Machine

It’s not often you see a documentary about emergent technology and come away feeling comforted.

One of my old uni lecturers said, “I’m not really worried about AI. Because all a computer can do is add 2 numbers, subtract 2 numbers, multiply and divide 2 numbers, and decide which one is larger or smaller.” That proves decidedly prescient given the subjects covered in Machine.

Machine is a sort of setting to rights by robotisicist and AI specialists on the capacity and limitations of AI. The good news about AI is, a lot of it’s shite, so we’re not all gonna be replaced by androids just yet. The bad news is our problem isn’t AI, it’s capitalism, the state, patriarchy and racism. So yeah, there’s that.

The kind of point of Machine is to say that the future of AI is not a technological problem, it’s a philosophical problem. And the problem with us getting good or bad results from AI, is down to the fact that we don’t really understand ourselves or know what we want. In fact, at basics, the trouble with replicating human thought, is we don’t really understand how humans think. It’s Dostoyevsky’s problem with creating a sane society for an insane species flung into a technological future.

In short, people say what they want, then don’t want it. Best example is the driverless car trolley problem. People say that a driverless car should swerve to avoid injuring a group of pedestrians, even at the sacrafice of the safety of the driver. When asked if they would drive such a car, they’re like, “Fuck no!” How can a technology be developed to serve such a contradictory customer base?

An interesting conversation starter. Give it a watch if it pops up on Netflix, which I suspect it will.

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

I knew very little about Oliver Sacks other than he was the doctor Robin Williams’s character in Awakenings is based on. I also knew a couple of his other books, like The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. So this was an enormous pleasure to watch and learn from.

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is a biographical documentary, following both his life and work. He’s a man of many contradictions, or perhaps contradictions to expectations. On one hand he’s this fastidious little Jewish doctor from the Golders Green area of London, with a suitable beard, spectacles and clipped accent. On the other hand, he arrives in the States in the 60s looking like a Tom of Finland pin-up, driving to work on his motorbike, chomping his cigar, and stuffing his hulking muscles under a white coat. He becomes a weight-lifting champion to overcome his crippling shyness, yet he is extraordinarily frank about intimate things at times. He’s funny and gentle and has this unique ability to gain insight and understanding with people whose conditions radically impede their ability to communicate, yet he’s unable to form adult romantic relationships, and spends 35 years celibate.

This is a lovely film that kind of talks about our exploration of what consciousness means, of our indebtness to those with neurological conditions for our understanding of the human condition, of an appeal to the value of all human beings and all ways of seeing and experiencing the world, which are all unique.

Because We Are Girls

Because We Are Girls follows the story of three Punjabi-Canadian sisters as they try to prosecute their cousin for rape and sexual abuse committed against them at the ages of 10 and 11.

I did really well with this film, I felt the tears welling up at so many points in the film, and I thought I’d be able to hold it, but as 2 of the 3 sisters came out for the Q&A, I just lost it. I burst into tears. Because this should not happen to any child. And it happens constantly, everywhere, to so many people. And it is so hard to get justice.

The beating heart of this very raw film is the relationship between the sisters. Because no one believed them, except each other. Their parents slowly grew to accept it, but, both because of their ethnic culture and their generational culture, they didn’t want to encourage any attempts at public prosecution for fear of what it would do to the family name.

The treatment of their parents was very interesting. Because they are neither castigated with condemnation nor are they absolved. After all, as one of the sisters said in the Q&A, they were groomed too. They were groomed to believe that this person would never do such a thing, they were groomed to believe him and defend him. And yet, there is a confrontation in the family towards the end of the film, where the girls said to their father, you had suspicions about what he was doing, and you did nothing. You had a chance to change things for us, if you had stood up for us, but you didn’t keep us safe. It’s a hard but true fact. And the message going forward is that, to prevent this happening to other kids, we need to equip adults with the ability to have those conversations, take those stands.

