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Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer on Visualizing Information Warfare in The Great Hack

Directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer faced two big challenges with “The Great Hack,” their terrifying documentary about the role that now-disgraced and defunct Cambridge Analytica played in distorting the politics of the US, UK, and other countries around the world. The first was trying to translate “all this fascinating and exciting stuff is happening behind the screens” into a visual language that would convey the impact of the insidious use of digital media. The other was that over the four years they worked on the film the world they were reporting on was changing so rapidly that their storyline changed on a near-daily basis. What began as a look into the hack at Sony turned into a much darker story about the distortion of the political process. The key figures who lead us through the film are David Carroll, a Quixotic professor of media design at The New School, who sued Cambridge Analytica to return and expunge all of the data they had on him, Brittany Kaiser, who went from working on the Obama campaign and in the administration to an insider and then a whistleblower at Cambridge Analytica, and Carole Cadwalladr, the reporter who wrote the story exposing Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of Facebook data. 

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In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Noujaim and Amer talked about finding a cinematic language to illustrate the story and how this is a story about “information warfare.” 

Many of your scenes have people explaining what is happening while they are en route in various modes of transportation. Why was that and what does it add to the narrative?

KARIM AMER: This story took us close to four years to make. It was all fascinating, exciting stuff, yet all of it was happening behind screens. As filmmakers, it was very difficult to find a film language that made sense for the message. What was happening online was like movement, so there was a lot of movement and kinetic energy in people’s tweets, in people’s conversations and the way people were moving through this virtual landscape and having conversations about that. So when we got access to the characters, Brittany who was on a road trip crazy adventure and David on another adventure in his own way, we chose to stick with them and film them in and out of places. That’s where we had the immense feeling of what they were going through.

Also people like Brittany took us to places like the Mueller investigation which we weren’t exactly allowed to film (laughs), so we had to follow them from the nooks and crannies from which we could perch our camera and have as light a footprint as possible. This film is very similar to all the films that Jehane made as well. We’re intimate with people who are on a journey. We thought in the end that those scenes gave the film the right pacing and feeling of movement that it needed.

JEHANE NOUJAIM: We started this as a film about the Sony hack and quickly realized that the much more fascinating story was actually about the mind hack rather than the physical hack. But in both cases it’s an invisible story and we had to find the people who were at the center of the story who would be able to make it visible to us. Brittany and David were in the midst of their intense journeys running around. Brittany, as Karim said, was initially running away from it all until she decided to run towards it and hit it head on and become a whistleblower and then she was constantly on the move; David as well. So I think in that way we end up in all of these modes of transportation following them around racing on this journey, and it was appropriate because the world of technology was moving so fast, the story was moving so fast. Just as we had finished going on a shoot thinking that the story would be headed in one direction, couple months later it would be going in a different direction with a new revelation.

KA: It happened to us right before Sundance. Thank God, we’d been through it with “The Square.” The month before Sundance we got a whole new level of access to things that we never anticipated we could get access to, and it totally changed the entire structure of the movie. We had to proceed with the Sundance cut knowing though that we were going to have to keep going beyond Sundance and make a different cut afterwards which most people would think was crazy. But for us having experienced that with “The Square,” where and again it was one of the biggest stories in the world, everyone was talking about it and at the same time people couldn’t quite figure out how to wrap their heads around what the story is exactly. It’s so immense yet so unclear and the journey wasn’t over. That’s why we had to keep going and we’re excited about releasing the final cut now.

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In a sense this story is never going to be over and this movie is sort of a bookmark to the point where we are right now. When you are talking about what came in at the last minute are you referring to the marketing materials? That was one of the big shocks to me, how candid Cambridge Analytica was about what they were doing.

KA: Yes, the audio recordings and some of the materials that we got came in very late and that totally changed the entire dimension of how we could bring what Cambridge Analytica did to life so that was a bit of a game changer for us. It’s been a fascinating journey. We hope that this film is the beginning of a conversation. We don’t think this is the end of this conversation. Even now as 2020 is on the horizon we know that these techniques have been improved and are a lot more effective. This is the new reality that we just have to deal with -- how can the democratic process function healthfully when information warfare is amongst that we have favorable ability to understand our susceptibility to what we’re seeing and how we’re being targeted.

I’m going to come back to the term "information warfare" because that’s something I want to ask you about. But first I want to talk about the very first scene in the movie because I thought it was really brilliantly done; the most mundane experience in anybody’s day and yet with the visual of the digital addition to the reality of what was going on you really conveyed something about how vulnerable we all are. But it’s unusual in a documentary to see that enhancement of verite-stylé filmmaking. So tell me how you help the audience visualize the intrusiveness of this system of social media.

JN: One of our producers, Judy Korin, is a graphic whiz. Again it comes back to taking what is happening invisibly in our lives yet is such a huge force in our lives and asking how you visualize it in a way that we haven’t seen before. We were trying to really understand and show what’s happening with our every mundane daily moves, what kind of data is being collected on us at all times. When it comes to advertising, it doesn’t seem so nefarious because you think, “Okay, well people are collecting data on me so then the advertising is more specifically tailored to my needs. That doesn’t seem so creepy.” It’s only when you start to realize that you’re getting targeted “news” articles and that it’s now being used for political campaigns that you realize that it’s a slippery slope.

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KA: We really wanted to we ask this fundamental question of how you show what’s happening to people in a world where everyone is connected to this story. Everyone who had access to a smartphone is integrated into this platform and as part of an exchange that they may or may not be fully aware whereby we get free services with all these technologies that we use. Right now there’s no fee for Facebook, Google and YouTube and in exchange we give this data away. We don’t really understand the value of this data; we don’t really understand how it’s used or where it goes or what happens to it and a big part of that we thought was because we can’t see it. So we thought that there was a deficit to the spoken language around this story and we needed to figure out a film language to bring it to life.

One of the things that was really important to us was bringing together this team of amazing different graphic artists to bring to life the social media aesthetic, and how it was important for us to show that this aesthetic of text messaging and tweeting and all about it is a part of our lives. But then the other side of it was to go one layer beyond that, because it was very important to allow people to see that the algorithm itself had its own point of view and if we could allow ourselves to see how the algorithm sees us, that could allow audiences to see our vulnerability from a different perspective. That is one that we hope can be seen in the sense that is part of our humanity and it’s part of our limitations. However, when we see in a world that’s being run by an immoral algorithm making decisions for us in all aspects of our lives and what happens to us as a society when this immoral structure becomes more and more integrated into every decision we make, then that’s why we wanted to bring it on screen and go into the world of the algorithm in a visual way.

You use the term “information warfare.” Is this the way wars are going to be fought in the future? Is this a war that’s being fought now?

JN: It is absolutely. You can imagine the obsession with this topic given that my first film was “Startup.com,” which was about this internet bubble and then I did “Control Room” which with the Iraq wars and how Western news organizations and Al Jazeera were telling completely different stories about what’s happening. I had family in the U.S. and family in Egypt and realized that different sides of the world were getting such completely different information about the same war -- how could people even communicate with each other?

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This movie was starting to feel like “Control Room” on steroids. People who were members of the same family in the same place, in the same house have very different views because they have different news feeds on Facebook, because they’re being taken into a completely different direction, because the news that they are seeing is being tailored to what they want to see and what uses what they know about you to tie whatever they want you to think or do to what they have seen that you already believe or like. I found that this was a fascinating topic and one that we need to be very aware of and it seems to me to that this is a zeitgeist topic that needs to make a film about. I think an awareness of kids that’s growing up in this very divided world but there doesn’t seem to be out there anything where you could understand how it was happening.

KA: The other thing is that we thought coming from having made “The Square” we saw this pendulum of technology at that time had these incredible tools that made it possible to democratize the world and help this dream of connectivity that could only lead to positive outcomes. But then we saw that swing the total other way and all of a sudden the military fascist governments started using these same tools to surveil people, to use Twitter and Facebook as surveillance networks and then to use it to use the information, and we saw the effects of that. We never imagined that that swing of the pendulum would happen in the United States as quickly as it did, and when it happened we found that this is the wreckage site where it happened.

It did feel like Pearl Harbor or Watergate but the problem we had as filmmakers is we don’t have the image to show all that; we don’t have the picture of people breaking into the hotel with Watergate. We needed to find that symbol. We needed to create that symbol to make people understand what was happening and to allow people to realize that it’s not an attack that happens once, it’s an ongoing drip that you’re tethered to. It’s not just this one spectacle moment; it’s an ongoing thing that you’re tethered to and you must ask yourselves how much and to what extent are these platforms encouraging people to go down these rabbit holes, to what extent are these platforms pushing people more and more towards this misinformation and what we do as a society as the only country in the world that can legislate against some these platforms and ask for some accountability, what do we do with that accountability and how can we do it?

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This is a battle against the open society and we see coming from Egypt what the stakes are when you lose the open society and that is what we are seeing here; when we look at the fact that this isn’t just about the United States. The same forces will operate in the United States and are now operating in other countries around the world part of a global revolution or takeover. So we hope the film can be the beginning of a conversation in that direction.

We hope that this is a conversation starter that can allow people to look at our system at large. We have to ask ourselves: are we okay living in a country where our democratic process has become so commoditized because that is what’s happened? And what are we going to do to protect against it? This is in my opinion a fundamental structural problem that we have to solve. It isn’t like a one bill is going to fix this or one person or one film.

How do we measure the impact that this information warfare has had on our democracy?

KA: That’s a very good question and that was something we really looked at in many ways. How do we show people’s opinions changing and show people beginning one place and ending in a different place? I think we tried to do that twofold; I think from a filmmaker’s perspective we could see it in Brittany Kaiser’s story. Here’s a girl who started in one place as an idealistic intern for Barack Obama and then ended up in a very different place working for the Trump campaign and becoming really deep in that work. She was able to come back out of that.

David’s story in many ways is about redemption. And if we do believe in the sanctity of the democratic process we have to have some ethical standards. And we are in a moment where the technological realities of our everyday life have usurped our legal structures, the very structures we need to rely on to address it. We need to think of how we are going to fix that. 

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