Surveillance and Disinformation
Hacked: Nadia El Fani’s “Bedwin Hacker”
Dale Hudson / NYU Abu Dhabi


bedwinhacker

Image 1: Bedwin Hacker Uses Cyber-slang to Reject a Monolithic Identity

Within digitized and networked forms of contemporary globalization, technologies regulate immigration and information according to regimes of virtual labor recruitment, examined in “Race and Labor, Unplugged: Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer,” and virtual border control, examined in “Biometrics and Machinima, Reanimated: Jacqueline Goss’s Stranger Comes to Town.” Film- and video-makers analyze these technologies for their antidemocratic perils, sometimes pointing to ways that these technologies can be jammed or even hacked towards democratic potentials. Nadia El Fani’s Bedwin Hacker (Tunisia-France-Morocco 2002) challenges assumptions about postcolonial migrations as unequivocal threats to the lives of law-abiding state citizens in the former colonial métropoles by defining congruencies between discourses that malign immigration as a degenerative form of cultural invasion or submersion and discourses that malign hacking as a destructive form of vandalism against intellectual property or terrorism against the state. These discourses become mobilized in the film when highly stylized, two-dimensional, animated images of a camel interrupt television broadcasts to proclaim a “new epoch” and affirm: “bedwin is not a mirage”.

The film’s title introduces misunderstood and often maligned categories—“Bedouin nomads” and “computer hackers”—interrogated by the image of the film’s protagonist who appears behind the title in Arabic and French (image 1). Kathoum “Kalt” (Sonia Hamza) is a Tunisian computer programmer educated at the prestigious École Polytechnique in Paris. Her appearance, behavior, and intelligence refuse to conform to expectations on either the French and Tunisian side of the Mediterranean. The title’s challenge is multilingual and multilayered in an ever-adapting unfolding of different recombinations of Arabic and French dialects and of data and metadata. If verlan came to define a critical mass of films by French Maghrébis in “le cinéma beur” (beur cinema) as a form of slang from the streets of Paris and Marseilles, then Bedwin Hacker looks to a transnational cyber slang that uses keystroke-saving phonetic substitutions to point to larger frames of reference. ((Verlan is a slang practice of inverting syllables in French words that takes its name from the inverted syllables of the word l’invers (the inverse). Slang comparable to cyber slang appears in film titles of banlieue (“outskirts,” literally “suburbs”) films by white filmmakers, such as Ma 6-T va crack-er/My City is Going to Crack (France 1997; dir. Jean-François Richet) in which the word cité (“hood,” literally “city”) is written as “6-T.”)) Moreover, if the identity formation of beur attempted to reject a monolithic notion of French identity and empower the most “visible” minority in France only to be commercialized into a depoliticized “beur, blanc, et black” (beur, white, and “black”), then bedwin might possibly transcend the notion of national identity altogether. ((The verlan terms “beur” and “rebu” invert the stigma of the French term “arabe” as it is used despairingly to contain ethnic, cultural, religious, linguistic, and generational diversity into a single visible minority. A monolithic French identity hinges on the idea of Les Français de souche, the so-called indigenous French, who allegedly trace their roots to the Gaulois rather than to the Revolution. Political parties on the Far Right, such as the Front national (National Front), embrace the idea of les Français de souche in pro-xenophobia/anti-immigrant campaigns and other racist endeavors.)) The term might encourage transnational understandings and thereby empower the “invisible” majorities in France and Tunisia, as well as elsewhere—everyone, citizen and foreigner alike, the multitude—in ways that escape the surveillance of racialization and the disinformation of imagined threats to actual racial and religious equality.

notamirage

Images 2-4: Animated Camels Disrupt Television Signals

Perhaps more at the time of its release a decade ago than today, the film disrupts assumptions about digital literacy, political activism, and the role of women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) based upon misinformation distributed by foreign media, particularly for audiences illiterate in Arabic before the launch of Al Jazeera English in 2006. ((In the United States, where the investigative journalism is increasingly “outsourced” to Google searches, AJE’s television broadcasts would make a much needed critical intervention and supply a much needed demand, yet AJE is effectively silenced by cable and satellite providers that do not include it in their packages.)) Bedwin Hacker confronts the powers of state disinformation that contribute to the persistence of cultural misassumptions, such as the MENA is fundamentally “backwards” and hacking is invariably “criminal,” that converge on the bodies of women in new and enduring forms of surveillance and disinformation. The connection between jamming private satellites and protesting anti-immigration laws is announced in the film’s opening sequences that establish the digital proximity of physically distant and divided spaces. Images of a camel, clothed and doing a split, appear on television screens (images 2-4), are followed by scenes of a musical protest (“non, à exclusion”) by the Association Sans Papiers in Paris, then by images of the Saharan dunes in Tunisia, so as to suggest ways that digital domains might be mobilized to liberate physical spaces.

