Coded Bias: Review (AMPLIFY! Film Festival)

(Originally published on Overtime Online, 16th November 2020.)

We have given artificial intelligence power and jurisdiction over decision-making processes that can be simultaneously nuanced and personal. We trust that algorithms are a neutral, objective factor in this system, and are less prone to corruption as they are not vulnerable to the effects of human error. But from whose perspective is this the case?

Shalini Kantayya’s documentary film Coded Bias takes steps towards breaking down and exposing the in-built structures of power which feed into machine-learning and AI tech. The director achieves this through conducting interviews with an array of academics and members of activist groups who are monitoring a broadly unregulated area of tech development. 

Together, the subjects have all uncovered some uncomfortable truths about rapidly developing technologies which are presently being evaluated through non-consensual or otherwise discrete trials on the general public.

The documentary follows the progress of Joy Buolamwini, an AI researcher at MIT and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, as she takes her ethical concerns about facial recognition technology to a hearing with Congress in the US

Buolamwini was mobilised to take action against the irresponsible programming of facial recognition tech based on the incidences of automated discrimination she experienced while conducting her own experiments with AI. 

She found that the facial recognition programs she had been encoding into her work failed to register visual information about her face, but when she held up a plain white mask to cover her skin and features the program was able to detect a face – despite the fact that the mask had almost no human qualities about it. 

The inaccuracies in the AI that Buolamwini studied were specifically biased against people of colour and, to a significant degree, against women; for example, IBM’s facial recognition tech could identify the face of a white male with 99.7% accuracy, whereas its ability to identify the faces of women of colour was reduced to only 65.3% accuracy. 

This is what Buolamwini considers as an embedding of unconscious bias, based on the – likely unintentional, but nonetheless destructive – myopia which resulted from the homogeneous backgrounds and experiences of the field’s initial programmers. To achieve objectivity of an algorithm, we must first be able to assume that all its variables are equal.

But as this has not historically been the case, what real-world effects does this inequality in information have on the lives of everyday people? Kantayya explores this in Coded Bias by focusing in part on the work of Big Brother Watch, a UK-based activist group led by director Silkie Carlo, who are campaigning against the exploitation of data rights and civilian privacy, which the group consider to be violations of civil liberties.

Kantayya’s film captures an important moment where a 14 year old schoolboy is accosted by police, fingerprinted and added registered on their criminal database as a response to a suspected match in facial profile detected by cameras police stationed in the area capable of facial recognition.

The match was a misidentification—entirely incorrect, but the boy’s data was still logged on file. The use of an inaccurate and biased profiling algorithm resulted in harassment of an underage child by police. 

Coded Bias sheds light on a number of other case studies which are equally as important to stimulating discussion over the moral culpability of big tech in cases of digital injustice. The film also does an excellent job of demystifying AI development as a discipline; as Cathy O’Neil says in her interview segment, it really is “just math” [sic]. 

With present-day events being intercut with our glamorous visions of intelligent futures—clips from the cinematic adaptations of Minority Report, 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1984—Kantayya has constructed an enjoyable and broad-ranging study of pressing ethical issues contemporary tech development, while giving its audience space to appreciate the women on the front lines of tech research who are championing the defence of our right to privacy as global citizens.

Coded Bias is available to stream instantly via Eventive until 22 November as part of the AMPLIFY! film festival.

  • AMPLIFY! is an online film festival running November 6-22, with digital programming curated by four of the UK’s biggest film festivals: CINECITY (Brighton), Cambridge and Cornwall Film Festivals, and FilmBath.

Body of Truth (AMPLIFY! Film Festival)

(Originally published on Overtime Online, 12th November 2020.)

Evelyn Schels’ documentary carries a combined case study on four artists and their diverse bodies of work, creating a tether between them based on their mutual use of the self as a core form across multimedia and performance art mediums.

The film’s title, Body of Truth, describes that connection the four artists (Marina Abramović, Katharina Sieverding, Sigalit Landau, Shirin Neshat) share; each of them has an artistic practice that is tied into a politicised use of their own bodies in the construction of images. 

This corporeal presence is, in turn, attached to the narratives of conflict, pain and persecution which are common threads in the personal histories of all four women, though they manifest in divergent ways.

Marina Abramović’s work is dark, gothic, and frequently involves invasive treatment of her own body. A child of Serbia (former Yugoslavia), the artist’s parents were both respected members of the National Liberation Army during WWII, and subsequently became attached to Tito’s government when he assumed power. 

Abramović identifies herself as being ‘angry’ about the manner in which she was raised by her parents – particularly by her father – and describes incidences of personal trauma across her childhood which work to explain the extreme nature of her artistic performances.