This documentary is so intimate and traces the effects of trauma over generations. This act has impacted on these sisters, damaged their relationship with their parents, impacted on the way they care for their children. Hopefully the prosecution and the documentary changes that narrative, of not inheriting trauma, but being inspired by bravery. I certainly know that’s what I took away from it.

One Taxi Ride

An incredibly intimate and personal documentary about one man telling his family he was gang-raped at 17 in a homophobic attack.

The story is of such huge issues, yet it has such a small, domestic setting. You really feel you are taken into his family home. You hear their squabbles, their irritations, their personality clashes, and them telling each over and over, “I love you. We’re family.”

And you can see how he would struggle to bring such a big conversation into such an ordinary world. When finally tells his family, one of his brothers is still on the phone, one of them is still playing on the X-Box, his Mum is fussing with her knitting.

But this story is one of healing. That speaking out is freeing. And that you will find that so, so many people have been through what you’ve been through. And trusting people with the truth is the first step to getting the love and support you need. Lovely movie.

State Funeral

This film is a real accomplishment. It takes contemporary footage of Stalin’s funeral and cuts it together with foley. It makes you feel like you’re watching it on 24-hour news, not as historical archive footage.

That’s the good news. The bad news is it’s like watching 2 and quarter hours of a state funeral on rolling news. Think Diana’s funeral but double-plus. I fell asleep for 15 minutes at one point and when I woke they were still shuffling past Stalin’s body for a peek. Bury the cunt already!

What was really interesting was to see the diversity of Soviet people. There’s black Russians, there are Asiatic peoples herding with reindeer, an entire continent’s worth of people all hearing the news at once. Puts you in awe of the scale of everything.

Pictures from Afghanistan

Pictures From Afghanistan is a film memoir of Glaswegian BBC photojournalist David Pratt of his time reporting on Afghanistan from the 1980s to present day.

I like the way this was filmed, really grounding Afghanistan as a place, not a news item. It’s strange to see a guy get in a taxi outside O’Neills pub in Glasgow and get out a taxi in Kabul. But it’s also interesting seeing him revisit places where he took photos in the 90s and contrast the bombed-out horrors to the tentative rebuilding that’s going on now.

Always In Season

Always In Season focuses on the death of Lennon Lacy, through the wider context of the history of denial, impunity and erasure of lynchings in the States.

Lennon Lacy was a 17-year-old boy who was found hanged from a swingset in the public green behind the house where he lived. Local police immediately ruled it a suicide, without investigating any other possibility. He told his Mum he was going out to take his washing in off the line just as she was going to bed, then when she woke the washing was still there, and he was dead.

Many avenues went uninvestigated, like the presence of white supremacist neighbours who had previously threatened Lennon with a gun, and that they might have opinions on Lennon starting to date a local white woman. A medical examiner, who saw the body, reported the presence of multiple injuries and defensive wounds.

A word of warning before you watch this – there are a LOT of pictures of lynchings in this movie. It is used to give perspective to how common lynchings were, that they happened everywhere, for centuries, and happened in the open where all could see. No one was ever charged for almost any of the deaths. And their existence was cloaked in silence, something unspeakable by the black community and something refused to be spoken of by the white community. And with each new generation of lynchings, the narrative was that lynchings were a thing of the past. In this denial, any contemporary injustices were also silenced.

As a reaction to this, and the current tendency to rule black men found hanged in public as suicides, of which Lennon is only one of many, there has been a growing urge to bring these cases to light, to not let them be swept away again. One of the stranger solutions that has emerged is lynching re-enactments. That’s something I did not see coming.

In the South there is a tradition of historical re-enactments, with Civil War battles being a favourite, and there never being any shortage of men willing to represent Confederate soldiers. Significantly less volunteer to represent KKK members and lynch mob members. Lynch re-enactments kinda turn the tables on how comfortable the South is with venerating its racist past. Everywhere you go there are Confederate flag merchandise, statues of Confederate soldiers, streets named after slave owners, and if you challenge any of it, you will be decried for trying to take away their history. But at the lynching re-enactments, tumbleweed.