Surveillance and disinformation take place in physical and virtual spaces. Early in the film, the police apprehend the singer Frida (Nadia Saïji) in Paris’s 18th arrondissement, whose Goutte d’Or neighborhood is home to large numbers of French Maghrébi citizens and Maghrébi immigrants, including ones who are “sans papiers” (“illegal,” literally “without papers”). While chatting openly in Derja (Tunisian Arabic), Kalt uses her mobile phone to tag Frida’s digital identity in the police databank. Kalt gifts the benefits of royal Moroccan diplomatic privilege to her Tunisian friend. Since all Arabic dialects and languages are equally incomprehensible to the French police officer, Frida is even released with an apology typically reserved only for VIPs. Frida is nonetheless irritated by the banality of racial profiling as a form of state security and jokes about writing an “IHATEYOU virus” like the actual “ILOVEYOU virus” that infected an estimated five million computers a few years earlier in May 2000 and allegedly prompted the Pentagon and CIA in the United States and the Parliament in the United Kingdom to close their email servers. Instead of a virus, Kalt invents “bedwin”—part culture jamming, part political protest—represented by the playful figure of the camel.

juliakalt

Images 5-6: Women’s Bodies Made Legible to the State

Although Julia (Muriel Solvay) at the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST, or Directorate of Territorial Surveillance) does not immediately recognize her former lover and classmate Kalt behind the mobile tampering with police records or the camel that interrupts television broadcasts of football matches, archival newsreels, Hollywood movies, and U.S. “football games”; Kalt recognizes Julia as the DST agent who attempts to track her every move (images 5-6). Bedwin Hacker, then, focuses not only on ways that surveillance makes the brown bodies of Tunisian women legible to the state as suspicious, but also on ways that disinformation makes the white bodies of French women legible to the state as patriotic. Operating under the codename “Agent Marianne,” Julia is linked to the figure of La Marianne, the emblem for the French Republic that combines the allegorical figures of Liberty and Reason. Within the context of the film, Julia’s codename suggests the incommensurable differences within French citizenship and territoriality that are experienced as race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and religion. For El Fani, Kalt represents a “free spirit” from “south of the Mediterranean” that rarely appears in the French media: Kalt is “la liberté” (freedom), which Julia constrains and her French Maghrébi boyfriend Chems (Tomer Sisley) misrecognizes himself as possessing. ((In “Casser les clichés : à propos de Bedwin Hacker,” interview with Nadia El Fani by Olivier Barlet, Africultures (May 2002), http://www.africultures.com/php/index.php?nav=article&no=2511, El Fani explains: “J’avais envie de dire qu’au Sud de la Méditerranée on trouve des esprits libres. Nos images ne sont pas diffusées au Nord et il en ressort un malentendu terrible qui fait croire aux gens qu’on est des arriérés et qu’on ne vit pas en 2002. […] Oui, Kalt représente la liberté : elle avait le choix de « devenir quelqu’un » dans cette société française mais a préféré une société où elle n’est pas libre, ce qui est en fait le sommum de la liberté. Julia est celle qui essaye de contenir la liberté des autres et Chems est celui qui, comme la plupart des gens, croit qu’il est libre mais se trompe tout le temps.”))

Bedwin is impossible to decipher definitively. The camel is both whimsical, drawing comparisons with the Old Joe mascot for Camel cigarettes which allegedly evoked the “romantic spirit of the Middle East” (image 14), and purposeful, finding “enemies” to the left and to the right (images 2 & 4). ((This expression appears in “Camel Cigarettes,” Cig Area: Cheap Tobacco Store (2012): http://www.cigarea.com/articles/camel_cigarettes.html )) Bedwin is imagined as threatening by people who are predisposed find anyone from or anything evoking MENA to be inherently threatening, as aspect of French civilization that has been parodied in other films by French Maghrébi filmmakers, such as Abdelkrim Bahloul’s Un Vampire Au Paradis (France 1992) in which the spontaneous and unconscious phrases uttered in Arabic by a young French woman are attributed to a possible encounter with an “arabe.” ((Dale Hudson, “Transpolitical Spaces within Transnational French Cinemas: Vampires and the Illusions of National Borders and Universal Citizenship,” French Cultural Studies 22.2 (May 2011): 111–126.)) Bedwin evokes the interruptions of culture jamming, functioning at the level of information in the face of state disinformation: “in the third millennium, there exist other epochs, other places, other lives: we are not mirages,” signed in Arabic as “Bedwin” (بدوين not بدوي or bedawi) and in French as “Bedwin Hacker” (image 13).

