'The Great Hack': Why Cinema Needs a New Visual Language
'The Great Hack' is a thriller that takes us deep into the Internet's heart of darkness.
If a documentary could make you look over your shoulder every time you browse online, The Great Hack is it.
Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim's thrilling doc, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare a fact that feels dystopian in nature: governments and large corporations across the world are currently tracking, harvesting, and selling your data in order to psychologically manipulate your behavior. The film centers around the case of Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct British consulting firm which unethically scraped data from millions of Facebook users through seemingly innocuous viral personality quizzes, and used the information, in the form of targeting messaging, to influence the outcomes of Trump's election and Brexit.
David Carroll, a professor at the New School, was among the first U.S. citizens to raise hell.
The documentary follows him as he attempts to sue Cambridge Analytica in the U.K. in order to obtain access to his own data. Through Carroll, the audience embarks on a disturbing journey into the heart of darkness of data manipulation, visualized through on-screen graphics that depict the digital footprint each of us leaves all over the Internet on a daily basis.
The film's other major character is Brittany Kaiser, a former CA executive-turned-whistleblower whose moral reckoning the filmmakers follow with startling access. In one of the film's most haunting reveals, Kaiser is able to recover a pitch deck from a CA sales meeting that details a meticulously engineered social-media disinformation campaign in Trinidad and Tobago, which had the express intent of harnessing local racial tensions to suppress voters and manipulate a major election. (The desired outcome did, in fact, come to pass in 2013.)
"The Internet isn't just where you buy things; it's where you are the commodity. You and everything about you are for sale."
No Film School sat down with Amer and Noujaim to discuss the film's stunning use of vérité, why every successful thriller should feature characters who are about to "jump off a cliff," and why the cinematic medium needs a new visual language to represent the digital age.
No Film School: Jehane, you directed The Square, and Karim, you produced it. That was a very run-and-gun production, which is markedly different from this one.
Karim Amer: Well, I should say, we're big fans of No Film School. In The Square, we basically built this mini office as a hundred meters from the Square. It became this activist film cooperative, essentially, with over 20 people who both worked and lived there half the time. No Film School was used by many of the young activists, including Ahmed, the main character, as a portal for important filmmaking information. So keep doing the good work you guys are doing! It's really important to have these resources available, especially in third-world countries where people don't have access to information on filmmaking.
NFS: That makes me so incredibly happy to hear. I'm so glad we could help you out. That film was so important. And so is The Great Hack! So, how did you first arrive at this topic?
Jehane Noujaim: Well, for me, it starts 20 years ago. I made a film called Startup.com, which was my first venture into making a film about tech. The challenge with that was: How do you make this world that exists on your computer into something that is exciting to watch? The film followed these two characters that were starting an internet company that exploded online with $60 million, and then lost it all. At that time, everything was the dream of technology. Everything was going to be at our fingertips. The Internet was going to make everything possible and everything easy and fast. This company that I followed was going to put government online.
Each one of my films is an attempt to really capture an immersive moment in these character's lives, which is a portal into the zeitgeists of our time. I'm inspired by vérité filmmakers like Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, who made films like The War Room and Don't Look Back -- where you feel like you're in like a time machine. You feel like you are actually with them in these moments.
"We started to realize this was a crucial, urgent topic, but it felt impossible to make a movie about it because it was invisible."
We did that with Startup.com in 2001. Then, in 2004, I made a film called Control Room, which was about the media coverage of the Iraq War at a time when I had family and friends living in both Egypt and in the United States. Depending on what news station a person was watching, they could have a completely different view of what was actually happening—a different reality. How could people even communicate with each other about world events when their understanding of those world events was completely different based on what they were watching?
As we approached the 2016 election and Brexit was happening, it felt like Control Room on steroids. We all are on Facebook and we all have news feeds, and those news feeds are enforcing our confirmation bias—taking us down our own little rabbit holes and giving us our very own personalized reality of what we want to see. Even two members of the same family might not be able to have any kind of debate based on truth because of our own personalized realities.
The future of our democracy depends on people being able to have debate and discussion — a civil discourse. And so this felt like a threat to our democracy. That takes us to 2011 and the film that Kareem and I made together, The Square. In the film, technology was an incredible tool that brought people together in a way that we had never seen before. It held power accountable and challenged these authoritarian leaders—
Amer: — made invisible injustices visible to the whole world.
