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Erasing David: nothing to hide, everything to fear

David Bond’s documentary makes a decent case for defending privacy, but it too often fails as investigative journalism.

Tessa Mayes

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British documentary films linked to political campaigns are everywhere these days. Following films such as Taking Liberties (chronicling the attack on our rights and freedoms by the Blair government), Black Gold (about unfairness in the coffee trade), and The End of the Line (on the depletion of fish stocks), the latest is Erasing David, a film opposing the erosion of privacy rights in Britain. It was shown at last week’s Sheffield Documentary Festival.

Director David Bond creates a sense of urgency in the film by attempting to escape for a month from the prying eyes of the state and big business. He goes off grid (‘I’m going to leave my life behind and disappear’), although never completely. He always has his mobile phone to hand, speaking to his heavily pregnant wife at one point, even though he suspects that mobile phone signals will help the two private detectives who are attempting to track him down.

Erasing David is part of the new wave of documentaries experimenting with fictional narrative structures. The film is essentially a chase movie. This would be enjoyable to watch in itself, but Erasing David is also conscious of its need to address the politics of some of the campaigns and campaigners in favour of privacy rights, such as the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (which co-funded the film) and Henry Porter, the Observer journalist who is interviewed in the film.

Privacy is an excellent angle for a documentary about contemporary Britain. Privacy has become a key talking point in British public life. Bond claims that the British rank third behind the Chinese and the Russians as the most heavily spied upon people in the world. The film’s poster promotes the tag line: ‘He has nothing to hide but does he have nothing to fear?’, a neat retort to the pro-CCTV advocates.

Or is it?

The main political thrust of the film is to reveal not only how easy it is to get private data on an individual, but also how paranoid an innocent man can become by having his privacy invaded. In one scene Bond loses himself in the middle of nowhere, growling demonically like a madman to the camera.

Unfortunately the elevation of paranoia as a theme does a disservice to the political arguments in favour of privacy rights. What happens if you don’t feel paranoid in relation to state surveillance, but are simply opposed to the democratic implications of the state having so much power over the individual? The obsession with the theme of paranoia is a weak point for privacy campaigners, not a strength.

Surprisingly, the dramatic thrust of the documentary is also damaged by the obsession with paranoia. In fictional movies such as The Lives of Others (the Oscar-winning tale of a Stasi agent spying on a couple in the old East Germany), the film audience get their emotional fix through the rising paranoia of the characters, each one a victim of state surveillance. So you’d think this emotional device would be useful for Erasing David. It isn’t.

The reason is that this is a film arguing for the right to privacy, rather than an unfolding investigation that reveals something new. Bond starts the film incensed at all the privacy-invading going on around him, which means his emotional outbursts throughout the film seem inauthentic. You can’t help thinking he’s performing (or, at least, further dramatising his feelings) for the camera, in order to prove a preconceived view rather than discovering, in a way that surprises himself, that a lack of privacy can make you paranoid.

Erasing David simply doesn’t reveal any new information. Admittedly, many documentaries struggle along on meagre budgets. These days it’s hard to get sufficient funding for investigative journalism given the exponential number of documentary-makers chasing smaller pots of cash.

Yet the problem is not simply a question of film funding. As a film funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, and partnered by Liberty, Action on Rights for Children, No2ID, Genewatch and the Open Rights Group, the less-than-revelatory feel of Erasing David suggests it is designed to be shown at campaign rallies to confirm opinions rather than being designed to win over those not aware or not convinced about the problem of encroachments on our privacy. I wanted to see more investigation about Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks, a scoop on how the state use new technologies to spy on millions of people, or evidence of the effects of surveillance on children who are being groomed ‘to exist in a database state’, as a contributor observed.

Last year, the filmmakers approached me to appear in the film. They decided not to use my contribution. This review may seem like sour grapes, but it’s not. I like David Bond; it’s the politics and artistry of his documentary I am critiquing. The kind of thing I would have focused on – which the movie didn’t – is why so many people accept the argument that the state should invade our privacy to protect us from criminals, terrorists and each other. This didn’t feature in the film. Too tricky an argument to engage with, perhaps?

Then I remembered that in the opening scenes of the film, Bond debates the issue with his wife. How could I forget that? The reason that had slipped my mind and wasn’t even in my review notes is that the views of his wife seemed less relevant compared to those outside of Bond’s inner circle. Her opinions were honest and heartfelt and she represented the Everywoman in some ways, someone not initially over-concerned at invasions of privacy. It’s a neat device to introduce a note of disagreement, but not nearly as effective as if the director had put himself in the firing line with critics who had nothing to lose by opposing his argument. In the context of what is seen as a ‘campaign film’, the kitchen sink disagreements were too cosy.

Overall the film was not investigative and confrontational enough at a time when we should be demanding more privacy – that is, more freedom from the authorities’ gaze. The focus on paranoia undermined the campaign and the documentary drama. Films raising campaign issues need to be more artful as well as braver.

[The original version of this article asserted that a number of NGOs and campaign groups funded the film. See letter here for clarification.]

Tessa Mayes is an investigative journalist and documentary film-maker based in London. Email: {encode=”info@tessamayes.co.uk” title=”info@tessamayes.co.uk”}

Watch the trailer for Erasing David:

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