Plenty of Sundance movies get a few tweaks after the festival. However, Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s Cambridge Analytica documentary “The Great Hack” saw a whole new level of adjustment after its 2019 premiere as a work in progress, including the introduction of protagonist Brittany Kaiser — a fascinating, moody woman with a sad poker face whose true values and beliefs even she does not appear to know.
“We didn’t know the degree that things would happen,” said Amer. “Every time you think you know the full story, there was a little more of the Mueller investigation. She’d forget to tell us she met with Julian Assange, or went to a Russian intelligence meeting.”
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Few filmmakers are comfortable with turning their movies inside out, but Amer and Noujaim are used to collaborating with the news cycle. Noujaim first knew Amer as an activist; they met while she was filming “The Square” during the Arab Spring uprisings. “He decided he didn’t want to be a character in the film,” said Noujaim. “He’d rather be a producer. Things progressed.”
“The Square” debuted at Sundance 2013 and was acquired by Netflix, but they kept adding to it as news events unfolded —and the documentary scored an Oscar nomination.
Netflix was their partner from the start on what would become “The Great Hack,” which they initially pitched as an exploration of the 2014 Sony hack. Soon, they discovered that there was a more global story to be told.
“We started talking about technology and politics, then we soon felt like the hack was not a physical hack, but a mental brain emanation happening to our minds all over the world,” said Noujaim. “It felt like the more interesting story was the brain hack and the anticipation of the potential loss of our ability to speak with one another. … How do we live in an environment where democracy can’t happen, if democracy relies on people to have debate and conversation?”
It was a radical expansion of scope, and one that could potentially implicate a streaming behemoth like Netflix — but the patron rolled with the changes. “Netflix didn’t kick us out and let us continue. They didn’t censor us, even if they are an integral part of that conversation,” said Noujaim.
Added Amer, “They had a lot of patience.”
Cambridge Analytica became their focus. A British data mining firm, the filmmakers realized that it became (as termed in the film) “a full-service propaganda machine.” The company collected data from social media platforms like Facebook, using old military “psych-ops” techniques to craft targeted ads at a narrow band of undecided voters. The practice effectively shaped voting results in several countries (Argentina, Kenya, Malaysia, South Africa) before Donald Trump won the United States presidency in 2016. (“Lock her up” was a Cambridge Analytica creation.)
“Silicon Valley technology platforms like Facebook and Twitter were first politicized in the Arab Spring campaign, and used to inspire people as tools for democracy,” said Amer. “With Brazil, the U.S., and Brexit, we saw the pendulum of tech swing to the other side. Now they are used for fear, to manipulate us and push us further into places of fear and to sow discord. There’s no regulation, no stipulations when you enter into their domain, fully expecting that the gods of Silicon Valley have our best interests at heart. It’s a time of reckoning.”
The filmmakers and their producers grappled with how to portray the information grab. “We were constantly saying, ‘this is in an invisible story,'” said Noujaim. “The problem is happening on a computer screen. How do you tell the story from the perspective of the algorithm? How do we understand what’s happening? Data is not visual, like melting ice caps.”
Graphic artists came up with complex overlays of pixels, screen grabs, and texts. “We tried to bring the point of view of the algorithm, to show people how the algorithm affects them,” said Amer. “It’s not just something to worry about in an election cycle, but everyday decisions we make in the world today.”
While Amer and the producers pored over research, Noujaim and writer-producer Pedro Kos “looked for characters to take us on this journey, which is the only way to bring the story to life and make it human: Find people for whom the stakes are very high.”
They found the film’s center in Kaiser, Cambridge Analytica’s former director of business development. While they interviewed her before Sundance, several dramatic breakthroughs came too late to process before the festival. So the filmmakers embraced their screening as a publicity opportunity, knowing they would go back into the editing room.
With more time in the editing room, they could provide a dramatic conclusion to professor David Carroll’s legal challenge with the UK Information Commission, seeking full disclosure of how Cambridge Analytica obtained his data. The Guardian investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr also became a bigger part of the narrative. “Cambridge Analytica was a watershed moment in a bigger story,” said Noujaim, “as Cambridge was realizing that Facebook was the problem. Cambridge was the weapon, but Facebook pulled the trigger.”
After Amer talked to Kaiser on the phone in 2018, he made the abrupt decision to fly from Heathrow to Thailand to meet her. “She was somebody who was embedded in the trajectory of the entire story,” he said. “She could be idealistic, and in turn beautiful, and it could end up in the heart of darkness.”
At our recent Landmark Q&A, I asked the filmmakers: Knowing what they they know, are they still on Facebook? “I just posted our trailer,” said Noujaim.
“Here we are,” said Amer. “People who are moral creatures, shaped by amoral algorithms shaping our behavior. We built this world. We should own that, and not just point the finger at the people who exploited it … As we demand more accountability and transparency, we just assume that the admission fee to the connected world is giving up all your privacy. Now we see the wreckage that results. We have to strive for a new system. What’s at stake is the very functionality of the democratic process. If we lose that I’m not sure what is left.”