Noujaim: People used cameras and posted videos that they were taking so that they could hold power accountable.
Amer: We found Johanne when she was arrested by the authorities because of Twitter.
Noujaim: Our human rights lawyer posted a photograph of me when I was arrested. What happens in Egypt is that they sort of try to disappear you, so that makes it very difficult for people to find you. I was put in a holding cell. And the only way that they found me was that this human rights lawyer posted a picture, and within hours, somebody who had been in that prison was able to locate me.
So, in a very, very personal way, we felt the incredible positive power of these technologies. We felt the dream of technology and a connected world.
"In order to give the audience the feeling that you're in a thriller or a Bond movie, you have to be with characters that are going to surprise you."
It was only a year later that we started to see that the pendulum swinging in the other direction. Authoritarian governments were using these very same technologies to locate dissidents -- to spy on people where YouTube videos were being recorded. YouTube videos were recruiting tools for ISIS. The very same tools being used for good were also swinging in this other direction. We hadn't really seen that yet in the West. Then, we found out that Cambridge Analytica and Facebook had a lot to do with two very surprising world events, Brexit and the lead up to Trump. We wanted to look more closely at that.
We started this project about the Sony hack, and then realized that it really wasn't about the physical hack, but about the hack of the brain. And that's when we started to realize this was a crucial, urgent topic, but it also felt impossible to make a movie about it because it was invisible. There was a deficit of cinematic language. And so we had to go about trying to find the characters and trying to find the visual language with which to express it.
I think [the lack of language] was similar to when people started talking about the environmental crisis. But in that situation, you have the oil spills and the ice caps melting, and in the case [of this movie], it's happening in our brains and on our computers. So it was, it was quite a process to make this into a cinematic film that felt like a thriller.
NFS: Making this cinematic, and making it a thriller, hinged upon finding really strong subjects. Ultimately, you found Brittany Kaiser and Christopher Wiley and David Carroll. How?
Amer: We met Chris Wiley in the summer before we made the film. I told him that we were making a film in that would encapsulate the struggles and subtexts and ideas and philosophies that were being debated in this space. Then we met David Carrol and other people who were trying to make the invisible visible.
Noujaim: What was very important about finding both Brittany and David were that these were two characters that were about to jump off of a cliff. In order to give the audience the feeling that you're in a thriller or a Bond movie, you have to be with characters that are going to surprise you and then take you places that you would never ordinarily get to see. When we met David, he seemed to be representing all of us. He was somebody who was obsessed with this notion that a company, Cambridge Analytica, could take our data and use it to target us during these elections—a company that has 5,000 data points on all of us.
"These were two characters that were about to jump off of a cliff."
Amer: A company that has this history of PSYOPS [psychological operations] and using military-grade information warfare systems around the world.
Noujaim: A company that had worked with over 150 elections around the world, where these tools of manipulation and voter suppression had been perfected, and then taken back and used in the United States and in the UK. So he was asking this question: Do I have the right to see the data that you have on me? He was willing to go to such lengths as to hire a UK lawyer in order to do that. He was either going to succeed or he was going to fail.
Through that process, you could see inside the belly of the beast and find out, for all of us, whether we have the right to see our own data. He used a British lawyer because in the United States, companies can take our data and they don't have to tell us anything about it, whereas in Europe and in the UK, they have to give you your data if you ask for it.
We felt like through David, we could take this journey with him. He gave us a great gift in allowing us to follow him on this journey.
Amer: David was an outsider trying to enter this very secretive world that we knew very little about. He was trying to get under the hood. He was succeeding in some regards--he had this incredible Digital Justice League of people on Twitter who were all helping each other [find more information]. But there still wasn't anyone on the inside.
Then we found Brittany Kaiser. Here was someone who had a different journey. Brittany agreed to take a chance and be in the film. It provided an incredible opportunity — here was someone who was about to go on a journey and who had a lot on the line, and we could follow her as she was making sense of this. Through her, we could create this portal for all of us to understand and feel this moment in time.
"We are living in a moment where moral creatures are being shaped by amoral algorithms—a superstructure operating all around us that we know very little about."
We're not journalists. Our job is to create films that have journeys and characters. We're not here to make the definitive story about Cambridge Analytica, telling you the who, what, when, where of everything that happens. To us, Cambridge Analytica is a watershed moment that's important to understand and to unpack, because it's really a much bigger story about our relationship with technology, and particularly our relationship to the morality of technology. You know, we're being shaped by these algorithms. We are living in a moment where moral creatures are being shaped by amoral algorithms — a superstructure operating all around us that we know very little about. We wanted to go into the heart of darkness of this world.
That's Brittany's story. Not only could you see the ascent of this technology — she was literally there when the first campaigns using a targeting profile were invented on the Obama campaign — but you could also see it swing in a completely different direction, when it was weaponized and used in campaigns to suppress votes and [influence] Brexit and the Trump campaign.
Brittany was also going on this journey where she was going to provide critical evidence to governments — in Parliament first, and the U.S. Congress. [Her testimony] ended up becoming part of the Mueller investigation and having links to Assange. So in one person, you could talk about Facebook, Brexit, Julian Assange, the Trump campaign, and Barack Obama's campaign. That was a really unique opportunity as a documentary filmmaker. And it was happening in real-time.
NFS: Going back to the challenge of making this film visual, you also incorporated VFX.
Amer: We had to kind of go into other areas which we hadn't been in documentaries before, like animation and motion graphics. We had the help of our incredible team, Judy Korin and Pedro Kos, who really led the charge on that.
People like David Carol live on Twitter, basically. We needed to show the action on his Twitter feed and place it into the physical world around him as well. The question was: How could the language of vérité and the language of the digital world mesh?
We started experimenting with ways in which the tweets could buzz around the vérité and give this feeling of movement—you know, things happening, stakes, urgency. The first time we did it [in editing] was with the Facebook hearings. We inter-cut between Brittany and David. It's really when we put that together that we were like, "Okay, this is it. This is a cinema language that makes sense." But even with that, there was still something missing.
We needed to talk to the people who say, "Who cares if my data's being collected? The ads don't bother me so much. What's the big deal?" So we tried to actually show what was happening and explain this really complicated world of data targeting. We decided to try to bring the POV of the algorithms to life. That was the idea behind the opening animation sequence, where you see this progression going from vérité to graphics.
Noujaim: It shows that you're leaving digital footprints everywhere you go.
Amer: And everybody's doing it.
Noujaim: It reminds you that the Internet isn't just where you buy things; it's where you are the commodity. You, and everything about you, are for sale.
Amer: That became an aesthetic choice that we found exciting and because it could break this wall and show people how the algorithm sees them.
As filmmakers and artists, we need to invent new visual languages to understand our reality. And we have a deficit of language when it comes to visualizing the Internet. That's a problem because the Internet is arguably the most important phenomenon of the modern era.
NFS: You recut the film after Sundance. Why?
Noujaim: Well, similar to what happened with The Square, this was a rapidly changing world that we were filming. I'm realizing that any time you make a film that is quite timely and is talking about the world as we are living it, it's very difficult to figure out exactly where to end it. However, it is still a story where you're following three characters' journeys. For the Sundance cut, we ended it where we feel that those characters' journeys had ended.
But in December, right before Sundance, we got some crucial information and some crucial new access. Brittany found the pitch decks that Cambridge Analytica had used. Then there were the audiotapes from the Trinidad and Tobago pitch meetings.
Then, Julian Wheatland, who is the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, agreed to be a part of the film. We felt like it was a very important voice to have.
Amer: The events and the story continued post-Sundance, with Facebook becoming a crime scene where so much of this has happened. So, the story really changed, and because of that, we needed to continue going. It was difficult, but it was familiar terrain—we had the same exact thing happen with The Square where we took it to Sundance. The ending completely changed and it caused us to have to recut the movie and premiere it again in Toronto.
In The Great Hack's new cut, we lost 25 minutes, I believe, from the running time. And we added an additional 30 new minutes of material that was not in Sundance cut. It's entirely different.
We needed to end in a place that showed that yes, Cambridge Analytica is closed now, but this problem still very much exists. This is a problem that we're going to have to continue to deal with. As Carol says, it's about whether we're ever going to have a free and fair election again.
The Great Hack is streaming now on Netflix.