The re-enactments also serve another purpose. These are unsolved cases. Every year they go to the crime site and reconstruct the crime. Maybe it will jog someone’s memory. Maybe it will finally shame someone who has buried it all deep inside. Whoever did this in the 60s or 50s or 40s, they could still be around today. And the KKK took their kids to lynchings, they considered it fun for all the family. So those kids may now be more aware of the significance of the things they saw.

All in all, a difficult watch, because there is no happy ending. This long legacy of injustice continues, and the victims are just supposed to live with it. But for a crime which is meant to have been erased, the most important thing you can do is acknowledge it and speak up.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

As anyone who knows me knows, Toni Morrison is my favourite ever author, along with Sylvia Plath. Toni Morrison has a large body of work, each one of which is unique and interesting in its own way, and deeply moving.

This a gentle documentary, letting Toni tell her story in her own words, while her more famous fans provide a greek chorus of celebration and inspiration from her work. For a woman whose books are full of such suffering, Toni tells her story as one of good fortune becoming greater fortune. Any discrimination or challenge she faced never seem to discourage her, she seemed to feel pity for any poor fool who thought they could stand in her way.

And she is like a juggernaut. She becomes the first African-American senior editor at Random House while raising two kids by herself, while also writing her novels and teaching at Yale. She ensures through her editing position that other African-American talent gets the recognition it deserves, and lifts others up.

And every time she is asked about her continued dismissal as a “black writer” who “limits herself” to writing about the experiences of African-American women, she meets it with humour, and not bitterness. She seems more bemused by it, as she continues right on outstripping her critics in success after success.

A lovely look at the very down-to-earth woman behind these very emotionally cataclysmic novels.

Netizens

You know if there’s a story about a 13-year-old girls being raped, and the assault being filmed, and the video being distributed at her school, with impunity, before the title card even comes up, the movie’s going to be brutal.

Netizens is a documentary about online gender violence and harassment. It features names you may know like Anita Sarkeesian from Tropes Versus Women, but also names you don’t, from women who didn’t make content and put it out there but just broke up with their boyfriend or turned down a date, and had their whole life turned upside down as a result.

The trouble with attitudes towards harassment and abuse is that people always want to visualise it as a discreet event, in the past, get over it. The problem with online abuse is that the internet has no past, it is just one continuous present, and that anything that has ever been done against you there, is still there. There is no future beyond the assault to recover to, because that place doesn’t exist. There is no getting over, only every day being retraumatised.

When Anita Sarkeesian launched Tropes Versus Women, it was to death threats, rape threats, and bomb threats. 4 years on, people say to her, “It must have be over now though, right?” She tells them, “No, what makes you think it would be any better now?” No one wants to deal with online gender violence as something ongoing, a problem that will never go away.

And the repeated refrain from all the women involved is that any attempt to end the violence against them is decried as an attack on free speech. Free speech has become the abuser’s shield, a mantra to justify ruining someone’s life, destroying their sense of safety, security and privacy, and driving them to suicide. The way this robs women of their voices, the confidence to speak in safety, both online and offline, doesn’t appear to be a concern for free speech advocates. Free speech is only free to some.

This documentary is terrifying. In that, ‘don’t think about all the nuclear weapons the Russians lost track of during the fall of the U.S.S.R. because it’ll keep you up at night’ kinda way. Because the truth is, this could happen to any of us, at any time, for any reason, and it could ruin your life. And one thing this documentary struggles to do is balance that message with any hope.

Because the truth is, it’s probably already too late for you to protect yourself. Unless you’ve been on the dark web since 93, your IP address is trackable all through time, if you’ve had the same email address all your days, if you’re reading this through a Facebook account, enough of you exists on the internet to be used to destroy you at any time.

And with all gender-based violence, the law is woefully inadequate and rarely enforced. So this becomes yet another unwanted testament to the fortitude of women preserving through continuous trauma and injustice.

Stomach-churningly frightening.