Interrogation about an Espionage Programme

13 January 2019

Gerwin Tamsma's essay on The Spying Thing

The camera and espionage are inextricably linked. And in an era dominated by Putin and Trump, fear and suspicion, big data and social credit systems, espionage has become preventive and uncritical. IFFR program The Spying Thing investigates espionage as a way of filming and the camera as a spying weapon. 

Where did the idea for The Spying Thing come from?
From reading the news and watching films; the close link between the nature of cinema and the essence of espionage immediately comes to mind. Espionage is back again and has been in the news every day in recent years. Cinema reacts slowly to these changes.

What precisely is meant by espionage?
In a strict sense, espionage is secretly collecting information about another country or organisation. But the subject can also be extended very broadly: it relates to finding out the truth, paranoia and investigation, to surveillance and control, to privacy and ubiquitous CCTV, to voyeurism and power structures.

Within that broad area, what does The Spying Thing focus on?
Hitchcock’s Rear Window turns out to be an excellent metaphor for contemporary espionage practice: the respectable cosmopolitan James Stewart (as Jeff) is a collector of Big Data with some limitations on movement (just like every secret service of a democratic country) who is peering at everyone across the way and then thinking he sees a crime. His girlfriend Grace Kelly (as Lisa) is slightly suspicious at first, but, confronted with the severity of the crime, succumbs to his obsession: “Tell me everything you saw, and what you think it means.” So Grace Kelly is an individual citizen who thinks she’s making a moral appraisal, but she leaves the interpretation to Jeff. And the neighbours over the way, that’s all of us together.

All the old films in the programme, from Western classics to obscure counterparts from behind the Iron Curtain, offer contemporary spectators new meanings in different ways. And the more recent films primarily indicate that confusion and dislocation are always one step ahead of finding out the truth. That is the strategy of many arthouse films and of secret services. In addition, the interest of many contemporary film authors is probably focused on introspection and the ‘victims’ of spying.

What has changed in espionage?
From the beginning, the camera was a weapon of espionage and filmmakers knew that. With developments in cinema and techniques to record images, spying techniques have also changed. Classic espionage – focused, reactive – has now evolved into something facing all of us.

It looks as if a suspicion is not needed any more. Everything is subject to surveillance. Purely the fact that there will always be people who do undesirable or criminal things, is reason enough to spy on everyone. In this era of Big Data and the Internet of Things, Putin, Trump, the return of a Cold War and China as a superpower, espionage has become preventive and uncritical. In addition, the time there once was between spying and analysing the data, and the reaction that then followed, has become much shorter or has even disappeared entirely, as is for instance expanded on in Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky.

What can we expect from ‘security camera films’ in the coming years?
For some time, films have been made from and with security footage – for instance, the pioneering Dragonfly Eyes by Xu Bing last year. Bong Joon-ho had already parodied the idea in his first short film. Or, for instance, the last work by Chris Marker, Stopover in Dubai, which really is an, because it was largely produced by Dubai State Security, in order to show how CCTV objet trouvé cameras reveal the identity of the people who murdered a Hamas arms specialist. Too late, however, because they’d already left the country by the time the crime was discovered.

Are there enough films about contemporary espionage?
Asking the question is providing the answer. Hollywood and other mainstream cinemas regularly produce action thrillers and espionage drama based on ‘a true story’. In many arthouse films, the spying idea is used temporarily, before quickly returning to everyday issues: love, identity, injustice. The subject looks more suited to documentary makers, but that is sure to change in the coming years.

Why is the programme called The Spying Thing?
It reflects the fact that people in power often don’t want to talk about the dirty details of espionage. So in order to make it less relevant, less serious, they call it a thing. In addition, the title refers to the camera itself. But it cannot be denied that most two-word titles people can think of for a programme that’s about cinema and espionage have already been used: from Deep Throat to True Lies, from The Spy Game to Secret Agent.

Curated by Gustavo Beck and Gerwin Tamsma. Thanks to Barbara Wurm, Olaf Möller.

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