Thursday, December 24, 2020

Two Docs from the Virtual Coolidge: Coded Bias & Assassins

There are…. four hours left to watch Coded Bias via the Coolidge, or at least pay for it and maybe have another 48 (I'm not sure whether the Coolidge's site will let you do that), with Assassins probably around for at least another week. Maybe the former will be easy to find in other places soon enough, but I do kind of wonder if Netflix or Prime might push movies that have it in for algorithms themselves down to less prominent placement. It's the sort of movie that I suspect could have benefitted by being one of just a few movies at a boutique theater, or getting a nice spot on the PBS schedule when there weren't a thousand channels and services, but the movie doesn't really need to get made then. That's kind of why I wonder if the future of documentaries isn't things like these easily digestible movies, but deep eight-hour dives that let the viewer get some depth, and maybe gain a little traction in the discourse via its sheer mass. Right now, I kind of worry that it's only going to show up on the radar of people who already know something about its subject matter, although it at least gives them someplace to point others.

Anyway, it's a pretty decent double-feature, as Assassins gets into internet stuff and online reputation fairly quickly and both have a bit of focus on marginalized people being taken advantage of. They're also easily digested lengths and value being clear even when a certain amount of things being unknowable is part of the story. You can watch them both in under three and a half hours and maybe have some interesting cross-pollination.

Also: Coded Bias isn't exactly a Boston movie, but it's enough of one that a lot of establishing shots and locations had some meaning to me and I kind of found myself wondering if I'd met primary subject Joy Buolamwini at some point. We don't exactly run in the same circles but I wouldn't be surprised if she and I got our comics in the same shop and she seemed kind of familiar. Granted, it's just as possible that my white-guy brain is just as unpracticed at telling Black women apart as the algorithms people in my demographic build, proving her point, but that's a meta-level of information I'll gladly take from the film.

Coded Bias

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 December 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

There's been a complaint in recent years, likely justified in many cases, of documentary television series whose multi-episode bloat could probably be condensed into a conventional documentary feature, but I sometimes wonder if the big miniseries is the natural next evolutionary step. Consider Coded Bias as an example: It is a good documentary; it raises an interesting issue, makes its points in clear fashion, and will almost certainly be watched primarily by those who already have some interest in the material, learning little beyond a few specific names. It is absolutely a useful thing to get in front of people, but may be even more useful as a deep, multi-episode dive than as an overview.

Director Shalini Kantayya focuses on a number of experts and activists, with Joy Buolamwini at the center. As a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, Buolamwini discovered with dismay that the facial recognition software behind her computer's camera often would not pick up her face until she put on a white mask, and that it wasn't just a trick of lighting: Most of this software was designed and tested by men of European descent with comparatively little thought given to its use by other groups. What started out as a fun project turns into a serious piece of advocacy, inspired in part by author Cathy O'Neil and picked up by Silkie Carlo, a more street-level activist in London.

There are actually multiple facets to the issue that Kantayya explores, from how machine-learning algorithms meant to be objective instead tend to reflect the biases of the data it is trained with, to whether even a well-trained system can be used ethically, to what new questions having computers being able to sort through millions of real-time images raises, each with an example or two that goes with it and enough of a toehold into adjacent issues to hold film together as a whole rather than split it into separate units. It can seem like a lot to compact down to 90 minutes, but Kantayya and the on-screen participants are good at boiling the issues down to easily-grasped ideas that don't start to feel over-simplified with repetition. This is an issue that can be simply stated but not easily solved.

If Kantayya had wanted to make something less compact, she could have; there are plenty of examples here and more coming up every day. It's also helpful that, from the start, her experts aren't presented as detached academics who merely study the problem, but instead have the sort of personal involvement that make Buolamwini, O'Neil, and Carlo active participants in the narratives. Though Kantayya shows how far back the roots of it go, this is too modern an issue for them not to still be actively confronting it and refining their knowledge still, and that makes them more engaging than many "talking heads".

(It is worth noting that almost all of the on-screen experts are women, both because that is so often not the norm in documentaries and because algorithms picking up sexist behaviors figures into the film. I'm mildly curious whether this has just resulted in much of the important work being done by women or if Kantayya is deliberately pushing back on what is considered "default" as she recognizes how this affects the algorithms.)

