Surveillance capitalism and how our data is mined to 'make a quick buck' are the theme to Coalcliff filmmaker Yaara Bou Melhem's first feature documentary.
For more than a decade Yaara Bou Melhem has dared to explore hidden corners of the earth and ask questions many have been too afraid to, and nothing has changed with her latest work on mass surveillance and artificial intelligence.
Unseen Skies is her first feature-length documentary and up for the prestigious Documentary Australia Foundation Award at the Sydney Film Festival (SFF), and screens in selected cinemas and online until November 12.
It aims to be confronting and visually explain the ways in which we are always being watched and the algorithms involved - military satellites, drones, surveillance cameras, our every move being noted by tech giants like Facebook and Google.
"Sometimes knowing something is different than seeing it and being confronted with it," she told the Mercury.
"We cant think that tech giants are going to regulate themselves and do things in the public interest when really they have a bottom line and part of that bottom line is growth, and not putting safeguards in ... which may mean people watch harmful content that is driving traffic on their sites."
Bou Melhem used the example of Facebook whistleblower, data scientist Frances Hagen's testimony to US Congress in early October, to reinforce her argument that tech giants are fully aware their social network can harm children and fuel division.
"I think there is a lack of awareness, and I think a part of that has to do with lack of transparency on the part of tech giants and how they collect our data and how it is used and I think that is deliberate," she said.
"Facebook has done all the studies, it knows how this works and it can put safeguards in but it chooses not to, because it's putting profit over humans."
Unseen Skies isn't boring and stuffy like a lecture about the subject, but instead hones in on artist and human rights activist Trevor Paglen to make a point.
You are introduced to a suspicious Paglen as he heads to Algondes Dunes at the US-Mexico border, where he exclaims "there's many levels of weird going on" following an encounter with a US Marine who seemed oddly stationed there in the desert.
The film unpacks why the artist's work often takes him to desolate places with nothing but drones and a telephoto lens for company, and why he fought for nearly 10 years to send a satellite into space for art - to launch a 30-metre mirrored balloon sculpture into orbit to be seen with the naked eye from earth.
"I'm just trying to show our ways of seeing, and our ways of seeing are never neutral, there's always forms of power inherent in those ways of seeing," said Trevor Paglen in the film.
I'm just trying to show our ways of seeing, and our ways of seeing are never neutral, there's always forms of power inherent in those ways of seeing.Trevor Paglen
In and around the artist's Orbital Reflector odyssey to deploy a non-militarized satellite into space, the film intertwines algorithms commonly used in computer vision like facial recognition, object detection and emotion classifiers.
"We no longer look at images - images look at us," Paglen told Bou Melhem.
"The overwhelming majority of images are now made by machines for other machines, with humans rarely in the loop. The landscape of invisible images and machine vision is becoming evermore active."
Bou Melhem said she had always been interested in power as well as people who challenged the status quo, and Paglen's work was a great "intersection between art and what's in the public interest" and a way to ram the issue home for people.
"His art works really offers us a portal into these infrastructures and these systems, that affect our daily lives more broadly in perhaps ways we don't really comprehend," she said.
"So making a film about it through his artworks would be confronting ... enough to really ram this issue home for people and get them talking about it, and get them thinking about it."
The film follows Paglen to Berlin for the creation of an collaboration with a string quartet for a project which uses computer vision surveillance software within the installation to show machines can be wrong.
On a large screen overhead, an algorithm used to the detect what it sees (that is, the musicians) is broadcast in real time as they vigorously sound out the strings of their instruments. Dozens of labels are spilled out by the computer, from "bad person", "black woman" over a Caucasian man's face, to calling a violin a "baseball bat".
The premise for Paglen's art/music project was to illustrate how artificial intelligence is not always neutral and objective, but created by programmers who input data based on their own biases and which has their own perspectives embedded in it.
"In the very near future, I guarantee that the pictures you post on social media will affect your credit rating, health and auto insurance policies, and much more," Paglen told the journalist.
"It will happen automatically. In a very real way, our rights and freedoms will be modulated by metadata signatures. What's at stake, obviously, is the future of the human race."
Bou Melhem wanted to make a film that was enjoyable and interesting but said she was also conscious she was creating something that would form part of the world's historical record.
"There is a lot packed into the film and that's deliberate," she said.
"You're trying to make something and get all the facts right because you're laying out something ... for people in the future to be able to reference."
Changing policy is a tough task, she said, and while Bou Melhem hoped her film could fuel further discussion with world leaders and change-makers it was a "millennial audience" who would immediately benefit from watching it.
"Think about not posting pics of your under-18 child on Facebook or Instagram, because here we have these tech giants being able to track children over the course of their lives and get a sense of what their behaviours might be and how they can micro-target them," she said.
The filmmaker believes the pandemic has only accelerated the reliance on technologies and in turn pushed corporations further to mine people for their data, "selling our behaviours in order to make a quick buck".
"We're going to be continually confronted with the use of these technologies and they are going to continue to encroach on our lives and that's not necessarily a bad thing, so long as there are appropriate safeguards in place - which are not in place yet."
Confrontation is the norm with Bou Melhem's work, the northern Illawarra video journalist often spending months abroad to capture the raw truths of pressing issues.
Her previous short films include exclusive reports where she crawls through Syrian rebel-held tunnels, going behind the bars of lawless Libyan jails after the fall of Gaddafi and following cannabis farmers in Lebanon joining the fight against ISIS.
Unseen Skies will be showing at the Sydney Film Festival: at the Event Cinema on George Street on November 10, the Palace Chauvel Cinema on November 13, and to rent online until November 12.
The film is written, produced and directed by Yaara Bou Melhem. Executive producers are Participant's Jeff Skoll and Diane Weyermann, along with In Films' Ivan O'Mahoney and Nial Fulton. The Director of Photography is Tom Bannigan, ACS; the Composer is Helena Czajka; the Editor is Francisco Forbes.
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