She engages in self-harm onstage in her installation spaces, and has employed biological materials as active agents in works such as ‘Balkan Baroque’ (1997), wherein she continually laboured over washing clean a mound of bloodied bones – representative of the irreversible imprint war and brutality leaves on a nation and its people.

Katharina Sieverding similarly explores the atmosphere of post-conflict societies in her conceptual practice, but she does so in ways that are more abstract. She admits that she finds self-injury in art unappealing, and argues that the body should be representative of the world which surrounds it.

Sieverding has used photographic self-portraits as a recurring central motif throughout decades of work. Born in Prague and shifted into Germany through stints in postwar internment camps, the artist has often made a point in her work to subvert legacies of cultural conservatism; she achieves this by using the medium of photography to draw progressive ideals closer to reality, without really taking a position on a formal ideology. 

Although ‘Deutschland wird deutscher’ (1992) makes use of inflammatory language through text, it is only as ideologically charged as the audience makes it, as the sentiments displayed in Sieverding’s work have all been part of social debate across German media; these are offset against playful self-portraits which are in conflict with the overlaid text.

In contrast, Sigalit Landau produces work which is overtly political, but through a personal lens; much of her work self-referential, revolving around the history of her family, and her experiences of her immediate environment – her home in a village in north Jerusalem populated by Holocaust survivors. 

The artist describes the incongruity of living in a Jewish-Israeli community which sits entirely separate to – but also neighbouring – an Arabic village across a valley, and some of Landau’s most striking pieces are those with installations situated in the Dead Sea: the salt lake that defies borders but can host no life.

Like Abramović, Landau has used physical harm and violence against herself – performed on her own body – to confront audiences with the realities of nations in constant and futile states of conflict. 

‘Barbed Hula’ (2000) is particularly difficult to watch, and involves the use of barbed wire – a symbol of annexation and antagonism – to illustrate these themes in moving image.

Iranian artist Shirin Neshat represents the fourth case study in Schels’ documentary, and her approach to the art of liberation is the most delicate of the practices exhibited. 

Neshat seeks to visualise what she terms the ‘dichotomy’ of her experiences of an upbringing in Iran under multiple distinct political regimes, and to draw attention to the fact that women’s bodies are often symbolic battlegrounds as indicators of national progress and identity.

She speaks lovingly of her family, and describes her parents as modern progressives living in a split environment. The artist is keen on human presence in her work, and often combines monochromatic portrait photography with Farsi calligraphy, or uses props to stage a scene – sometimes both.

In her ‘Women of Allah’ (1995) series, Neshat sought to elucidate the contradictions she saw in religious female Muslim communities in Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

Her photographs convey the simultaneous senses of beauty and threat that she identified with groups of female militants who chose to arm themselves and engage in conflict to fight for the identity they desired for their nation.

The works of all four artists are exceptionally interesting in a cinematic context, and work well shown on screen in sequence, in proximity to one another. How can you assess the artistic merit of a film which is itself about artistic merit?

Schels’ film is thoughtfully produced, with interviews which encourage enough self-analysis on a personal level to give the viewer a depth in understanding of the complex and enigmatic personalities of the documentary’s four highly articulate subjects.

Because of the wealth of artistic material which could be covered when considering the combined work of the artists, creative content does feel as though it is spread rather thinly throughout Body of Truth, but this really stems from a frustration about the runtime being unable to accommodate further case studies drawn from these seminal bodies of work.

Body of Truth is available to stream instantly via Eventive until 16 November as part of the AMPLIFY! film festival.

  • AMPLIFY! is an online film festival running November 6-22, with digital programming curated by four of the UK’s biggest film festivals: CINECITY (Brighton), Cambridge and Cornwall Film Festivals, and FilmBath.

Luxor: Review (AMPLIFY! Film Festival)

(Originally published on Overtime Online, 10th November 2020.)

Director Zeina Durra described Luxor as a vehicle through which its audience could “armchair travel”, which seems especially poignant when considering the context of this film’s release. 

Durra’s film follows an astonishing journey through the city of Luxor, a place which appears so vibrant, so free – so enveloping, that it would take a tremendous amount of resolve to resist its cosmopolitan charm.

It is a loss to be without a cinema screen while you take in the very deliberately shot immersive environments in the city after which the film is named; it is evident that Luxor had been designed with scale in mind, in part to give a sense of the power that place holds over person. 

But the beauty of this story comes not only through sublime images of a city “pregnant” with history – teeming with those bastions of cultural, historical and artistic human achievement. 

At its heart, Luxor is about healing; the long process involved in mending a psyche that has been so tortured by trauma and violence that the individual has forgotten how to live.

