Tech Tales: Darkness in the Digital Age (UP INTERNET x Tech Tales Review)

Image courtesy of UP INTERNET and EngageMedia


                   Look Into the Light

                             [This in-depth review contains MAJOR SPOILERS for all four films.]

From November 20 to 27, 2021, we got the chance to watch four different short films in Tech Tales: Films About Digital Rights in the Asia-Pacific. A collaboration between the UP Internet Freedom Network (UP INTERNET) and non-profit media group EngageMedia, this served as a showcase of movies that discuss issues of digital rights across countries in the Asian Pacific.

Although it was originally teased to be showcasing a total of eight entries, only the films from India, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand were released to the public. Meanwhile, the ones from Australia, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia were not screened in the first week but are now free to watch in Cinemata from December 10 to 18, 2021 in celebration of Human Rights Day.

In the words of UP INTERNET’s Founding President Mac Arboleda, Tech Tales was meant to engage viewers in discussing the worsening human rights violations in recent years and even now in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to “speculate” as to what will happen if we do not act now. 

In the same way that most techno-thrillers and digital dramas uncover the terrors of being vulnerable in cyberspace, Tech Tales serves as a collective call to action for viewers to uncover the growing darkness in the digital age.

However, there is a certain level of intrigue that separates Tech Tales from your standard science fiction outings. What if there is no Matrix to jack into? No time-traveling rogue artificial intelligence to beat? No darkly comedic punchline to give a satirical bite? 

In the likes of The Matrix or The Terminator films, talks on digital rights are often relegated to hero versus villains stories. In Tech Tales, the fight for humanity’s survival is not defined by stylish fights in the rain nor by hunting robots in dark alleys, but by facing the evil that lies behind the machines. The ones that know if you were bad or good, demanding that you better be good for governments' sakes.

These four films ask us to fight through the darkness and look into the light.

Image courtesy of UP INTERNET and EngageMedia

Act I:

         Appa and His Invisible Mundu

- Directed by Varun Kurtkoti

We begin with a child’s call for change, all the way from India. The viewing order was based entirely on how they are arranged in the film playlist. Though it may not mean much at first, I found this as the best way to watch all four films at once, and I will explain why later on.

Directed by Varun Kurtkoti, we listen to the mostly unseen eight-year-old Kuri tells the tale of her father’s fight against the malevolent Dineshan, a giant newspaper clippings collage of an all-seeing eye that closely monitors Kuri’s Appa’s cyber-activity.

In Kuri’s eyes, the world is a massive sketchbook excellently brought to animated life by pastel colors and pencil art. With fluid movements and flashy transitions, these wild and colorful sequences perfectly capture the fun and adventurous feeling of being a child trying to understand the world in their own little ways.

This somehow brings to mind most SNES-era RPGs like Earthbound ground their stories through a child’s fantasy-laced lens.

In Kuri’s eyes, her Appa is a superhero who is blessed with a Mundu (a type of South Indian garment) that allows him to be unseen from his enemies, even the all-powerful Dineshan. After Kuri gives us a brief day in the life of her Appa, from his work as an autorickshaw driver to his phone activities, things take a sharp turn for the worse when her Appa is plagued by the cute yet monstrous yessing managers that are controlled by Dineshan.

Despite Appa refusing to have the yessing managers look into his data, Dineshan retaliated by destroying Appa’s reputation, after the latter shared “something” that Dineshan itself would be appalled at.

Dineshan, as a concept, brings to mind the Big Brother-like Central Monitoring System (CMS) in India.

As detailed in Addison Litton’s 2015 paper “The State of Surveillance in India: The Central Monitoring System’s Chilling Effect on Self-Expression,” there are some parallels to this. Specifically, Dineshan accessing Appa’s sensitive information even without his consent is somewhat similar to how the Indian government monitors citizens through telecommunication networks as declared in their IT Act.

Despite all of these, however, I felt that the film was not able to frame its themes of digital surveillance and online privacy in the context of India per se. Although there are high-context concepts such as Dineshan (a concept that even after attempting to search through Google I still have no idea what it may be referring to specifically) or Mundu was thrown into the mix, in essence, Appa and His Invisible Mundu was unable to set its themes apart from the ones that countries such as the Philippines, where censorship from the state remains a big deal, face.

In other words, while the film may be easy to understand, for the most part, there is not much that would give average viewers a firmer grasp on the situation in India. One way that the movie could resolve this is by going further into the implications and consequences of their IT Act’s Section 66A, which technically means that citizens can be prosecuted for their social media activity. Subtopics can include how else “Dineshan” monitors and profiles people through social media and the arrests and even deaths that followed.