The signal does not reach “Africa or Asia,” pointing out that French people in France might most urgently need bedwin’s contestation of French disinformation. Other epochs, places, and lives have presumably advanced beyond eurocentrism, suggested by a scene in which a French Maghrébi family shares the amusement of bedwin’s unexpected appearance on television (image 11). At the DST, everyone is afraid of the camel. Julia is scarcely comforted by her own belief that the camel’s messages do not indicate Islamic extremists since the accompanying Arabic-language text does not include the phrase “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”). For Julia and her colleagues, Islam is a threat to state secularism that Christianity and Judaism are not. The DST reacts, rather than responds, to bedwin with its standard operating procedure of disinformation (image 5). By contrast, Kalt’s father understands his daughter’s work as repairing computers from a remote location. His understanding is an interpretation of hacking and jamming as an important work for adapting technologies towards democratic ends and countering the disinformation from both the Tunisian and French states.

liberte

Images 7-9: Liberte and the Myth of “The Romantic Spirit of the Middle East”

Bedwin counters state disinformation and media misinformation with new information: “I am not a technical error”. In relation to the film’s focus on pro-xenophobia/anti-immigration discourses, it reminds everyone that French Maghrébis, whether citizens of France or Tunisia, both or elsewhere, are a transnational population that is not a “technical error” of colonial civilizing missions but rather the evolution of transnational encounters and exchanges that manifests itself in multi-directional assimilations, notably “génération beur” in the 1990s. The camel wears jeans (denim trousers) and babouches (leather slippers), protesting against those who “hate the sound of babouches” and aligning which those who will “go out in the streets” wearing their own babouches since “bedwin is always/still alive.” In another scene, the camel again affirms that “bedwin is not a technical error,” while wearing a jalabiyya (a garment with a wider cut than a dishdasha, kandura, or thawb) (image 2). Bedwin is equally at ease in any type of clothing. In this image, the camel’s pose also recalls the allegorical figure of La Liberté, particularly in Eugène Delacroix’s La liberté guidant le people (1833), reproduced on the 100FF banknote when French currency still existed (images 7 & 9). Another appearance of the camel in this pose is accompanied by the text “zap reality,” suggesting that the villain for everyone—citizens and noncitizens, alike—is really the media misinformation and state disinformation that has been promoted as “reality” constructed according to the political realism of the state and propagated in the idioms of journalistic, televisual, and cinematic realism.

The “reality” that requires “zapping” is the one constructed from surveillance and disinformation that extends the past of the French Empire into the present of the Francophonie. Camel-crossing road signs and satellite transmitters in the same desert suggest forms of power that function according to a logic that might not resister according to French systems of knowledge. In Kalt’s lab, camel figurines appear in proximity to computers whose screens reveal code and in proximity to windows that reveal desert landscapes, mirroring both foreign cigarette packets (image 8) and familiar road signs (image 12). The film’s use of visual parallels— Kalt’s and Julia’s short hair styles (images 5-6), the dunes of the Sahara and the landscape of hard drives— point to ways that borders are arbitrary, whether between genders and sexualities or between state control of movements of people and information. Jamming serves as a potential means of hacking. If Bedwin Hacker is shutdown, then Kalt and her young female assistant will launch Zoulou Hackers as “hackers for peace”, which counters another vector of colonial disinformation that Zulus were warriors against “progress” defined in colonial terms and resituates Zulus as warriors within ongoing anti-colonial struggles in a digital realm. Bedwin questions self-understanding, not only for “confused” characters like Chems, but also for everyone, suggesting that there might be “universal” liberating effects of “becoming bedwin”.

bedwinsupported

Images 10-11: Viewers Enjoy the Camel’s Antics

Often contextualized as an anomaly—a first Arab sci-fi flick, a first African cyber-thriller—Bedwin Hacker reflects what most of the world already knows: innovation and knowledge tends to “bubble up” rather than “trickle down.” Moreover, this bubbling up from what was once called the East, Third World, or Global South often consists in actual practice of the great innovations, such as modernity, secularity, and democracy, by what was once called the West, First World, or Global North. Although Tunisia has historically figured as an exception—modern, secular, European-oriented—in the French imaginary, it nonetheless remained proximate to, if not constituent of, the backwardness that France attributes to its former colonies and protectorates in order to reaffirm its own sense of exceptionalism—and global relevance in an era of new economically powerful republics, such as India, Brazil, and South Africa. Foreign perceptions of Tunisia’s exceptionalism in the MENA region vis-à-vis women’s rights allowed Ben Ali’s administration to censor newspapers and regulate use of the Internet on par with other regional “enemies of the Internet”—Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria—according to Reporters Sans Frontières. ((Suzanne Gauch, “Jamming Civilizational Discourse: Nadia El Fani’s Bedwin Hacker,” Screen 52.1 (spring 2011): 31; Albrecht Hofheinz, “Arab Internet Use: Popular Trends and Public Impact,” in Arab Media and Political Renewal: Community Legitimacy and Public Life, ed. Naomi Sakr (London, UK and New York, USA: I.B. Tauris, 2009): 57. El Fani’s recent documentary on post–Ben-Ali Tunisia Laïcité, Inch’Allah! (Tunisia-France 2011), oddly translated into English as Neither Allah, Nor Master, examines discussions that now take place.))

