Top 5 investigations of the week
Only fools and horses would miss the following investigative works
By Amanda Pike
From Guatemalan tyrants to Syrian dissidents, a look at the finest documentaries YouTube has to offer
This week’s top video picks include naked citizens and how to nail a dictator
5 out of 5 *
There is one surveillance camera for every 14 people in London, giving it the dubious distinction of being the most monitored city in the world. In the wake of the images of the Boston Marathon bombers captured by fixed cameras, such video surveillance might be considered a social good. But as “Naked Citizens” asks, in the name of security, are we losing our most basic freedoms?
Scientists are creating more advanced systems that not only monitor but also analyze and interpret human behavior. One of the leading scientists behind the creation of these new smart cameras is (wait for it) Professor Orwell. In an appropriately Orwellian twist, he’s working to develop cameras that can detect suspicious activity before a crime occurs. He trains his system to recognize normal human behavior so it can flag anything irregular as potentially undesirable or dangerous. Paranoid yet?
Of course, we humans are inherently irregular beings, so surveillance mistakes happen — often with serious consequences for the innocent people caught up in the dragnet.
The video presents the case of David Marie, who was flagged by security cameras in the London Underground as a potential threat for wearing a jacket in warm weather and looking down at the steps while he walked. When police raided Marie’s apartment, they found a piece of paper he had doodled on; it was used as evidence that he was drawing a diagram of a Tube station as part of an attack plan.
“It’s doodles,” he explains with exasperation. “You can see anything you want in them. It is impossible to disprove what it is or what it isn’t. It’s just doodles.”
What’s most disturbing is the inescapable Catch-22 of it all — a lack of evidence is taken to indicate the subject’s guilt and superior skill at covering his tracks rather than his possible innocence.
To combat these abuses, critics have proposed setting up something akin to “nuclear-free zones,” designating an area or a country as a safe haven for sensitive data and private information to protect free speech.
Until then, it seems as though it’s up to each one of us to protect our own information trail.
“When you bareback with the Internet, you bareback with Big Brother,” warns one digital activist. “So maybe it’s a good idea — just like we understood with HIV and AIDS in the ’80s — we have a personal responsibility to not infect our friends and lovers and neighbors. And when you use the Internet without any crypto, without anonymity, without privacy, what you do is you present a transitive risk to your community and probably even your country. And certainly to yourself.”
The Syrian conflict has been called a “revolution of orphans” because of the lack of any robust international support for anti-government forces. The frustration of the Syrian rebels is evident in this report from Al-Jazeera. One rebel commander laments that outside groups “offer enough support to keep (the war) going but not enough to bring down the regime.”
Correspondent Rania Abouzeid visits several front lines around the country to examine what drives the rebels to keep fighting as the bloody civil war drags on. As she checks in on various brigades, you feel as though you get to see a glimpse of the fighters’ actual lives. One man shows where his house once stood; it was destroyed by a government missile while he was in the living room drinking coffee. The coffee tray and broken glasses still are visible in the rubble.
Another moment stands out when the correspondent and a rebel fighter are crawling through a decimated building. As they pause to duck at the sound of gunfire, the rebel commander, a former metalsmith, points out some nearby rusted fixtures. “These doors are my work,” he says nostalgically.
It’s refreshing to have a female correspondent front a film in the Middle East, and if the rebel fighters are surprised or nonplussed by her presence, it’s not evident onscreen.
The documentary also profiles a female fighter — a rarity — on the front lines. At first glance, she looks like an unlikely soldier in her headscarf and flowered muumuu. But she expresses a fierce passion for her cause.
“Bashar, I’m coming after you. Even if there is not a man left, I am coming after you,” she says, threatening Syrian President Bashar Assad. “If the men are gone, there’ll be the women. If the women are gone, we’ll have trained the children.”
This week, Palestinians marked the 65th anniversary of the “nakba,” or “catastrophe,” when they fled or were expelled from their homes during the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Earlier this year, Vice TV traveled to the West Bank to document the lives of young people living under Israeli occupation.
While the story is reported with Vice’s usual irreverent tone, it manages to reveal some of the frustrating contradictions inherent in Israelis and Palestinians living side by side on contested land.
“It’s very hard to stay peaceful and believe in nonviolence,” the Palestinian guide explains. “(The Israelis) say, ‘We are the chosen people. We deserve to live wherever we want.’ They come to me, ‘The Bible gave us this land. The Bible gave us this house. The Bible gave us these olive trees.’ What bible? The bible is a holy book? Or is it a land or property registry book?”
The Vice team encounters “political conflict tourists” (or, as the correspondent describes them, “white people sitting penitently”) and follows along as young protestors spar with police in a nonviolent protest to block the roads to Israeli settlements.
But underlying the grim humor is a sobering message about the possible future of the Palestinian struggle. A former member of the Islamic Jihad scoffs at the idea that a young activist today will stick solely to nonviolent protests.
“That person will follow the nonviolent struggle for one or two years and then will realize that nonviolent struggle will not achieve the victory he’s looking for,” he says, “and he will naturally revert to armed resistance on his own without any external pressure.”
“What was taken by force will be reclaimed by force.”
Last week marked a stunning and historic turning point in Guatemala — the conviction of former President Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity, the first time in modern history that a domestic court has convicted a former head of state on charges of genocide. During Montt’s 17-month tenure from 1982 to 1983, more than 5 percent of Guatemala’s indigenous population was massacred.
This video extra from the appropriately titled documentary, “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator,” offers insight into how evidence for the trial was pieced together. “Granito” is a follow-up to Pamela Yates’ 1983 documentary, “When the Mountains Tremble,” which was itself key evidence in Montt’s indictment. “Granito” refers to a tiny grain of sand that ultimately helps tip the scales of justice.
In this clip, a group of forensic researchers painstakingly use a combination of old army logbooks and DNA evidence to trace the identities of the victims.
“You are literally bringing a person back into existence,” one researcher says. “When you prove their death, you’re also proving how they died — which leads sometimes to proving who killed them.”
This Friday marked the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, an occasion to raise awareness about the discrimination and persecution that some still face for loving people of the same sex or trying to live according to their preferred gender. The event falls on May 17 to commemorate the day in 1990 that the World Health Organization decided to drop its designation of homosexuality as a mental disorder.
I was reminded of The New York Times’ 2011 multimedia series, “Coming Out,” which chronicles the experiences of gay and transgendered teenagers across the U.S. in their own words.
The piece that stands out most for me is this portrait of 15-year-old Kailey Jeanne Cox, an extremely articulate young woman from Texas, who talks about the struggle between her sexuality and her Christian faith.
“I asked my dad, ‘Do you think I’m going to hell because I’m gay?’’’ she recalls.
Ultimately, though, Kailey emphasizes that she doesn’t want to be defined by her sexuality and looks forward to the day when occasions such as the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia won’t have to be celebrated.
“I don’t want to have myself being seen by people as, ‘Oh, she’s — she’s gay.’ I want them to see me as, ‘Wow, she loves God; who cares what kind of people she likes? She is a Christian, she leads by example, and she’s a wonderful person.’ That’s what I want people to think when they see me.”
Amanda Pike is the producer for The I Files, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The I Files selects and showcases the best investigative videos from around the Web and across the world. Major contributors include CIR, The New York Times, BBC, ABC, Al-Jazeera, Vice TV and the Investigative News Network. You can follow Amanda on Twitter: @AmandaHPike.