Digging deeper into the meat of things would not only contextualize the film but I believe that it would also provide a more complex image of Big Brother Dineshan instead of the seemingly easy-to-beat character that was shown at the end. In my opinion, at least, I find that presenting a more complicated situation while being easy-to-follow can educate people more about the seriousness of a contemporary issue and engage those unfamiliar by letting them see how different circumstances are between countries and cultures.

Overall, this film serves as a strong but perhaps a tad bit straightforward opener. If one were to look at all four films as four distinct acts of a stage play, then Appa and the Invisible Mundu is the bright and colorful collective call to action that is bolstered by stunning animation and an uplifting direction.

All capped off with Appa and the rest of Dineshan’s victims blanketing Dineshan’s view, with Kuri eerily asking the audience: can we?Can we stand together and fight? 

This then brings us to …

Image courtesy of UP INTERNET and EngageMedia

Act II: Pattani Calling - Directed by Vijitra Duangdee

We continue into the deep south of Thailand, where Malay Muslims stand against the implementation of a biometrics security system that puts all of their lives on the line.

Directed by Vijitra Duangdee, we look into the lives of Malay Muslims being caught in the crossfire of a years-long bloody conflict between local authorities and insurgents in the titular Thai city, through the eyes of a mostly hidden protagonist. We journey with them from one heavily guarded checkpoint after another, across the seemingly quiet streets of Pattani.

The protagonist constantly fears the possibility of being snatched whenever driving across borders to work, accessing public Wi-Fi in convenience stores, and contacting their family through public payphones. This is because the protagonist is one of the many who does not trust the government’s latest counterinsurgency effort known as the “two-shot identification” system.

Here, citizens are required to register their SIM cards, giving local authorities access to biodata as a means to track suspected insurgents who may use phone-activated devices to kill innocents. 

To truly understand the significance of the two-point identification system is to look into the extremely complex history that led to it being implemented in the first place. Given Pattani Calling’s limited runtime, it is completely understandable that the film would only focus on the basic aspects of the wider story. At the same time, it is because of this scope that I am completely unfit to discuss the context behind the film any further.

To at least get a sense of seriousness, however, I find that Pattani Calling must at least be able to evoke specific emotions in audiences by showcasing certain elements. It resorts more to telling rather than showing much of the problems that Malay Muslims are facing, which prevented me from connecting with the themes more. There is an underlying sense of eeriness that was established by the first testimony, but that feeling in me did not stick for too long.

This is not to say that the movie should contain graphic imagery or footage (excluding the brief news clips of violence) for shock value nor invalidate the interviewees’ insights. In fact, Pattani Calling has relevant insights from people who are facing these issues, from human rights defenders to different "digital rebels."

Rather, I believe that the film could have included more recollections from the unseen protagonist or from additional sources to paint a more concrete picture of life in Pattani, especially when it comes to the discrimination that Malay Muslims face at the hands of authorities.

The act of ceaselessly monitoring citizens’ data is unjust in and of itself, but most unfamiliar viewers may not feel as enraged as the filmmakers’ intended after just hearing statements of condemnation. Justifying discrimination towards a community on the basis of peace and security is unquestionably wrong, but some people may not see how damaging being discriminated against in Pattani is without hearing how exactly it happens.

If I were to suggest, perhaps the movie could have also compared the implementation of the two-identification system to the GT2000 scandal of 2007 to 2010. As explained by an activist in a 2020 New Mandala article, this referred to the explosive detection devices used by authorities to round-up suspected insurgents along with the provinces in the southern Thai borders. After discovering that GT2000 units only had a 20% success rate in 2010, it has since been believed that much of the arrests and deaths are baseless.

I feel that this added historical context would have given viewers some insight as to why most Pattani citizens would not trust something as horrifying as the two-shot identification system. After all, the idea of something eerily similar to an event spells terrifying implications, more so if people who experienced the 2007 to 2010 incidents shared their thoughts.

Another suggestion would be to frame the story in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, covering how the two-shot identification system adversely affected citizens. Something that was also covered in New Mandala’s story.

If Appa and His Invisible Mundu was the colorful opening act that hooks viewers, then Pattani Calling is the well-intentioned yet somewhat incomplete first act. Here, audiences are further acquainted with the terrors that linger in cyberspace but, as in my case, may find it a challenge to be able to immerse themselves with the same level of fury as the filmmakers

I believe the rage against the state's machine is evident, but I also feel that might have been indirectly muted by a lack of clarity.

This then brings us to ...

Image courtesy of UP INTERNET and EngageMedia

Act III: Black Out - Directed by Anonymous Filmmaker

We continue with perhaps my personal favorite out of the four, wherein we see a mother and daughter struggling to understand the chaos unfolding just outside their door.