In terms of filmmaking, she tends to stay modest and grounded even as the film is shot on four continents and necessarily requires some animated visualization at times, tending to pull those scenes closer to the subjects' human interactions rather than going for slick, meme-worthy presentations. If there's a fault in her presentation, it's how willing she sometimes is to completely abstract the idea of the algorithm as something unknowable as opposed to something that can be untangled, or the villain itself rather than being a tool used by people who either over-prioritize efficiency or are happy to hide their own biases behind its supposed objectivity. She'll take half the story from the general to the specific but not the other.

It's nevertheless a good way to learn about an important subject, although as with so many documentaries, I am reasonably sure I wouldn't have watched it if I wasn't already interested but I don't know if it will make its way to people who could probably do with paying more attention to the topic. And, indeed, I wonder about its future prospects in a world where independent and documentary features primarily reside on the streaming services whose algorithms are probably most found wanting on a day-to-day basis.

Also on eFilmCritic

Assassins (2020)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 December 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

The 2017 murder of Kim Jong-Nam may not be the crime of the century (it's early and the world is only going to get stranger), but it is almost certainly the crime of the decade, one whose effects are felt on a global scale but whose most visible public faces are as modest as you get, tied up in the internet and a world where borders can go from barely noticed to crucial in an instant. It's a story Ryan White tells very well in Assassins, well worth one's notice.

Kim Jong-Nam, the older half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, was killed in the Kuala Lumpur International airport on 13 February 2017, dying less than an hour after being exposed to the VX nerve poison. That his life should end that was wasn't entirely unexpected - Kim Jong-Il's eldest son was living in exile in Macau for almost ten years after being embarrassingly caught visiting Tokyo Disneyland and opining that maybe a People's Republic shouldn't have hereditary rulers, and that's the sort of person those opposed to a dictator can rally around - but the killers were: Siti Aisyah (of Indonesia) and Đoàn Thị Hương (from Vietnam) were two young women who claimed to have no idea that they were involved in anything more nefarious than filming prank videos for YouTube.

Despite making a documentary that is necessarily going to require its filmmakers to be somewhat hands-off - an American filmmaker is not going to get to interview North Korean government officials on this subject, and even if Malaysia wasn't one of the handful of countries that has normal relations with North Korea, its media and justice system are the type that don't welcome scrutiny - White is impressively able to cover multiple angles, embedding himself within the women's separate defense teams, forging an alliance with a relatively-independent local journalist that allows him to take a somewhat local view, and talking with Westerners who have studied North Korea without the film having to rely entirely on their questionable expertise. There are no unbiased sources for any story, but White and his team do a good job of finding people who can be informative even as the audience consciously corrects for their perspectives.

More than that, he does nice work in finding ways to approach the story from the multiple angles necessary, splitting time between how young women like Siti and Đoàn wind up in this situation and the background that makes Kim a target to the machinations of the trial, where lawyers must approach their co-defendants cautiously and forces well above the justice system can have an influence. White does impressive work laying out how Đoàn and Siti have different but parallel stories that lead to the same place, leaving the Kim family just vague enough to get the audience interested - if they weren't already - without making the why behind the murder the whole story. White fiddles with the timeline just enough that the audience isn't absorbing the backstory and the trial simultaneously, but never feels too far away from either.

Perhaps most importantly, he's able to integrate the thing that often cripples this sort of documentary - the vast amount of material one may just never know, or which remains out of reach of the filmmakers - into the film better than most. Đoàn and Siti are pawns in a conspiracy that has little to do with them, and the fact that they cannot personally affect the outcome much or ever particularly define themselves. White gets only a little bit of access and it's hard to know what to make of them, and in some ways they wind up thrown together with Kim Jong-Nam in that, for all their experiences are far out of the ordinary, a viewer can at least feel like they can relate to those people, while the shadowy masterminds, chemists, and world leaders are almost unknowable despite the power they wield. There's little resolution there, but how can there be? They barely seem like real people.

That can be a fatal flaw in a documentary, but it winds up a strength here. This story is larger than life even as it lands on people who are in many ways ordinary, and this may be the only way to keep both scales in view.

Also on eFilmCritic

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