As Joseph Gugler points out, like many transnational films, Bedwin Hacker addresses itself to several different audiences with different relationships to Tunisia and France, to racial profiling and digital literacy. For audiences unfamiliar with MENA, Bedwin Hacker provides insights into what have been called the “south-to-north” migrations of technological and epistemological innovations, such as Ushahidi crowd-sourcing software. In El Fani’s film, innovations also take forms that might be called “east-to-west” or “female-to-male” migrations. Bedwin Hacker confronts the lingering orientalisms in eurocentric media like CNN and The New York Times that were surprised over imagined incongruence (“Arabs, Muslims… nomads, they’re on Facebook and Twitter?”) and then enthusiastic over belated recognition (“We’re all on Facebook and Twitter!”), for example, when Tunisians and Egyptians mobilized social media for social change in early 2011, perhaps even more so than when Iranians did the same in 2008.

notamirage

Images 12-14: Disrupting Assumptions About Freedom and Democracy

“Rather than arguing for greater access and more balanced representation on behalf of the global South,” argues Suzanne Gauch, “Bedwin Hacker exposes the less visible restrictions placed on expression and communication in the global North.” ((Suzanne Gauch, “Jamming Civilizational Discourse: Nadia El Fani’s Bedwin Hacker,” Screen 52.1 (spring 2011): 30–31.)) In this way, the film disrupts assumptions that freedom and democracy flow exclusively from north to south, west to east, or male to female. Kalt’s bedwin suggests that practices and forms of feminism can flow from Tunisia to France, perhaps even liberating Agent Marianne from the bonds of servitude to the male-only fraternity of the French Republic’s “liberté, égalité, fraternité”; that is, from being an abstract symbol—as in Delacroix’s topless revolutionary—to becoming a material (or virtual) agent. Adhering to principles of hijab (modesty), for example, Asmaa Mahfouz’s video is credited with rallying Egyptians to Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011 to protest state policies of all kinds, including ones of disinformation that were used to discredit previous anti-government protests on the square. Nothing could be more destablizing to the sense of superior French/European/Northern/Western civilization embodied by Julia’s colonial-war–veteran boss, who fought for France in the Algerian Revolution (1954–1962), than to learn something about civilization, modernity, and secularity from a woman in Algeria’s neighbor Tunisia.

Image Credits:

1–6. Bedwin Hacker (2002). Nadia El Fani. Cinema Libre Distribution, 2006. Screen shots by author.
7. Cent francs banknote with Delacroix and La Liberté (1978). French Bank Notes, Dave Mills.
8. Camel cigarette packaging (1915).
9. Eugène Delacroix’s La liberté guidant le people (1833). Wikimedia Commons.
10-13. Bedwin Hacker (2002). Nadia El Fani. Cinema Libre Distribution, 2006. Screen shots by author.
14. Old Joe in advertisement for Camel cigarettes (c. 1990s).




Biometrics and Machinima, Reanimated:
Jacqueline Goss’s “Stranger Comes to Town”

Dale Hudson / NYU Abu Dhabi

night moves elf

1: Night Elf discussing NSEERS in Stranger Comes to Town.

In Jacqueline Goss’s Stranger Comes to Town (USA 2007), green Orcs and purple Night Elves appear to discuss their experiences of U.S. customs and immigration policies. The humanoid forms of avatars from the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW) perform difference between citizens and non-citizens in the United States, as the video’s critical texture emerges within its assemblage different types of animation and anonymous interviews. By appropriating and reworking sound and visual images from machinima shot in WoW and Google Earth’s program that allows users to fly over 3D renderings of satellite and aerial photography with a United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) documentary, Goss identifies what might be called the “unseemly” intervals within the purportedly seamless interface of digital technologies. (( I discuss comparable intervals within globalized digital interfaces in “Undesirable Bodies and Desirable Labor: Documenting the Globalization and Digitization of Transnational American Dreams in Indian Call Centers,” Cinema Journal 49.1 (fall 2009): 82–102.)) Like Alex Rivera’s short video Why Cybraceros? (USA 1997), discussed in “Race and Labor, Unplugged: Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer,” Goss’s video reanimates an extant documentary that draws upon rational discourses of scientific progress and national exceptionalism to divert attention from corporate capitalism and racialization. If Rivera’s video exposes ways that globalization and digitization converge on the bodies of non-citizens along physical borders according to U.S. immigration and labor laws guided by private industrial interests, then Goss’s video exposes a similar convergence on non-citizen bodies along the “virtual” borders according to customs and immigration policies that use the purportedly objective technologies of biometrics.

orc not there

2–4: Three views of a WoW avatar: machinima, rotoscoped, and prepared for biometrics.

