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AFI Docs 2016: 'Tickled' + 'Zero Days'


These two documentaries explore the consequences -- the "wormholes" -- engendered by advancing technologies.


Director: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve
Cast: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, Dave Starr, Hal Karp, Deborah Scoblionkov, Richard Ivey
Rated: R
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-06-24 (AFI Docs)

Zero Days

Director: Alex Gibney
Cast: Gary D. Brown, Eric Chien, Richard A. Clarke, Michael Hayden, Olli Heinonen, Chris Inglis, Vitaly Kamluk, Emad Kiyaei, Ralph Langner, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Sean Paul McGurk, Yossi Melman, Liam O'Murchu, Gary Samore, David Sanger, Yuval Steinitz, Sergey Ulasen, Amos Yadlin
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-06-22 (AFI Docs)
"All effects, including the moral effects, I would say, this is the price we have to pay in this war and our blight of righteousness shouldn't be so sharp."

-- Mossad Senior Operative, Zero Days

"This tickling wormhole seemed to be getting deeper." David Farrier opens his documentary Tickled with a suitable mix of absurdity and determination. A New Zealand-based reporter, Farrier has discovered what appears to be a "competitive endurance tickling" league. When his initial, very cursory investigation leads to a series of threatening messages, Farrier decides to push further; that is, to make the documentary you're watching now.

Farrier's investigation takes turns he can't anticipate, some rather dark. His investigation is also one of several showcased at AFI Docs 2016, where Tickled is screening on 24 June. Another is offered in Alex Gibney's remarkable Zero Days, the Festival's opening night film. Both documentaries explore the consequences -- the "wormholes" -- engendered by advancing technologies. As they do so, both documentaries also come up with new ways to represent what these technologies try to hide.

The consequences encountered by Farrier and his filmmaking partner Dylan Reeve in Tickled replicate the story they're pursuing. As Farrier reports, his efforts to find out who produces and then publishes videos featuring pretty young men tied down as they're being tickled are met by increasingly vitriolic resistance, in the form of explicitly homophobic emails and unsettling online intimidation from an entity called "Jane O'Brien Media". When he declares his intention to turn his reporting into a documentary, the company threatens legal action, sending "representatives" to Auckland.

The initial meeting goes badly, when one of the reps, Kevin Clarke, insists that Farrier and Reeve not film them at the airport. "Listen," Clarke says, glaring at the camera, "We're not going to have a good time if you do this. if you don't tell me what you're doing first, we're not going to get along." (The film's release has apparently inspired Clarke to repeat his performance, as he popped up to harangue Reeve at a Los Angeles screening of Tickled last week.)

This encounter leads to a second one at a hotel, without cameras. Farrier and Reeve's solution is at once elegant and evocative: they shoot themselves walking to the meeting, the window of the room where they might be meeting, beautifully lit and shot from the street, and long glossy hallway en route to a "Board Room". Over these images, they run Clarke's recorded voice: ""As far as Jane goes, I've never met Jane, you know, whoever is emailing you, I have never met this person," he says, "You're the ones who decided this is what you were going to do. You mocked us, you've done everything you could, you attacked us in an airport, you sidewinded us. So," he concludes, "Let me make a point here: If you want to stick your head in a blast furnace, do it."

Say what? The threats become more pronounced when Farrier meets with Clarke alone. For this, Farrier demonstrates his jerry-rigged "covert piece of technology", a camera in a coffee cup, which he wields awkwardly and expertly, shooting Clarke's blue-jeansed crotch as he's advised to give up the project. A follow-up phone call has Clarke suggesting that Reeve, who says he doesn't like being bullied, will be "in for some real targeting, believe me, and I would hate to see that too, because I know he has a family." Cut to charming images of Reeve with his young children and toys, home movies converted into surveillance-like footage with a scary music track and Clarke's voiceover.

All this is to say that context is key. As Farrier and Reeve go forward with the film, they uncover money trails and investigations undertaken by other reporters. They also interview other "targets", including young men who agreed to be tickled, then found themselves harassed, and others who serve as recruiters for the "tickle cells" that turn out to exist all over the world, many funded by "Jane O'Brien" (revealed to have several aliases and, at last, a not-so-surprising secret identity).

Even the talking heads pieces here are carefully composed and perfectly lit, whether set in a car or an office, in a diner or a tickling fetishist's recording room, during a session. Retracing the bully's actions over years, shutting down campus computer systems to menace a student who tried to leave a ticking cell or contacting parents, the film makes clear the long reach of this particular bully, but also the ways that technologies and recordings can escape anyone's control.

Even as they convey story and develop intrigue, these artful images also draw attention to the film's own production, the filmmakers' secrecy and their ingenuity, the ways that technologies can expand and also inhibit lives, create illusions and expose them. On its surface, Tickled is about Farrier and Reeve's search for a truth about who's behind these tickle cells, as well as the "blast furnace" of intimidation allowed by money and privilege. But it's also, at another level, about how such a search becomes a truth of its own, documented and disseminated.

Zero Days

A similar case might be made for Zero Days, which also begins by seeking one sort of answer and transforms into a multiplying universe of questions. The question with which GIbney starts is crucial in and of itself. "Through the darkness of the pathways that we march, evil and good live side by side and this is the nature of life," observes a shadow figure, an unnamed Mossad operative who knows something about the Stuxnet worm. This philosophical frame doesn't so much make sense of what follows as it indicates how competing logics and evolving technologies inform international (and national) politics.

Stuxnet, you may recall, is the cyber-weapon that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear program for a couple of years before it was discovered by an antivirus expert in Belarus in 2010. The film considers what it does and did, mostly by way of computer-screeny graphics and thoughtful interviewees like Eugene Kaspersky and a couple of Symantec engineers, Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu, both impressed and a little mystified by the sophistication of the virus, its lack of a cut-off date and its aggressiveness, and at least briefly aware that they might be targets if they come too close to figuring out who made it and for what reasons (Eric says he's only "half joking" when he tells Liam, "Look, I'm not suicidal: if I show up dead on Monday, it wasn't me").

Gibney's keen off-camera questions form their own narrative strand, as when he asks former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden, who also appeared in Gibney's We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks whether Stuxnet's "attack in peacetime on a nuclear facility" is an act of war according to international law. Of course it is, and Hayden, who begins his interview by saying, with a sharp bit of a laugh, "Two answers before we're even started: I don't know and if I did, we wouldn't talk about it anyway."

Both Hayden and Gibney share a rueful understanding of the contradictions and the frustrations inherent in his answers. Their exchange echoes others in the film, whereby individuals don't admit they know the US and Israel worked together on Stuxnet, but they have all kinds of opinions about how it went wrong and, at least for a time, right, as well as who gets credit and blame. Hayden reminds you that infection systems are of a piece with ever shifting surveillance technologies ("If you can spy on a network, you can manipulate it"), and further, that as such capacities emerge from within spy agencies (say, the CIA), they're premised on secrecy: it all ends up, he adds, "in this we-don't-talk-about-these-things box."

Still, people talk. And talk is story, if not always the first step in formulating policy, anticipating consequences, or understanding problems. "DC is a city of secrets," offers Gibney, over gorgeous nighttime-lights images of streets and monuments, "But it's also a city of leaks." And so he takes up the strategies he's used so skillfully in Taxi to the Dark Side or Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, connecting dots between what subjects have to say. These back-and-forths are fun and energetic, the stories they reveal at once transfixing, preposterous, and melodramatic. As Eric Chien recalls, there "was something that was always very Hollywood-esque to us" about the virus.

The virus, as you might guess, is only the beginning, as it leads to all kinds of questions about what such technological capacity means, politically morally. These questions are posed by journalists like The Haaretz newspaper's Yossi Melman and The New York Times' David Sanger, and David Samore, the Haaretz newspaper's Yossi Melman (best known for his work on the terrorism "beat") , Gary Samore, Executive Director for Research, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Emad Kyael, Executive Director of the American Iranian Council. They have to do with the transition from monitoring to attacking to retaliating, using cyber-weaponry for defense and also offense, to affect real-world lives and machinery (power grids, planes, trains, medical facilities). "Let's say a nuclear facility in the US was targeted, if it wasn't Iran," observes Kyael. "The American government would not sit by and let this go." And what about Skynet, the moment when machines make their own decisions?

Such questions are also embodied by the film's most visually compelling interviewee, an NSA engineer who worked on Stuxnet. A wholly digital figure who might feel at home in The Congress. Her digital flecks ever in motion, her blond hair shimmery and also disintegrated, she describes the culture at NSA as "two parts macho military and two parts cyber geek", and laughs at the name "Stuxnet", invented by the "anti-virus guys". As the camera pans a re-enacted cubicle, populated by Batman and Han Solo action figures, the Death Star made out of grey Legos, she remembers that the developers had their own focus and jokes: "Saying Stuxnet out loud was like saying the name Voldemort in Harry Potter, the name that shall not be spoken."

As much as she scoffs entertainingly at ideas proffered by the anti-virus guys, or rationales conjured by politicians and administrators, she is most fascinating for what her very conception proposes regarding how stories and secrets circulate. She is, in a word, "Hollywood-esque", the problem made visible and distractingly meta. By now, you're convinced that the US and Israel can't tell the truth about the worm, even if they know all of that truth, even if they understand the consequences they seem not to understand. As much as lessons of war remain unlearned, as much as innovation is governed by short-sightedness, you might also consider that this cyber-figure, smart, seductive and seemingly trustworthy, is not what she seems. You want to trust her, she's in a documentary, and everyone in a documentary tells the truth, right?

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