Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Surveillance on Screen

Monitoring Contemporary Films and Television Programs


Sébastien Lefait


Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2013

Hardcover. xxvi+225 pages. ISBN 978-0-8108-8590-5. £44.95


Reviewed by Allister Mactaggart

Chesterfield College



In a world seemingly covered by CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras which capture our every move, Sébastien Lefait sets out to examine the relationship between surveillance and popular culture, which he considers is particularly important because ‘if one bears in mind that modern forms of camera surveillance could be considered as the offspring of the cinematic device, that the nature of the link between surveillance and cinema has not gained specific academic attention’ [vii]. Using an array of contemporary and historical approaches to the subject, Lefait seeks to plug this gap in surveillance studies.

The book’s introduction helps to set the theoretical scene by discussing various approaches to surveillance which provides a helpful overview of the remainder of the book. The organisational layout takes the reader through the varying theoretical approaches which are applied to a range of films and television programmes via close readings. Chapter 1, ‘Dystopian (Super) Panopticism: From Nineteen Eighty-Four to Orwellian Films’, reflects upon the relationship between George Orwell’s novel and its cinematic treatment in Michael Radford’s film adaptation. Orwell’s dystopian vision is thus read in conjunction with Jeremy Bentham’s ideas of the Panopticon as an ideal means of (self)regulating prisoners, which was then taken as a model by Michel Foucault for his analysis of the disciplinarian aspects of modern society. For Lefait, this relationship between panopticism and cinematic spectatorship is completely intertwined, so that, ‘modern surveillance may be thought to be the actualization of cinematic surveillance, whose subjects are put under the spectators’ constant gaze’ [11]. Reading Radford’s film as being ‘as visionary as the novel from which it is adapted’ [24], Lefait then considers other ‘Orwellian’-inflected films: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971), to establish what these films offer in terms of their understanding of surveillance within the Panopticon framework.

The second chapter then considers cinema in the age of panopticism come true, where in the 1980s, due to widespread use of CCTV, Bentham’s Panopticon actually became more technically available. As Lefait puts it, ‘the omnipresence of cameras in the technological Panopticon has now made the world virtually profilmic, which means that every part of it has been, is being, or will soon be caught by a camera’s eye’ [43]. The films under discussion here include: Déjà vu : Look (Rifkin, 2007), Code 46 (Winterbottom, 2003), Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002), Freeze Frame (Simpson, 2004), A Scanner Darkly (Linklater, 2006), Paranormal Activity (Peli, 2007) and Paranormal Activity 2 (Williams, 2010). All of these examples are analysed in close detail to ascertain what, in cinematic, philosophical and sociological terms, surveillance films in the panoptic era tell us about the changing nature of surveillance.

Chapter 3, ‘Audiovisual Fiction and Synoptic Surveillance: The Televisualization of Life’, then takes up the analysis of surveillance in relation to some key television programmes. The concept of the synopticon, coined by Thomas Mathiesen ‘ “to represent the situation where a large number of people focus on something in common which is condensed” ’[93], as an inversion of Michel Foucault’s use of the Panopticon, is taken up by Lefait to consider ‘the main synoptic instrument [which] so far has been television’ [93]. In this chapter the television series 24 (Fox, 2001-2010) is considered alongside the feature film The Truman Show (Weir, 1998). There is also a very good section discussing the similarities and differences between the iconic British television series The Prisoner (ATV, 1967-1968) and the later adaptation The Prisoner (AMC, 2009), which brings out some useful comparisons between the strangeness of the original television series’ approach to the nascent surveillance society of the mid-1960s and its contemporary manifestations. Also included in this chapter is a detailed reading of the television series Lost (ABC, 2004-2010) which analyses the relationship between reality-TV shows and the fictionalisation of everyday life.

Chapter 4, ‘Cinema in the Catoptic Age: Visions of a Sousveillance World’, introduces the reader to other key concepts in the area of surveillance studies. Sousveillance, coined by Steve Mann, describes ‘surveillance patterns where anybody can watch anybody’ [148], largely via ‘the miniaturization of reality-capturing devices’ [148], with the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police being a well-known example of this act being caught on camera by a bystander. Events of the Arab Spring also bring to mind many scenes captured on mobile phone cameras which were then rapidly disseminated around the world. Lefait makes reference to an article by Steve Mann, Jason Nolan and Barry Wellman, where they describe the concept of sousveillance as ‘a counter to organisational surveillance’ [148]. In the Rodney King case, however, the images at that time depended upon the broadcast media for their dissemination, whereas now, via the Internet, images can be uploaded without such mediation. Lefait also introduces Jean-Gabriel Ganacia’s notion of the ‘catopticon’, which includes sousveillance within ‘the wider perspective of a general concept derived from the Panopticon’ [149] to counter overly optimistic notions sousveillance might, at first sight, suggest. Lefait then deftly applies these concepts to a number of films: One Hour Photo (Romanek, 2002), The Final Cut (Naim, 2004), Nobody Needs to Know (Jacobs, 2003), Cruel But Necessary (Rubinek, 2005) Erasing David (Bond, 2009), Route Irish (Loach, 2010) and Redacted (De Palma, 2007).

The conclusion succinctly brings together all of the previous discussions to reflect upon how surveillance has changed over time and its impact upon us all as spectators and subjects in the contemporary situation. Lefait presents a series of detailed arguments throughout the book about the intertwined relationship between surveillance and cinema/television, and our position, both watching screens and being watched by them. Overall, the book provides a very clear analysis of the various debates about surveillance and popular culture, with some well-chosen and closely-analysed films and television programmes throughout. The organisation of the book would allow interested readers to consider Lefait’s arguments alongside the films and television programmes as a means of reflecting upon the changing face of surveillance. It would also provide a good framework for a course on surveillance and popular culture. As Lefait states in the introductory chapter, a surveillance film ‘includes watching as one of its themes and warns about the dangers of surveillance societies’ [v]. So, as we watch these films and television programmes, and others to come in the future, Lefait’s arguments should remind us to keep a watchful eye on our pleasurable encounters with popular culture which deal with surveillance, and to reflect upon what these texts tell us about the ways in which we are being watched in the larger social field. A watching brief is required and Lefait’s book is a useful starting point.


Cercles © 2013

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.