This piece is from our continuing coverage of Sydney Film Festival over the next month. Check out the rest of the content here.
By now, the documentary style is a tried and tested format. The distillation of the unscripted, improvised and ad hoc into something coherent and structured almost manages to eschew the pretence of reality; a once banal or diffuse collection of stories are sewn together with such style and drama that a narrative emerges, which invites not just an intellectual response, but an emotional one too.
For the most part, The Cleaners succeeds in following this formula. Shot in the style of a neo-noir thriller, Hans Block and Moritz Riesewiech’s documentary offers a glimpse into the underworld of social media. Replete with the neon clad aesthetic, now almost synonymous with dystopian futurism courtesy of Blade Runner and The Matrix, the film documents the work of a number of content moderators in Manilla, contracted from across the Pacific by Silicon Valley behemoths to sanitise their platforms of illicit media. These silent purveyors of blogs, channels and pages view thousands of posts a day, labelling each as either innocuous enough to be left alone (“ignore”) or offensive enough to warrant removal (“delete”). The content is often overtly political: racist hate speech directed at immigrants, or political satire which has the misfortune of appearing in countries like Turkey or Russia. It is also frequently obscene, as in the case of child pornography or graphic violence. Occasionally, as with footage of Coalition airstrikes in Syria, or police brutality, it straddles both categories.
Darting across the globe to trace the impact of this censorship, Block and Riesewiech resist the temptation to elevate one narrative above the rest, and instead document the fallout through an array of stories. In California, two political activists explain the difficulties of censorship—one avowedly right wing, anti-immigrant and pro-Trump, the other the painter of an unflattering nude of the President that went viral. Separated by the gulf of ideology, both claim to share a similar grievance: digital censorship is limiting their right to freedom of expression. Across the globe, in Myanmar, the reverse seems to be true. Hundreds of thousands of anti-Rohingya posts are made everyday, fanning the flames of a nascent genocide, a crisis Facebook seems ill-prepared to deal with. From one humanitarian crisis to another, Block and Riesewiech pivot to Syria, where an activist struggles to independently document airstrike casualties before footage is wiped from YouTube.
The Cleaners resists the very real temptation to descend into dystopian sensationalism. The Orwellian nature of censorship isn’t neglected, but neither is the human face behind it. The moderators themselves are exposed in a series of vignettes: many struggle with the burden of their job, scarred by a relentless exposure to some of the most raw and depraved sides of humanity. We’re reminded that behind all the colossal, abstract machinations of social media are a collection of individuals, each subject to their own biases and flaws.
In this sense, The Cleaners succeeds in invoking an unexpected emotional response. The anonymity of those working under the banner social media companies is torn away, revealing a group of moderators just as vulnerable as those they censor. At times though, it can’t help but feel that the focus on individuals comes at the expense of the bigger picture; the broader question of what the future of this industry will look like—especially in a post-Cambridge Analytica context—feels neglected. Staying characteristically aloof, none of the social media companies in question opted to give commentary; similarly, voices from the upper echelons of government and law making are notably absent. Block and Riesewiech have succeeded in crafting a thought provoking examination of the human impact of censorship, ironically however, the full details of the story seem to have been withheld.