Surviving the world unseen

The desire to elude detection is often a matter of survival. Many organisms undertake crypsis as a method of concealment to hide from predators, altering their colour, scent, and noise production to give the illusion of non-presence.

In surveillance terms, the idea of ‘capture’ is both more banal and insidious than these mechanisms of the food chain. Mass collection of the metadata we produce online every day is begrudgingly accepted by users in exchange for access to the Internet, the world and each other. What often feels like passive data production enables greater intrusions into our personal lives—through cameras and microphones, biometric and location-tracking technologies—not just documenting behaviour but modifying it.

While Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation predates the internet, it places viewers in the suffocating grasp of surveillance technologies that have strong echoes with the present day. This is a world of bugged conversations and concealed microphones, in which one of the characters can smugly assert that ‘there’s no moment between human beings [he] cannot record.’ But the echoes register also in the way protagonist Harry Caul, himself an audio surveillance expert, tries to evade this same capture.

As a character study, The Conversation presents Harry as someone constantly evading knowability. Caul denies his landlord access to his home, refuses to give out his phone number, and avoids divulging personal information even to his lover. He claims to own nothing ‘personal’ or ‘of value’. His workshop sits in the corner of a vast, shadowy warehouse, nestled away as if mimicking his own reserved persona. The grey, semi-translucent raincoat he regularly dons is the protective armour of someone desiring a half-there, insulated, almost invisible existence. When his lover recounts his ‘certain way of opening up the door’ whenever he visits, even this tiny fact of recognisability is enough to put him on edge. It’s the natural response of someone intimately aware of the myriad ways one’s information and private experiences can be recorded and used to their detriment.

The Conversation was released in the aftermath of Watergate, coinciding with the American public’s burgeoning awareness that their privacy could be infringed upon without their knowledge. In the almost fifty years since, new technologies have demanded ever-growing levels of visibility from individuals. By making ourselves intelligible within given systems and social media platforms, we become increasingly atomised subjects, more easily categorised, marketed to, and traced.

In Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (2017), protagonist Will is already aware of this condition of the world: surveillance as an implicit agreement, always already entered into. The film finds Will and his teenage daughter, Tom, living mostly self-sufficient lives in a national park in Portland. Their off-the-grid lifestyle is broken only by brief hikes to retrieve what cannot be grown or foraged for, as well as Will’s PTSD medication, which he subsequently sells. We do not learn why Will has chosen to raise his daughter this way—only that he served in the war, is tormented with nightmares of past trauma, and has raised Tom alone since her mother’s death.

Subtextually, this lifestyle is the result of Will’s inability to readjust to ‘regular’ life, manifesting as deep distrust of conventional social arrangements. After the pair are apprehended by authorities and forced to integrate into society, Will’s only comforting refrain is that he and Tom ‘can still think [their] own thoughts.’ He hides their television in a closet and refuses to use a phone. He complains of a so-called ‘them’ to whom they are now beholden—‘we’re wearing their clothes … we’re doing their work’—and declares that the only place they’re not visible is in the privacy of their home.

Unwilling to exist within structures that shape the possibilities of his life, Will takes Tom away again in search of a place to continue their isolated lifestyle. When Tom decides she’d rather stay with a mobile home community in Washington, Will decides—excruciatingly—that he must continue without her. ‘I know you would stay if you could,’ Tom consoles him, with clear implications: there is no longer any straightforward way for Will to be in the world.

While The Conversation is heralded as one of the forebears of surveillance cinema, Leave No Trace sits less comfortably within this category. Visually, the genre is characterised by omniscient bird’s-eye views, shots of characters through windows, uses of CCTV footage and tracking devices. Observability produces narrative tension: we watch characters being watched, see the ways they’re manipulated and controlled by the people and technologies detecting them. This occurs both in the context of a top-down system of power (The Lives of Others, Enemy of the State, Metropolis, Prison Images) and socially normalised monitoring practices amongst civilians (Rear Window, Caché, A Short Film About Love), with these lines frequently blurring.

Though Will may gesture at a system he wishes to elude, the visual language of this system rarely touches he and Tom. The pair are never shot in an intrusively voyeuristic or conspiratorial manner, nor do we witness them through the explicit frame of a surveillant apparatus. While we do watch Will interact with an automated questionnaire software in a social services facility, even those technically responsible for monitoring the pair come across mostly well-meaning. Instead, the explicitly surveillant eye is replaced with Granik’s own gaze, directed resolutely at the central father-daughter relationship and questions of who needs what from whom to live a satisfying life.

Nevertheless, much like the protagonists of classic surveillance cinema, Will and Tom are faced with the almost constant threat of capture. To leave a ‘trace’—which in contemporary terms conjures notions of the digital footprint—threatens to derail Will and Tom’s way of life. To maintain it, they must learn to hide from everyone who passes through the national park. An early scene shows the pair doing ‘drills’, practising concealment techniques that include disappearing beneath foliage and covering footprints. They train themselves to remain conscious of every mark that could make them vulnerable to another’s eye. Worse are the events a single look may set in motion, like the jogger who alerts the police to the pair’s camp after spotting Tom.

In one scene in The Conversation, after Harry accidentally allows himself to be bugged by a hidden microphone planted as a prank, he responds as though a veil between he and the world had been pierced. A recording of him speaking cryptically about his relationship is played to a group of colleagues, and his carefully concealed identity returns to him via the sound of his own voice, no longer under his wary control. He is crushed by the vulnerability of having revealed himself.

What unites The Conversation and Leave No Trace is the shared desire of their protagonists to evade particular forms of capture. Harry and Will are intent on finding ways to be in the world that don’t hinge on being easily identified—to control how they appear, to the extent that they decide to appear at all. This desire to live off-the-grid is, inherently, a rejection of the terms of the world as-is, and the limited possibilities of life lived on those terms. It’s a practice of resistance, skirting systems of power by refusing to be made legible within them.

In the essay Black Data, Shaka McGotten writes:

Learning how to make oneself opaque is a practical necessity and a political tactic in this moment of big data’s ascendancy, in which … technologies are employed by states and corporations to digitally log our movements and virtually every technologically mediated interaction.

Legacy Russell echoes this position in her manifesto Glitch Feminism, using ‘encryption’ as a metaphor for making the body unreadable and inaccessible by systems that enforce normative binaries, instead embracing multiplicity. ‘Failing recognition,’ she asks ‘can [the body] successfully cease to exist?’

Yet there are other things to consider, given that the choice to ‘opt out’ or live imperceptibly is not simple, or even possible, for everyone. Degrees of visibility, who watches versus who gets watched, and the kinds of assumptions derived from accumulated data, do not intrude on all populations equally. In his film All Light Everywhere, Theo Anthony documents how an air surveillance company disproportionately targets Black communities in Baltimore under the guise of crime prevention. As McGotten writes: ‘becoming clandestine or deserting are not really options for populations already subject to spatialized forms of control.’ People can’t always survive the world unseen because that world demands their discernibility as a method of discipline.

Still, to shrink from view is not a novel desire. Films like Todd Haynes’s Safe and Krysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Blue detail characters who engage in their own forms of self-exile. Haynes’ protagonist ventures to a cult-like desert community to treat an environmental illness, a condition she first becomes aware of from a flyer blazoned with the question: ‘Are you allergic to the twentieth century?’ Kieślowski’s protagonist refuses to let anyone witness her grief after her family’s death, moving to an apartment where no one can find her. She rejects the ‘traps’ of love, friendship, and material possessions, anything by which she may be known. When the world is too much to bear, is making one ill, is degrading one’s soul, characters go away. In their isolation, they refuse the visibility public life demands—or in these cases, that make it impossible to recover.

Of course, once we do reject the world, there is always the question of what we’re leaving behind. In The Conversation, Harry desires anonymity for himself whilst making anonymity impossible for those he’s hired to record. The film lingers in the tension between wanting to be known and wanting to avoid observation; between the imperative of self-concealment and its consequences for our personal relationships and responsibility to other people. Harry’s relationship to his lover deteriorates because he cannot give her any substantial piece of himself. His only true moment of self-disclosure occurs in a dream, as a guilt-ridden moment of confession, heard by no one. And his attempts, in the end, are for naught—he ends up with bugs in his apartment he can’t locate, silenced by neutralising his means to achieve non-presence.

In How To Do Nothing, Jenny Odell writes of attempts throughout history to forsake greater society, some in the name of ‘contemptus mundi’—‘a spiritual rejection of the world’. She recounts attempts to create new societies with new ideals, as well as retreats to places like monasteries. Odell argues that, whilst distance is conducive to deep thinking and perspective, we also have an unavoidable responsibility to the world, and should find ways to ‘live in permanent refusal, where one already is … [in] a way that undermines the authority of the hegemonic game and creates possibilities outside of it.’ When it comes to surveillance, this brings up conflicting questions, such as how we are to refuse a world without abandoning it; or how can we use technologies to find each other whilst longing to disrupt their logic. 

In Leave No Trace, Tom chooses the world. By staying with the mobile home community in Washington, she remains on the outskirts of a typical suburban or metropolitan upbringing, finding a network of giving and receiving care in her small pocket of civilisation. In one encounter with another resident, a beekeeper, we watch Tom learn how to interact with a beehive without getting stung. Later, attempting to teach her dad what she has learned, she describes how hovering a hand over the apiary allows you to ‘feel the warmth of the hive.’

The hive is a microcosm of the community Tom finds herself increasingly attached to — the warm buzz of interconnectedness she can’t bring herself to give up. There, she tries to find a liveable in-between, mingling privacy and community, even when she knows Will no longer can. For Tom, going unseen doesn’t necessitate being alone. In the enclosed structure of the hive, she finds an entire life to be lived. 

Tiia Kelly

Tiia Kelly is a writer and critic from Naarm. You can find her work in Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks, Scum Mag, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and elsewhere. In 2021, she participated in the Melbourne International Film Festival Critics Campus. She tweets @tiiakel.

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