Hana (Andrea Riseborough) is a British surgeon returning from a stint of aid work near the border between Syria and Jordan. Her trajectory around the city of Luxor is the film’s guiding force, and her travels begin with a slow dragging of the feet across dry earth. 

It is made plain from the onset that Hana is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, and is having difficulty connecting herself to the present despite her environments.

At first unable to sleep, and reticent to let herself become vulnerable to emotion, Hana’s internalised distress has the effect of keeping her mostly arcane as the film’s central subject. 

It is really the coincidental meeting she has with her impossibly charismatic past lover, Sultan (Karim Saleh) which causes Hana to unravel as she begins to show her innermost self, which still remains but has been damaged during the years of tension she has endured through her work in conflict.

As Hana and Sultan reconnect, the audience comes to understand that the lovers and the city of Luxor have been entwined for decades; their recollections of memories shared across different eras promote so much warmth between the pair that it is difficult not to feel it in the room. 

The textures, the colours and the visible climate of the locations are enhanced by the presence of two people who are connected in a most exceptional way – a love performed beautifully by Riseborough and Saleh through subtle intonation and pensiveness.

Accepting help and care is difficult for Hana, but her instinctive trust in Sultan is what really sets her on a path to recovery. The first time she sleeps the night through, it is clear that what she has been craving is company, and comfort. 

Somewhere to inhabit in relative safety. This is surely something which, regardless of the relative gravity of our own personal situations, we can all appreciate in times like the present.

An astonishing film about the ability of individuals to repair their lives after experiencing great hardship, set against a profoundly dazzling landscape.

Luxor is available to stream instantly via Eventive until 12 November as part of the AMPLIFY! film festival.

  • AMPLIFY! is an online film festival running November 6-22, with digital programming curated by four of the UK’s biggest film festivals: CINECITY (Brighton), Cambridge and Cornwall Film Festivals, and FilmBath.

Lockdown Streamtown: things you might have missed this autumn on Netflix and Amazon Prime

(Originally published on Overtime Online, 9th November 2020.)

As the UK enters its first full week of Lockdown II (or Lockdown 2: Election Boogaloo), some of us will be scrolling through our streaming services of an evening wondering how we could have exhausted all the meaty, jaunty or otherwise worthwhile titles over the past few months. Autoplay is no innocent party in this offence.

So, here are a handful of streaming gems worth watching that you may have missed this autumn.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)

A charming and whimsical adaptation of Dickens’ sempiternal tale of abuse, hardship, triumph and generosity of spirit; Dev Patel is an inspired choice for fully-grown incarnation of the story’s eponymous hero, David Copperfield. 

His David is bright-eyed and energetic, bold and intelligent, sweet and talented; all the admirable human qualities that continuously seem to land David/Davy/Daisy in hot water. But he proves time and again to be quite capable of assimilation, adaptation – survival.

Because David’s life and work both revolve around the vivid characters he encounters throughout his eras of fortune and misfortune, director Armando Iannucci treats us to a most satisfying display of eccentricity and poetry. 

The essence of the people David grows to know is woven into the spaces around them. There is a musicality in the way that people and their environments blend together, and flow into each other, that creates an effortless sense of movement in the film’s trajectory.

This is a showcase of British film industry brilliance, from the titanic casting to the wry wit in scripting, and the story remains as fresh today as it ever has been. Its lessons on the precariousness of our place in society—how close we all are to adversity at any given time—will be relevant as long as our divisions stay the same.

Available now to stream on Amazon Prime Video

The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)

Winner of a 30 under 30 award for dramatic writing and a dedicated—fairly underappreciated—teacher, Radha Blank (name shared with the film’s writer-director) still has it all ahead of her, but seems to have lost her footing on a path to greatness.

In the film’s first act, Radha is fighting for a small piece of prestige for her laboured efforts in the dramatic arts. She tries—unsuccessfully—to ingratiate herself on a pretentious Afrocentric theatre owner, who thinks she won’t write truth in her plays. She then settles on having her play backed by a manipulative middle-class producer who fetishises Poverty Porn, and who employs Black writers to showboat his own pseudo-politics while brutalising their work.

Simultaneously, Radha is struggling through her own crisis of identity as she has discovered, almost by accident, that she is a fierce rapper with a unique perspective on life. She invents a moniker (RadhaMUSprime) and seeks out a producer to work with, nervously anticipating discrimination in the rap scene due to her age and her gender. 

When she meets D, a young DJ who is complex and thoughtful, he embodies the openness and innovative qualities of the rap community; he makes it clear that there is a place for Radha’s voice and politics in Hip Hop, because it is—at its core—honest, modern poetry.

D helps Radha understand that her natural talents are worth more than success in a cultural sphere that doesn’t respect her individuality. Their creative flow together plainly becomes the most important thing in either one’s life. 