Goss reanimates the US-VISIT animated documentary to contest its implied claims that racially/ethnically determined “barred zones” and “national quotas” of U.S. immigration law before 1965 have been replaced by racially/ethnically blind policies. One such policy is the “layer of security that uses biometrics” in US-VISIT. Biometric systems include a variety of means by which the physical bodies and behaviors are rendered as digital information that can be sorted for verification and identification. Promoted for its ability to “protect” privacy and “prevent” identity theft, US-VISIT is an identity-management system that collects biometric data, such as fingerprints and retina scans, to control the mobility of “international visitors” at points of entry to and departure from the United States. (( These phrases are taken from U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “US-VISIT What to Expect When Visiting the United States,” http://www.dhs.gov/files/programs/editorial_0525.shtm (“last modified and revised”, 04 March 2011; accessed, 01 February 2012), where the video may be streamed, and “US-VISIT Biometric Identification Services,” http://www.dhs.gov/files/programs/gc_1208531081211.shtm (“last reviewed and modified,” 18 March 2011; accessed, 01 February 2012). The video does not mentioned “outsourced” border regulation before departure for the United States. )) Goss complicates the scientific efficiency of biometrics by interviewing people on their experiences of US-VISIT. “You can calculate who will stop the line because he or she looks a certain way,” comments one of her subjects on variations in wait time. In biometric systems, the term “failure to enroll” (FTE) describes an event that occurs when the biometric program’s algorithms cannot capture data, when they cannot scan bodies in ways that produce legible data. FTEs often cause additional layers of security and longer wait times in queues containing bodies that fail to enroll.

security

5–6: Nationalist title card of US-VISIT video; same title card, rotoscoped by Goss.

Goss allows her subjects to be identified only by their voices, which are mostly “accented” according to normative U.S. standards of spoken English, and by what they reveal about themselves in words. Their visual identities are camouflaged under rotoscoped machinima and critically inserted into the US-VISIT video [images 2–4]. Developed during the 1910s by Max Fleischer, rotoscoping typically involves frame-by-frame tracing over images from live-action filmed sequences, so that movements and expressions appear natural; however, Goss rotoscopes over the “action” in the animated US-VISIT video precisely to denaturalize its assumptions about biometrics. As Tess Takahashi argues, the video can be considered a “speculative documentary” for its use of “animation’s formal malleability to emphasize the uncertainty of much of the information we encounter.” (( Tess Takahashi, “Experiments in Documentary Animation: Anxious Borders, Speculative Media,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6.3 (November 2011): 235. )) Goss’s rotoscoped copies of images disrupt the original video’s conceits of clarity and objectivity through simplified graphics and limited colors that promoting legibility for—and of—international visitors [images 5–6]. Black stick figures suggest an ease and orderliness with which visitors are processed. They resemble familiar stick figures on toilet signage in airports.

illegal aliens

7–9: Caution: DOT’s racially/ethnically unambiguous “illegal aliens” and internet memes of “illegal immigration” and “alien immigration.

If live-action films rely on facial expressions and bodily gestures to convey emotional meaning, then these graphics erase that level of meaning, generating the appearance of a rational and impersonal system. They adapt principles from constructed universal pictorial languages, such as Otto Neurath’s Isotype (International System of TYpographic Picture Education), to suggest that all international visitors are treated equally and fairly. The figures resemble ones on Department of Transportation (DOT) road signs, as well as in internet memes that parody DOT caution signs about “illegal aliens” crossing highways by revealing “illegals” as seventeenth-century Christian pilgrims from northern Europe and “aliens” as beings from outer space [images 7–9].

Goss challenges the universalizing strategies of stick figures by replacing them with avatars from WoW whose racial/ethnic, class, and sexual characteristics are exaggerated in caricature. By representing US-VISIT’s international visitors (aka “aliens”) as humanoid avatars, her video reanimates processes of differentiation that are erased by biometrics yet continue to sort international visitors according to race/ethnicity, sex, religion, class, and nationality. Goss’s video asks what biometric information might look like in playback.

night elf security

10–11: Smooth round-headed silhouette in US-VISIT video and pointy-haired and bearded silhouette in Stranger Comes to Town.

The humanoid silhouettes of Night Elves and Orcs reanimate particularity within the universalizing stylization of human figures [images 10–11]. In one scene, a Night Elf watches as fellow arrivals approach a US-VISIT kiosk [image 12]. His jagged beard and spiky hair distinguish him from the smooth, shaved or bald, heads of the other figures. Paired with the voice of Goss’s male Egyptian subject, the characteristic silhouette of a Night Elf visualizes ways that the DHS might tag and sort biometric data to produce results comparable to racial/ethnic, religious, or national profiling. Other scenes include DHS officers identifying WoW humanoids on their computer screens and rotoscoped WoW avatars looking at other WoW avatars on US-VISIT screens [images 13–14]. By making DHS screens visible, Goss exposes invisible layers of mediation within the US-VISIT application of biometrics. Bodies are made legible for security. In another scene, a female voice describes the inspection of her “private parts,” perhaps so that her records can be tagged as female, in a procedure not visualized with the male-only stick figures in the US-VISIT video. Like new media in general, data can be tagged, sorted, and recombined according to needs by data aggregators, and algorithms can be programmed to make interpretations automatically. (( This point is illustrated by Lori Andrews’s “Facebook Is Using You,” The New York Times (04 February 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/opinion/sunday/facebook-is-using-you.html, an op-ed piece that went viral on Facebook at the time of writing. She points out that Facebook and Google make huge profits by selling personal information on posts, searches, and the content of email to advertisers. “If I’ve Googled “diabetes” for a friend or “date rape drugs” for a mystery I’m writing,” she explains; “data aggregators assume those searches reflect my own health and proclivities.” ))

