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.

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.