Ultimately the movie is just as powerful, just as funny and only half as messy as its principal character who is as real and ebullient as her real-life counterpart, writer Radha Blank.

Available now to stream on Netflix

Truth Seekers (2020)

Would Elton John make a good exorcist? Can I please see Malcolm McDowell’s eyeballs in even more detail? Is Prawn Cocktail really a socially acceptable flavour of crisps? Should these all be questions that keep you up at night, and you find yourself in want of answers, tune into Truth Seekers.

If there is anything the 21st century has proven, it is that Frost/Pegg will go down in history as a more formidable pairing than Frost/Nixon. 

This silly, sweet, tongue-in-cheek series dishes out equal shares of scares and giggles in a structure that has been well-tested throughout the Cornetto Canon. The homeliness and simplicity of Truth Seekers is a brilliant antidote to the chaos of the unknown in our outside world which we grapple with daily. 

The series takes the very real and valid fears about every part of our lives being increasingly saturated with advanced telecommunications (from cables to clouds) and uses fanciful supernatural scenarios to prove that our tech could simultaneously be one of the greatest threats we face, but also the most effective path to our salvation.

Unfortunately, this series will only eat up about 4 hours of lockdown time. But this issue can be resolved by watching the entire thing three times in a day. Therefore, you can avoid Monday entirely and skip straight to Tuesday. No, you do not get to collect £200 as you pass through.

Available now to stream on Amazon Prime Video

Challenger: The Final Flight (2020)

This four-parter is an elegant documentary series about a true American horror story: a flight that ended the lives of seven people as a result of a catastrophic failure to make correct decisions at levels that seemed apparently insignificant. 

The harrowing story of the Challenger Space Shuttle’s failed 1986 mission (STS-51-L) is explored in detail through impeccable historical archive footage of the event and its surrounding context. This is combined with interview material capturing a cross-section of the parties who were most critically involved in the Challenger disaster. 

The series’ primary focus is on the very human element of the tragedy: the losses of six accomplished NASA astronauts onboard, and their first civilian space passenger—New Hampshire teacher, Christa McAuliffe. 

Episode three, ‘A Major Malfunction’, is directed as though it were a doomsday thriller; you are made to watch the days and weeks preceding the mission unfold in their innocent mundanity while anticipating the approach of the final blow, wishing you could reach out and stop what has is already been set in motion.

Recollections from the families of the Challenger crew in their respective interviews do much to bring the story even closer to home, honouring the memory of those lost in the disaster by reminding us that they were all ordinary people; family people, whose fates were determined by a system of bureaucracy which failed to place the value of human life over inhuman interests.

Available now to stream on Netflix

The Mole Agent: Review (AMPLIFY! Film Festival)

(Originally published on Overtime Online, 8th November 2020.)

It is difficult to imagine how, exactly, the events captured in this Chilean documentary came together; at first, we are led to believe the story will take shape as a hard-boiled exposé with espionage led by a carefully selected post-pension-age Columbo figure, Sergio. 

He is unassuming, polite, highly intelligent, and at 83 years old he looks to be a perfect fit for an infiltration job being set up by Romulo, a private investigator. 

The PI’s client is the daughter of a resident at a nursing home, and she is concerned that her mother is suffering abuse under the home’s care, so Romulo hires Sergio to investigate the home while posing as (and thereby becoming) a resident himself. 

Sergio soon finds, however, that the real mistreatment of the residents occurs as a result of a different kind of neglect largely unattached to the nursing home.

While this documentary’s subjects are mostly in their twilight years, the film is so full of life and splendour it is easy to lose sight of the investigation which is supposedly the focus of the story. Instead the kinship between the residents, enhanced by the arrival of Sergio, becomes a far more meaningful thread to follow. 

He is adored by all because he is kind, patient and understanding, and something of an enigma when he first arrives. Sergio’s sleuthing eventually takes a back seat to his growing personal involvement in the home’s community, as he finds that the population of the home all care for him just as much as he begins trying to care for them.

He makes some incredible friends during his stay, and finds a particularly special connection with resident Marta, who should – by all the classic principles of a good detective story – be his adversary.

The final moments of the film are moving in unexpected ways, and we are made to understand that small acts of goodness and generosity can cure the most painful cases of loneliness among vulnerable people – that everyone deserves meaningful companionship in life, whatever form it takes.

The Mole Agent is available to stream instantly via Eventive until 13 November as part of the AMPLIFY! film festival.

  • AMPLIFY! is an online film festival running November 6-22, with digital programming curated by four of the UK’s biggest film festivals: CINECITY (Brighton), Cambridge and Cornwall Film Festivals, and FilmBath.