 2017).