Reclaiming the right to privacy

Two studies into the nature of privacy form part of the London International Documentary Festival's

If you walk through the Barbican main entrance and follow the steps down to the mezzanine floor in one of the corners of the room you'll see against the venue's sparse interior architecture an incongruous sight - three walls made up to resemble a typical family home. Whilst only two of the walls have fake doors all three of them are adorned in framed images. There are also two green cushioned chairs and a coffee table with a book that has a plain black cover. Open it on the first page you will see hand-written the words "WHAT IS PRIVACY?" If you continue over the next few pages you'll find a range of answers written down by visitors to the exhibition.

That there is a plurality of definitions of this concept is the inescapable conclusion one gets after visiting this exhibition and watching the film Article 12, which together made up a special focus on the nature of privacy as part of the London International Documentary Festival's opening weekend.

The exhibition described above is called Privacy, but from the images on the walls its creator Juan Manuel Biain doesn't answer the question he set the viewers in the black book. Instead, he shows how privacy can be lost. The majority of images in the frames on the exhibition walls are, for example, pictures of tools that are used in to erode our privacy such as CCTV cameras.

That the pictures appear in an exhibition space designed to look like the one place people feel their privacy should be preserved - the home - gives them veritas. Even more effective, however, is that the images are chosen to alter the role of the viewer. At one point, looking at the framed picture of a camera, the device was staring straight back at me. I was being watched. In the next I was viewing at an image of female figure silhouetted against a dimly lit bedroom window curtain. I was now the watcher. In today's increasingly digital world the transformation between these roles is that easy.

The exhibition's accompanying piece -a documentary exploring the erosion of privacy enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 - is also created by Biain. Similarly, it portrays the negative and oppressive forces that intrude on our privacy. In attempting to understand what privacy is and how it is encroached upon the documentary links the erosion of article 12 to the growth of laws that have promoted national state security over individual rights since the 9/11 attacks and 7/7 bombings. Ironically, it is London which is held up in the film as being the most intrusive city in the world.

Formed against a backdrop of decades of turmoil caused by totalitarian regimes, article 12 created a legal notion of privacy that is based on opposition to totalitarianism. As if to assuage any doubts that it is this notion of privacy that is the director's focus the penultimate scene of the documentary blazes the words "REMEMBER ARTICLE 12" across the cinema screen.

But this is only part of the story. During the Q&A session that followed the film many more complex issues surrounding the concept were discussed. The fact, for example, that privacy is now not only a real world phenomenon but also a digital one. So too the role of corporations and their unprecedented ability to collate, share and use data about our private lives. But most importantly perhaps, is the role of ourselves not just as complicit in this process but as over eager to partake in the real and especially digital world that come into direct conflict with traditional definitions of privacy as defined in article 12.

Ticket and program information for the London International Documentary Festival can be found at: http://www.lidf.co.uk/

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear