'The Cleaners': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Smart, stylish doc exposes must-discuss issues regarding the companies who dominate the internet.

In their first film, multimedia creators Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck offer a doc about the people who choose what you do and don't see online.

A year of journalistic interest in the role social-media lies played in the Catastrophe of November 2016 is likely a blessing for Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck's The Cleaners, an important documentary that invites viewers to now think more deeply and broadly about what does and doesn't appear in their feed-dominated media diet. Here, the focus is not only political: The "cleaners" in question are "content moderators" who spend much of their time culling porn from places it isn't welcome. But any censor has powers more expansive than he or she'd admit. This arthouse-ready doc will deepen viewers' understanding of, and concern about, some of the Internet Age's most urgent concerns.

Any heavy Facebook user or reader of online forums knows there are people, called moderators, who — depending where you are online — swoop in to delete Nazi rants from the comments section, bestiality photos from Instagram and so on. Ever wonder how many people this clean-up requires? Or how much such depressing jobs pay?

According to Block and Riesewieck's research, tens of thousands of young people are doing this work, and they aren't sitting in some office park in Kansas. The Cleaners claims that the main hub of this industry is in Manila, where Filipinos both have the language skills required to make judgments about what they read and are cheap to employ: As these workers sift through the trash of the web, many around them live by picking through literal garbage dumps in search of things to sell.

The handful of Filipino moderators we meet work for companies you know, but indirectly. Middleman subcontractors separate YouTube and Twitter from these employees, who are forbidden to say which company's content they're monitoring. All are anonymous here, and all spend their days staring at screens, looking at thousands of disturbing images a day and hitting either "ignore" or "delete."

They take their work seriously, even when it poisons their personalities or fills their dreams with creepy sex. (We hear of one monitor, whose specialty was evaluating self-harm videos, who eventually killed himself.) They believe the job is noble, but when words like "sin" start popping up in their discussion of a workday — more than 90% of the country is Christian — we have to start questioning whose values they represent as they look at provocative images you or I might think deserve to be seen.

The film gives enough examples of such issues to show how seemingly straightforward rules can (unwittingly or not) curb political speech. We see how an intense focus on deleting terrorist propaganda also silences those who want to draw the world's attention to the bombing of innocents.

And so on. These workers and their stories could easily fill a movie — especially once we view them in the light of the country's strongman leader Rodrigo Duterte — but the movie wants to squeeze in examples of media manipulation from elsewhere in the world.

We look at fake news that enabled the slaughter of Rohingya in Myanmar, where one company's algorithms are more powerful than all the world's journalists: In Myanmar, we're told, Facebook is the internet. People don't even know what email is, much less go directly to the websites of news companies to learn about the world.

We hear of censorship in Turkey, where Google let the government tell it which videos it couldn't allow on YouTube. "I did not love that resolution," says former Google policymaker Nicole Wong, letting herself off a little easy. We meet other former Googlers and Facebook managers who look back with varying degrees of regret on the ramifications of their employers' decisions.

Eighty-eight minutes is not nearly enough time to give full attention to every thread of critique here, but The Cleaners does a respectable job of fitting its unruly anecdotes into a coherent stream of thought. It's a stream that leads to at least one conclusion: The world's in trouble when corporations with little or no accountability to their customers wield the kind of power most nation-states in the history of the world could only dream of.

 

Production companies: Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion, Grifa Filmes, Motto Pictures
Directors: Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck
Producers: Georg Tschurtschenthaler, Christian Beetz
Executive producers: Christopher Clements, Julie Goldman, Philippa Kowarsky
Directors of photography: Axel Schneppat, Max Preiss
Editors: Philipp Gromov, Hansjorg Weissbrich, Markus CM Schmidt
Composers: John Gurtler, Jan Miserre, Lars Voges
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Sales: Submarine, Cinephil

In English and Tagalog
88 minutes

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