Fantasia 2023 Review: HOME INVASION, On the Tyranny of Technology and Surveillance
Greame Arnfield really, really does not like the Ring. No, not the infamous J-Horror film or its American remake, but rather the video doorbell company that turned the humble little button that goes ding-dong, into the “smart doorbell,” a cloud connected surveillence tool that was eventually acquired (and made ubiquitous) by Amazon.
These small, reasonably cheap devices function like a home security and communication system. Owners can observe and talk remotely, to couriers dropping stuff on their doorstep, or strangers trespassing on their property. Ring, and its many similar competitors, exploded in popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic years, creating convenience around home delivery, but also self-assembling a neo-surveillence state controlled by some of the richest data-gathering corporations in the world. Many, including Arnfield, consider the technology to be an accelerant to the erosion of community, and the unspoken social contract that holds human society together.
Personally, I am a moderator for my small suburban neighbourhood on the social media app Nextdoor, and spend far too much time dealing with the casual doxxing, or shaming, via posting doorbell camera recordings of neighbours in an otherwise (relatively) safe and functioning community. Even worse is the accompanying paranoid speculation generated in comments threads from these posted recordings of (mostly) innocent acts. Often, they are context free videos of a person simply being in front of someone's house, or letting a dog poop on their lawn. These acts were previously not often observed by the homeowner, unless they happened to be staring out the window, let alone recorded and shared for public consumption.
Surreal, disturbing, and oft-times quite infuriating, Home Invasion is a feature-length video essay on, of all things, the evolution of the doorbell. It is also a free-association session cum paranoid nightmare on our collective love-hate relationship with technological progress.
It opens with scanned images of the patent document for the first video doorbell, which was originally filed in the mid-1960s by a Black nurse living in Queens, New York named Marie Van Brittan Brown. Her original invention was comprised of holes drilled through her front door, that a moving camera that could look through, and the resulting videos were streamed to the TVs in her home. This included a monitor in her bedroom. Eventually, a two-way microphone was added to talk through the door, and an alarm button that could be pressed to contact the police was also added.
Years later, when Marie was asked if her invention made her feel safer, she could not give a definitive answer. She confessed to an unhealthy obsession with watching the monitors from her bedroom, which kept her up late into the night. This robbed her of the very restful peace of mind she was seeking when she installed the system in the first place. When a device of great utility or convenience to the owner is released into the world, there follows in its wake a number of unintended effects: hardware, software, social media; nothing is immune. Progress is a perpetual two-edged sword.
At first, Home Invasion, appears to be a super-cut of found RING footage to illustrate Mary’s predicament. Something akin to Dimitrii Kalashnikov’s The Road Movie, a 2017 documentary that edited vehicle dashcam footage into in white knuckle action-suspense thriller. But Arnfield has much more ambition here, and is not overly concerned with entertaining in the usual sense.
The scope of the film keeps expanding, the images evolving, to eventually connect such disparate things as D.W. Griffith’s innovation of parallel editing at the dawn of cinema in the 20th century, and the 19th century Luddite movement, when textile workers publicly sabotaged steam-powered looms because the massive machines robbed people of dignity in their craft, turning them into cogs, while wealth trickled ever faster to the top industrial tycoons.
Footage from modern doorbell cameras, ranging from absurd to terrifying acts to witness, demonstrate the myriad ways that ignorance can often be bliss, but not always. Petabytes of data is harvested and weaponised by cloud computing behemoths like Amazon and Facebook. (“Ring is not a doorbell company, it is a data company that sells doorbells.”) Policing and surveillance states are enhanced and disproportionally empowered by the courts to seize and use private data for the slippery notion of public safety. All of this for a convenience or benefit -- security and peace of mind -- which is not particularly demonstrable in the end.
Everything is shown through a peephole circular matting, while a jarring and unsettling industrial score perpetually grinds and drones in the background. Small slams of text, in a chunky font, bent into a fisheye perspective, allows for Arnfield to meld his thesis with a bit of flourished, if often literal, storytelling
In the Marshall McLuhan sense, I would be curious what the effect of simply reading the script, as an article, would be compared to the experience of watching (which is mostly reading text) the film, with its accompanying images. At times, Home Invasion seems an exercise in slowly punishing its audience’s senses, even as it soldiers on in its punctuation-free didacticism.
The found doorbell footage clips eventually evolve to hundreds of scenes from home invasion movies — particularly the Scream franchise, but ranging from Straw Dogs to Funny Games. I never realized quite how many of these exist until shown here. The purpose of which is to suggest that popular entertainments can also create a feedback loop towards a culture of fear; as much as any 24-hour news cycle, or algorithmic rabbit hole. Your house is your castle in America, but it is also kind of gilded cage, particularly if all your experiences are mediated through technology. Enter the pandemic.
After this section things move on to newspaper clippings and linocut prints, which take us through the industrialisation of the Western world. When once people could do manufacturing work from their homes, now they were forced to move from their rural communities into the city to work in these smoke belching new-fangled factories, lit by the modern invention of gas lighting. This also allowed for around-the-clock manufacturing, whilst providing the light that the work (and worker's commute) could be demanded at at any hour, often away from the rhythms of the natural daylight.
This was different kind of home invasion. Being forced to move to the city to make a living is one of the unintended consequences of technological progress. Fires and industrial disasters from these lamps came with the cost of many lives, even as cheap textiles and clothing (and the eventual formation of Labour Unions) lifted untold millions out of poverty.
A Scottish inventor, William Murdoch, who enabled gas lighting cities (pun not necessarily intended) had the problem of not hearing folks knocking at his door. Through a series of pressurised pipes, air released via the push of a button near his front entrance, he created (you guessed it) the original doorbell. Like its curious aspect ratio, Home Invasion eventually comes full circle.
Are we better for the experience?
Were we entertained?
I cannot give you a definitive answer.
The film enjoyed its North American premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival.