Open Road Films
Mobile media devices have grown so ubiquitous as to become banal. We treat the everyday documentation of events rendered capable by cameras in our pockets as a part of the implicit contract of living in the early 21st century. On one hand, such devices are capable of tracking our every move, making us hopelessly complicit in a data-driven surveillance state. On the other hand, such devices also seem to bear the unique ability to illuminate what isn’t made visible by mainstream and commercial media. But their common use resides in a seemingly innocuous space between conformity and empowerment, while at the same time equally capable of swinging wildly between the poles of democratized and oligarchical forms of media production.
As Kevin B. Lee wrote about after premiering his excellent digital documentary Transformers: The Premake, “everyone is a filmmaker now.” But what type of filmmaker everyone is can’t be assumed.
Two movies from this past year, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater and Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (both coming to DVD next week), illustrate that a civilian’s act of holding a camera in their hands can have a wide spectrum of effects and consequences, and in so doing tell us a great deal about everyday filmmaking’s relationship to power.
As Mazair Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) observes the protests and violent police responses that erupted subsequent Iran’s 2009 presidential election, he discourages his driver, Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), from “fighting back” against this belligerent show of state power. Davood then tells Mazair, “You have the real weapon and you choose not to use it,” referring to his digital camera. While this moment risks feeling too telegraphed and on-the-nose in Stewart’s earnest directorial debut, it is necessary. Rosewater misses no opportunity to remind viewers about how this election utilized social media as a democratized platform to combat state censorship and oppression. But the film’s more complex representation of media can be found within Bahari’s relationship with his camera depicted throughout the film’s first act.
Before he films the protests, Bahari is portrayed as decisive and shrewd in his choice of what to document. He’s content to let state power speak without interruption or challenge, as when he interviews a spokesman for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or participating in state-approved activities, as when he films (albeit not without some pushback) people voting at the polls.
But when he interviews Mir-Hossein Mousavi supporters and other political dissidents, Bahari holds his camera back, at one point even going so far as to pretend his battery is low when several citizens have introduced him to their secret satellite roof through which they are able to access non-state-approved media and information. He fears that these images could exist or be reproduced in order to protect these citizens and their cause, despite the fact that these citizen-activists possess no fear of spreading or making transparent their activities.
It is not until the eruption of protest following the election that Bahari fully appreciates that his camera is not simply a device for passive documentation, but possesses the unique power of fighting for a cause by the simple act of representing it.
As presented by Rosewater, Bahari’s imprisonment came about through Iran’s compounding and intersecting skepticisms about media. Because he works for a legitimate international news outlet, Newsweek, Bahari is able to get his images out to the world – yet these images are produced from the standpoint of a guerilla filmmaker and resistance fighter, not an extension of a news media empire. Yet, as embodied by his interrogator (Haluk Bilginer), the state is not skeptical of Bahari so much because of these media images, or even a Daily Show interview misrecognized as a broadcasted conversation with an American spy, but because of Bahari’s media literacy more broadly. When Bahari is captured, his very possession of dominant media – from The Sopranos on DVD to a Leonard Cohen LP – renders him suspect of a conspiracy.
While Stewart’s film by no means deemphasizes the threat of dictatorial state power, it does portray such power as inept in the face of a changing media landscape – unable to fully understand, much less dismantle, the threat of shared hope, immediacy, and accessibility embedded in new, mobile, social media.
Open Road Films
Nightcrawler depicts a civilian even further divorced from existing media institutions, using grassroots filmmaking to mobilize his goals of business success that exist on the other side of the scale from Rosewater’s democratized, communally empowering portrayal of on-the-ground media production.
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a less a person than he is a cipher who has formed his entire being through neoliberal platitudes and a self-effacing philosophy of professionalism and ambition that seems inherited from a library of interchangeable self-help business books. Less a “person” than a sociopathic embodiment of the perfect go-getter within a cutthroat post-recession job market, Bloom approaches filmmaking not from the purview of an interest in the craft for its own sake, but because he eventually comes to realize that he is willing to do things that his peers aren’t by his unique advantage of not possessing a conscience. While affixing a creepy charm that occasionally resembles but does not quite come across as actual humanity, Bloom stops at nothing when he gets a glimpse of success, from manipulating a crime scene to bad-faith negotiations to bribery to physical intimidation to, inevitably, staging real acts of violence. None of the actual violence that he captures actually seems to render him vulnerable as he stares through the viewfinder.
Bloom’s greatest asset is his invisibility. Yes, his life is organized around self-promotion, but not loudly so. He sells his brand but is not self-branding and intuitively understands the art of false modesty. When his grisly images – often free of any context that actually illuminates injustices and struggles of power at the heart of everyday crime – show up on late night local news in Los Angeles, he is not until late in the film credited on air as the “author” of these images, and even then that credit is served to promote Bloom’s burgeoning “company” instead of a self that is not actually there. Despite his insistence on becoming a self-made man through grassroots productions, he is perfectly suited to become an extension of existing media power – of a commercial news landscape that runs on sensation, not information – and profit therein.
Less a “media satire” outright than a literalized depiction of late capitalism’s cutthroat demands, Nightcrawler uses mobile media-making to depict how any coherent or human idea of “selfhood” can be easily lost in an existing machine devoted to reproducing for-profit images, if the two were ever compatible in the first place.
It’s striking how in both Rosewater and Nightcrawler, so much screen time is spent depicting the respective protagonists looking through viewfinders, finding angles, sharing their work – filmmaking. This is, no doubt, a familiar image in everyday life, but not one often portrayed in such detail in feature films themselves. In so doing, these disparate films pose relevant, intersecting questions about what capturing images really entails, even from a grassroots perspective, wherein filmmaking can either fight or perpetuate injustice, misrepresentation, and an overall limited regime of established media.