watching orc

12–14: Goss’s interpretation of screens within the US-VISIT user interface.

Goss’s male Egyptian subject discusses changes to his mobility and sense of identity after the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS, or “Special Registration”) of 2002 for male nationals of states categorized as predominantly Arab and/or Muslim by the United States [image 1]. Identity is tied to biological data from scans, which is translated into political categorizations (“risk assessment”) and racial/ethnic profiling that are, in turn, internalized. Living in the so-called cosmopolitan diversity of New York City, he thought that being Egyptian was irrelevant until he experienced certain DHS procedures. The information gathered makes him knowable according to anything that is “broadly physical” yet renders him invisible and unknowable in terms of everything else like how his friends and family know him or how he feels about being in the United States. “Am I here because of a girlfriend or to make more money or because I don’t like it in Egypt, that, they have no idea about,” he explains; “and I don’t think that it would to translate them in any way because actually it doesn’t translate into a document.” Special Registration makes him legible as suspicious. Before when asked whether he was Muslim, he would reply that he was not; now, he says that he was “brought up in a Muslim family” but “is not religious.” “That’s the kind of difference,” he explains. Identity is prescribed and precedes the individual. Self-definition functions according to the anticipated criteria of others; it is ever contingent.

Goss links the animated security world of the US-VISIT video, the satellite-view of the “real world” of Google Earth, and the role-playing world of WoW, explaining her attraction to the MMORPG due to its “game-logic that suggests that species and races of avatars naturally belong to specific geographies.” (( Jacqueline Goss, “Drawing Voices,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6.3 (November 2011): 247. )) WoW relies on an understanding of the isomorphic correspondences of nation and state in modern nation-state that produces certain bodies as belonging “naturally” in certain places, as appearing “normal” there. Players select avatars by race and class according to political allegiance with one of the two warring factions: Alliance or Horde. Goss asked her subjects to select an avatar. Canadians chose to represent themselves as Orcs, a non-native race to Azeroth where most action takes place, aligned with the Horde. Their “naturally brown skin” turned a “sickly green” due to exposure to “fel magic” which caused their “ancestral lands to wither and die.” (( Blizzard Entertainment, “Races of World of Warcraft: Orc,” http://us.battle.net/WoW/en/game/race/orc (2012; accessed 01 February 2012). )) Egyptians and Argentineans represented themselves as violet-skinned Night Elves on the Alliance side.

satelite

15–17: Tagged and untagged borders rendered on Google Earth.

The video incorporates machinima shot in WoW. A process of recording video of live gameplay within the game engine developed in the 1990s, machinima emerged as a means of sharing tricks and cheats among videogame players. It has also become a mode of narrative filmmaking. Goss’s use of the 3D animation rendered by the game engine differs from the original stories, literary adaptations, and amateur music videos (AMVs) that are often shot in SIMS and WoW. (( A WoW machinima that became a viral video is “Leeroy Jenkins.” )) The machinima sequences in experimental and amateur media, such as She Puppet(USA 2001; dir. Peggy Ahwesh) and Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles (USA 2003–2007; dir. Burnie Burns, Matt Hullum, and Geoff Ramsey), comment upon commercial video games that are designed to “entertain.” (( She Puppet was shot partially in the first-person shooter (FPS) game Tomb Raider and questions assumptions gender and media, and Red vs. Blue was shot in the FPS Halo and questions the binary logic of politics and political life in the United States during the invasion and occupation of Iraq in search of “weapons of mass destruction.” )) Those in Stranger Comes to Town serve to protect (rather than confirm) the identity of Goss’s interview subjects, as well as to reanimate a certain “game logic” within the US-VISIT video on biometrics.

Goss’s video opens with a fly-over an undifferentiated blue landscape. A female voice describes going for a “biometric recording for immigration” in “same building, interestingly enough, of the national archives.” Towards the end, images from Google Earth focus on digital renderings of militarized zones, such as the Line of Control (LOC) between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir and the Ceasefire Lines between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights [images 15–16]. These zones are reminders of wars and violent displacements of millions based upon assumptions that political geography can be mapped onto cultural identity, often with race/ethnicity and religion as prime vectors of segregation. Globalization propels migrations over borders that might not be tagged with names [image 17].

Image Credits:
1–4, 6, and 10–17: Stranger Comes to Town (2007). Jacqueline Goss. Used
with permission.
5 and 10: US-VISIT. U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
7–9: Images of DOT road sign and internet memes.

Please feel free to comment.




Race and Labor, Unplugged: Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer
Dale Hudson / NYU Abu Dhabi

dude no way

1-2: Changing Responses to Televised Images in Sleep Dealer

Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer (USA-México 2008) is a feature-length extension and development of his investigation into the questions raised by globalization’s accelerating interconnections and interdependencies involving labor, migration, and experimental technologies that he introduced a decade earlier in Why Cybraceros? (USA 1997). The short video makes a satirical critique of the Council for California Grower’s Why Braceros? (USA 1959), a privately financed domestic propaganda film that presents itself as a “public service.” Deploying the conventional arsenals of expository documentary—a rational, masculine, white-sounding-but-well-intentioned voiceover that unequivocally interprets meanings from a disparate series of visual images—the film attempts to convince U.S. citizens that “imported” labor from México benefits them. The film’s formal strategies erase racialization from technical solutions to the “age-old burden” of finding “stoop labor,” broadly defined as “farms jobs that are tough, dirty, or unpleasant,” through a lively montage of images of (male only) Mexicans not being exploited but receiving medical attention, food and water, live entertainment, and access to television [images 3-6]. The film further uses the secondary evidence of testimony from a Mexican politician, dubbed into Spanish-accented English, that U.S. policies do not exploit Mexicans.

braceros why

3-6: Medical Care, Food and Water, Live Entertainment, and Television in Why Braceros?

The film’s primary voiceover, however, inscribes racialized differentiation at the level of language. In anticipation of “new and remarkable experimental equipment,” the voiceover assures audiences that “Mexican citizens”—“sometimes called nationals or Mexican nationals” but “the term most commonly used is braceros”—benefit the United States through policies that ensure braceros only appear “in right place at the right time.” The film closes with the explanation that “in Spanish braceros means someone who works with arms and hands, but in American lingo they are called lifesavers” to “the housewife, the grocer, transport, the canner and the processer” and other industries that are closely interlocked and dependent on domestic agricultural production. The film’s deception is its erasure of the underlying conditions that drive transborder migrations.

With Why Cybraceros? Rivera un-erases racialization within transborder migrations. He questions Why Braceros? for its limiting notions of rationalism, based on scientific reason and logical thought, and its limiting notions of progress and development, defined in terms of efficiency and profitability. A female voiceover conveys alarmist anti-immigration rhetoric that some “Mexican workers” stay “illegally” in the United States or “cross the border illegally and then blend in with the bracero workforce,” so that “no matter how they arrived here, the presence of braceros contributed to a climate of racial and economic suspicion” that is framed to continue more than three decades after the end of the Bracero Program (1943–1964).

High-speed Internet connections facilitate the digital interface of globalization, so that a technical solution becomes economic and social as well. Mexican workers manipulate video-game controllers in México, which translates into real-time movements of remote-control “robotic farm workers known as cybraceros” that perform stoop labor in California [images 7-10]. “For the worker, it’s as simple as point and click to pick,” announces Rivera’s narrator; “for the American farmer, it’s all the labor without the worker.” “In Spanish, cybracero means a worker who operates a computer with his arms and hands,” she continues; “but in American lingo, cybracero means a worker that poses no threat of becoming an citizen—and that means quality products at low financial and social cost to you, the American consumer,” atop stock images of a blonde white woman in a modern supermarket.

cyberbraceros why

7-10: Digitalized Manual Labor in Why Cybraceros?

Sleep Dealer extends this analysis of power relationships within this transnational connectivity of being connected, literally and metaphorically being “plugged in.” Whereas the (white) Council representative places a telephone order for a desired and legally sanctioned number of braceros [image 11] in Why Braceros?, the (brown) protagonist of Sleep Dealer, Memo (Luis Fernando Peña), does not have the agency to initiate or execute transborder migrations. He must rely on clandestine connections of “coyoteks,” technologically savvy “coyotes” (smugglers). Memo is literally connected by optical fiber cables attached to nodes inserted into his body, mostly his arms since his labor, like a bracero’s, is mostly manual [image 12]. Subsequent scenes show the robot, controlled remotely by Memo controls, on the steel girders of a construction site in the United States. Memo works physically in a factory where other Mexicans plug into distributed network.

performing labor

11-12: Ordering Manual Labor in Why Braceros? and Performing Labor Remotely in Sleep Dealer