We open with brief news broadcasts of an ongoing media Black Out in Myanmar. At the center of the commotion is single mother Hnin and her activist daughter Mon. They both debate as to whether or not they should have Internet service installed in their home as television screens go dark and with Hnin only relying on text messages to get a hint of what is happening in their country.

We spend the whole chunk of the movie in Hnin and Mon’s house, with the mother’s and daughter’s faces completely obscured either by shadows or by their heads being faced against the camera. There are neither colorful visuals like in Appa and His Invisible Mundu nor multiple perspectives to fill the tune runtime like in Pattani Calling. Instead, we are trapped in a claustrophobic and isolated setting with a silence that is only occasionally broken by sounds of cheers and gunfire in a distance, ambiance, and the two characters conversing with each other.

This simple set-up, combined with the use of mostly still shots, effectively conveys a sense of dread that lasts all throughout Black Out. Due to the lack of traditional music that encourages viewers to be angry or sad and theatrics that tends to deter from the seriousness of the subject matter, audiences are forced to be just as scared and confused as Hnin and Mon. 

The obscuring of faces also works in the film’s favor. In addition to the reality subtext behind this and the film crew’s decision to credit themselves anonymously, not seeing their faces gives the actors a chance to convey much more emotion through their voices. A move that I believe stuck the landing.

As news broadcasts give further updates, Hnin and Mon hear cheers but they have no clue as to why. A text Hnin receives tells her that this was after a leader was set to be released from custody, but she and the friend who sent the message speculate that this may be an act of psychological warfare. Later on, the sound of gunfire replaces the thunderous cheers, with Hnin learning that this may all be a ruse. 

A moment that reflects the surge of disinformation and propaganda in the country, which we will get to shortly.

It is not only until Mon attempted to encourage Hnin to take the fight to the streets and the very last broadcast that the audience is finally told the truth: Black Out takes place at the height of the 2021 Myanmar coup d'état.

The gist is that the nation’s military, Tatmadaw, claimed that the National League for Democracy party’s (NLD) electoral victory last November 2020 was baseless. This hostile takeover, the latest development in Myanmar’s lengthy fight for genuine democracy, led to widespread protests across the country. As of writing, more than 1,000 innocents were killed by military forces, with both Myanmar’s president and state councilor currently incarcerated. 

Although it was fairly obvious from the beginning what the film will be about, especially if one was already updated with world news, Black Out does a phenomenal job in engaging audiences in just the first few minutes. “Phenomenal,” in the sense that even if one was unfamiliar with the context, by the time the credits roll, viewers would definitely feel something that may compel them to know more about the issue.

Instead of resorting to exposition, the film slowly builds up the tension through the news broadcasts becoming clearer and clearer in context and through Hnin and Mon becoming more and more alarmed. Black Out, much like all of the films in this event, is unsubtle in its discussion, as seen with Hnin and Mon discussing how reliable the news that they get is. However, it never feels forced nor does it feel incomplete.

That tension culminates with a chilling, uncertain conclusion, with Hnin having to run out one night in search of Mon after she did not return home from a protest. The film simply fades to black after a few seconds from Hnin leaving home. If Appa and His Invisible Mundu was the prologue and Pattani Calling was the first act, Black Out feels more like the climactic second act that calls to viewers …

To face the truth and step out into the dark.

This finally brings us to …

Image courtesy of UP INTERNET and EngageMedia

Act IV:

                                        Panulukan (Crossroads)

- Directed by Richard Soriano Legaspi

    [TRIGGER WARNING: Mentions of rape and suicide]

    We end with the fourth act of this hypothetical stage play. With Black Out as the unnerving transition, Panulukan should serve as a quasi-resolution to much of the themes in the entire catalogue.

    Directed by Richard Soriano Legaspi, we open with two friends (a man and a woman) hitching a ride with two strangers on their way to Manila. Unknown to the two at first, their newfound “friends” are actually paid internet trolls. Their job? To spread lies and propaganda to support the heightened state of impunity in the Philippines, specifically extrajudicial killings (EJKs) of suspected drug addicts.

    As we go along for the ride, we learn that the male passenger lost some of his loved ones and his family’s land at the hands of the state. We are asked to sympathize with him because of the tragedies he experienced, but the film immediately tears viewers when one of the trolls recalls how his sister was raped by a drug addict, then committed suicide not long after.

    At the front seat is a decently executed moral dilemma between two people with valid and understandable grievances. Was the male passenger right to slam the trolls for what they are doing because of what he had to endure or was the troll right to support the state’s killing crusade as a way out of his misfortunes? While the film clearly and rightfully sides with the former, Panulukan invites audiences in a way that none of the previous three films did: to see them (supporters of corrupt states among others) as people.

    Given these, Panulukan has a tough balancing act between discussing EJKs in the country and the dangers of internet trolling, and for me, was initially set to be one of the most thought-provoking films on the list. 

    It is not hard to see a connection between the EJKs and the rise of internet trolls in the Philippines. As the movie showed, trolls would create false narratives of peace and order by way of bloodshed as a means to sell an ideal, bastardized version of reality. If it was making drug-addicted boogeymen out of poor, innocent people back in the 2016 Philippine Drug War, then there is the continued red-tagging of critics in the state’s ill-conceived counterinsurgency campaign.

    It is through this lens that Panulukan attempted to affirm that behind every piece of state propaganda is a human being whose story is being twisted. However, it is in their attempt to connect both the truth behind EJKs and the socioeconomic roots of digital injustice under 15 minutes that I felt that the short may have been trying to cover too much ground.

    There is an imbalance between the two themes, with the film feeling so much more like a debate as to whether or not EJKs are "necessary" that I felt that the trolling aspect was almost entirely overlooked. If Panulukan wanted to link Internet trolling propaganda into the mix, then I feel that it would have been best to have the male passenger condemn the trolls for trolling instead of condemning their support for killings (e.g. instead of the fate of his sister in the film, maybe the troll would have justified his actions by saying she died pennilessly and that he did not want to suffer the same way).

    As a side-note, something similar to my suggestion above was hinted in the very last line from one of the trolls, wherein his partner convinced the other to "fulfill their quota" to pay for the latter's mother's hospital bills. That itself already brings to mind how paid trolls are becoming a thing of the present due to various socioeconomic inequalities. Since there was no mention of his mother beforehand, I think this detail came out of nowhere.

    It is also through this imbalance that I felt that the movie became excessively unsubtle in its stance, especially in the final sequence. Here, Panulukan jams three different pieces of symbolism in one go: a nearly 10-second shot of a street sign with the names of real-life Drug War victims Kian delos Santos and Carl Arnaiz, a rap song about injustices in the country playing in the background, and the Waze app glitching to mislabel the victim as a dead animal.

    The latter is one that my father personally found jarring since, according to him, anybody familiar with Waze would know that the app never magically mislabels nor even detects specific blocks on the road. In my case, this is especially so considering that the movie started and progressed in a fairly grounded execution and that there is no in-universe logic to establish why Waze behaved as it is in the movie other than to make it explicitly clear that technology should not be trusted (just like what the male passenger said very early into the movie).

    None of the films in this playlist are expected to be subtle, considering that each film focuses on region-locked issues. However, because we already had more than 10 minutes of characters directly addressing the matter, I saw no reason to go any further than that. Even though the visual references to delos Santos and Arnaiz are not some things that most viewers would understand immediately, the lack of proper context behind their mentions in the film may render these lost in translation.

    Overall, Panalukan presents a serious ethical dilemma regarding whether or not we are intentionally or unintentionally invalidating the grievances of other victims of corrupt states. It is a resolution with a gripping set-up that challenges viewers to go beyond our echo chambers and directly address the elephants in the room.

    But with too much going on in too little time, some viewers may be left confused in piecing together the point of it all. A flawed but nevertheless worthwhile fourth act that serves as a dark reprise of Appa and His Invisible Mundu's asking if we can stand together and fight, and serve as the audiences' way ...

    ... out of the dark ... for now.

                       Out of the Dark

    In UP INTERNET and EngageMedia's screening, viewers were asked to look closely at our digital screens and see the light in every story. One tech tale that serves as a fearless and colorful call for change and a motion to stand united against common threats. Another is a record of a community's rage at being caught in the crossfire over and over again. Yet another serves as a mother and her daughter's spiel of suspicions when facing the seemingly unstoppable unknown. Finally, a lucid look-back on the world outside the safety of our digital screens.

    Even with the comments and suggestions I have shared, praise must be given for all of the artists who have poured their hearts and souls into (and even risked their lives for) each of these projects. Ones that I hope will be released to the public once more, as there is a lot to discuss when it comes to the likes of the 2021 Myanmar coup d'état, the heightened cyber-surveillance in India, the ongoing carnage in Thailand, and the rise of state supporting internet trolls in the Philippines alongside the other four initially unscreened films.

    These are movies that can encourage viewers to look further into different social issues and ones that can court viewers in fighting for genuine social change. After all, everything that I have discussed so far are merely my opnions only and none are meant to say that I "know better" than the artists themselves. As such, I highly encourage everyone to watch all of them whenever and however they can and make their own interpretations on these movies.

    Tech Tales: Films About Digital Rights in the Asia-Pacific made us see the light behind each issue. But even if we all dared to glaze, will we be able to unite and march our way out of the dark?

And that is ... the Dateline!


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