Screenwriter Steven Knight: Government surveillance and the world of 'Closed Circuit'

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Image Credit: Jay Maidment

Screenwriter Steven Knight’s (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things) new film Closed Circuit explores the issue of government surveillance. The film seems ripped from today’s headlines and below Knight delves into the way he approached the story and how his personal stance on surveillance tactics is examined in the film. Closed Circuit, starring Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, and Julia Stiles is currently playing in theaters. Check out a gallery of exclusive stills from the new film above. 

I never set out to write a script that is ‘topical’. I write about what worries me and, hopefully, things worry me a little bit earlier than they do some other people, purely because I am a writer and it is my job to go out there and be worried by things.

I live in London and it’s a city with a lot of worries on its mind.

Dirty Pretty Things came about because I used to spend a lot of time in unlicensed mini cabs (more available than the licensed ones back then) and I spoke with a lot of drivers from all over the world (mostly Africa) who were doctors or lawyers etc and who were forced to make their living driving cabs. This was a time when London needed doctors… didn’t so much need cab drivers.

The stories the drivers told gave me an insight into a city that existed in parallel to the one I knew. It was precarious, dangerous, lawless. It worried me that I knew so little so I began to research. It was around this time that the whole issue of illegal migration became a hot topic and I suppose the movie rode a wave. (Eastern Promises came from the same period of research, since organised crime and desperate displaced people always have a habit of finding each other).

Closed Circuit came about as a result of a different worry.

You look up on any street corner and you will see a surveillance camera looking back at you from among the pigeons. Someone is wondering who you are and what you are doing on that street corner. You wouldn’t know that the cameras were there if you didn’t look up and maybe even the act of looking up attracts their attention. But who are they? There is no way of knowing who is looking at the images.

So let’s worry about that. Here is a writer looking up at a camera and being worried by it and, in some technical center somewhere, there is some unknown person in some unknown capacity looking at his face and worrying about his intentions.

Closed Circuit came out of a general anxiety about surveillance. Government surveillance and private surveillance. There has also been a complex change in the law in Britain which has (arguably) eroded the rights of defendants in certain cases and this was the issue around which the original idea condensed. But as I worked on developing the story, in conjunction with British lawyer Tim Owen Q.C. and the producers at Working Title, it became clear that what was at issue here was simple.

In a liberal democracy, how much does the government already know about you? Without even looking or trying, what do they just know? It’s somewhere between quite a lot and everything.

Tim is a defence barrister who has dealt with dozens of the most high profile terrorism cases in recent years in Britain. He has dealt with secret sessions, closed sessions, cross examination of secret service witnesses. From him I got the feeling that things have changed in recent times.

Once upon a time there was a physicality to the business of investigating a serious crime. There were objects, pieces of paper, even good old-fashioned fingerprints. Today it’s different. Because all of us are routinely and voluntarily giving the intimate details of our lives to all kinds of people whether we realize it or not.

Cellphones, laptops, credit cards, the holy trinity of surveillance. This much we know already but I thought it was worth examining what might happen when innocent people stumble into the danger zone around governments. Liberal democracies are great and they have checks and balances and rules and laws but sometimes things get a little hazy and it becomes about the greater good.

Let’s call them the ‘urgent exceptions to the rule’.

These are times when people in the executive ski ‘off-piste’ for a while due to exceptional circumstances. Governments doing bad things for good reasons. Everyone assumes it happens but what if the Government decides to do bad things to you for a good reason. Let’s say you’re a defence barrister who believes his client should get a fair trial. How inconvenient does that fair trial have to be before the defence barrister becomes the target? That is the question that is asked in Closed Circuit.

I suppose my point is that the governments of the United States, Britain and most European countries now have the capability and the technical capacity to run a very efficient police state. And we only have their word for it that they’re not doing that.

They say we are hearing your conversations but we are not listening to them.

That’s worrying because all the safeguards that exist in our societies are physical ones. They are about the right not to be overlooked, not to have your mail opened. Our human rights are written on the assumption that someone must touch us to hurt us. But we have entered a spirit world where it is our images and our voices that are being stolen or encroached upon. There are no safeguards because we don’t know who it is that is taking an interest in us. And we never will.

I have no desire to change anything that would mean fanatics intent in destroying our civilization have their lives made easier out of a sense of ‘fair play’. Every possible piece of strange and wonderful technology should be brought to bear to keep the streets safe from those people. But some day (we hope) the present threats will pass. And the technology and the capability will still be in place. It won’t be put away in a drawer somewhere. And there will be men and women sighing and looking around and playing computer games to pass the time. Either that or they will find a new target to look at.

It could be you. Standing on the street corner and looking up for no reason.

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