The trailer for Sleep Dealer offers the story’s context: “Mexico… the near future. The border is closed… but the network is open….” The near future, I would argue, is really an already past. The thirteen words describe conditions of the Mexican-U.S. borderlands, not only since the invention of the Border Patrol in 1924, but specifically since the War on Drugs (1971–2011) through the ratification of NAFTA (1994) and into the War on Terror (2001–present). The term “sleep dealers” refers to factories where digitized labor is outsourced across the militarized border into the United States. The factories are corollaries to actual maquilladoras where labor performs repetitive actions, such as inserting smart-phones and laptops into protective packaging. (( Maquilapolis: City of Factories (USA-México 2006; dir. Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre) brilliantly includes scenes of female workers, who stage performances of the motions of the repetitive labor that they perform inside the factories. )) The film depicts the border in its fractal multiplicity: it exists not only in physical walls that extend into the ocean but also in physical factories inside México where labor is digitized and performed in real time in the United States.

The border is also performed across the ubiquitous screens, including the one that Memo’s brother watches. Channel surfing becomes a means of describing and critiquing transborder racialization, particularly through the reaction shots of Memo and his brother as they respond to images broadcast within and into México. Like the montage sequence in Why Braceros?, these images construct some of Sleep Dealer’s central arguments. The first are black-and-white images of singing and dancing from classical Mexican comedias rancheras (“singing cowboy” films). Both young men smile at the familiar gendered structuring of visual relays from looking male faces to fragmented female bodies [images 13–14]. Next appears an advertisement for “Trunode,” a service that allows people to sell digital representations of their memories and stories, linking television spectatorship in rural México to the transnational flows of capital and information. Later in the film, Memo will meet Luz Martinez (Leonor Varela), who sells her memories as a means to make a living. Luz’s memories, however, are forms of decentralized information gathering. The only ones that sell well involve “rebels”—and later Memo, who is suspected of links to terrorism.

fragmented bodies

13-14: Seeing Male Faces and Fragmented Female Bodies on Mexican Screens in Sleep Dealer

The next images are a talking fry followed by a talking head for the reality game show Drones. The images of the screen continues to convey power and conflate security with corporate privatization, as a fly-through camera shows images of a dam that produces drinking water, threatened by protesters, combated with remote sensing technologies that locate potential security breach points, calibrate with information of “aqua-terrorists” and terrorist organizations, so as to identify security breaches and destroy targets from remote locations. (( The fictional Mayan Army of Water Liberation suggests the actual Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation), whose online and onsite protests against the Mexican state’s destruction of indigenous nations were sometimes criminalized in U.S. news media. )) Memo and his brother’s responses move from initial amusement (“dude”) over potential recognition of their village as the target location for the live show to disbelief (“no way”) and horror (silence) over images of their father, a milpa farmer, being remotely assassinated by the drone [images 1–2, 16]. This response differs from an earlier scene in which Memo’s brother exclaims “right on!” [image 15] over the target’s destruction.

right on

15-16: Changing Attitudes Through Televised Images in Sleep Dealer

The show Drones attempts to construct a racially/ethnically and nationally undifferentiated “soft” spectatorship; however, it does not fully succeed in erasing racialization within its construction of heroes and terrorists. The show’s visual display of heroic American masculinity as transborder power expands from the cocky white host to the patriotic Latino American contestant, Rudy Ramirez (Jacob Vargad), to sustain the illusion of an ever-expansive masculine whiteness inflected by multiculturalism until Rudy aligns with suspected aqua-terrorists to liberate the privatized water supply. He refuses to perform a type of racialized labor that Sharon Willis defines as the “guest figure” in Hollywood cinema, the token person of color in the role of the doctor, the judge, or the police officer, for example, who represents the system that historically supported white-male privilege. ((Sharon Willis, High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film (Durham, USA and London, UK: Duke University Press, 1997): 5.))

Hollywood films from Blade Runner (USA-Hong Kong 1982; dir. Ridley Scott) to The Matrix (Australia-USA 1999; dir. Wachowski Brothers) and Source Code (USA-France 2011; dir. Duncan Jones), along with films produced at the margins of Hollywood, such as David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (Canada-UK-France 1999), have explored human/labor rights by structuring a dystopic “system” that resembles a distributed network with a seamless digital interface and game-like narrative where racial/ethnic tensions are erased, as in Keanu Reeves’s non-presence as Hapa or Asian American. (( Cronenberg’s earlier film Videodrome (Canada 1983) is an analogue precursor to these digital films in which the white female character of Nicki (Deborah Harry) becomes a contestant on a live-broadcast (snuff television) game show from Malaysia. The film represents globalization as having analogue (videocassettes inserted into sexualized openings in the human body) rather than digital (nodes and masks) interface.
)) Sleep Dealer, however, disrupts erasures of networked racialization.

Image Credits:

1–2 and 12–16: Sleep Dealer (2008). Alex Rivera. Used with permission.
3–6 and 11: Why Braceros? (1959). Prelinger Archives. Creative Commons License.
7–10: Why Cybraceros? (1997). Alex Rivera. Used with permission.