Movies

Blair Witch, Snowden and What it Means to be Seen

Josh Larsen

I happened to catch two movies on the same day that seemingly had nothing in common: Blair Witch, a horror sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, and Snowden, a biopic about the NSA whistleblower who revealed the United States government was spying on its own citizens. Both films, I realized afterwards, employ the idea of the omnipresent camera—as something to be desired in the one case, and something to be feared in the other. In the process, they also evoke the notion of the omnipresent eye of God.

The characters in Blair Witch want to be on camera at all times. As an entry in the found footage genre, the movie is constructed out of video files supposedly found in the Maryland woods. These were left behind by a group of hikers who had gone in search of the filmmakers who went missing in the first movie. (Got that?) Partly because this new crew also includes a documentary filmmaker, and partly because they’re of the Snapchat generation, they obsessively document everything they do: with “earpiece cams” that record their every move; with the digital camera being used for the doc; with the drone that floats above the trees for aerial footage. The defining image from this new Blair Witch might be the point-of-view shot we get when one of the men sneaks off to relieve himself and leaves his earpiece cam on the whole time.

By contrast, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has never met a camera he’s liked. Even before he discovers that the NSA can turn our laptops into instant peepholes, he’s uncomfortable in front of a lens. Whenever his girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) turns her camera in his direction, he instinctively puts his hand in front of his face.

God’s omniscience supersedes the suspicion of the NSA and the narcissism of earpiece cams.

In both films, the characters’ relationships with the camera speak to spiritual anxiety. In Blair Witch, the camera hogs are aching to be seen. And like so many of us these days, they seek that validation through video documentation. A shared Facebook post trumps real life, which is why—even when threatening noises can be heard outside their tent—the characters’ first instinct is to grab their cameras (or touch their ear to turn them on).

In Snowden, the anxiety is of a different type; cameras are feared for their power to reveal. Set aside the privacy issues at play (the crux of the film for director Oliver Stone) and instead consider the spiritual uneasiness that is provoked when we’re confronted with the reality that we’re being watched at all times. At one point Snowden is called into a video conference with Corbin (Rhys Ifans), his suspicious NSA boss, whose image is projected onto a wall-sized screen. As Corbin declares that he knows all and sees all—and even hints that he’s been keeping digital tabs on Snowden’s girlfriend—his giant head looms over Snowden in a threatening image of sovereignty.

There is a passage in Hebrews that at first glance sounds as if it could be part of the NSA playbook: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Intimidating, no? Yet God’s omniscience supersedes the suspicion of the NSA and the narcissism of earpiece cams. He doesn’t watch us for punitive purposes, nor does his attention amount to little more than a Facebook “like.” God sees us—always and everywhere—because he is all-powerful, yes, but also because he deeply cares.

It’s interesting that the verse in Hebrews, which acknowledges that God demands an account, is immediately followed by a promise of grace: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

This sort of grace encourages the Blair Witch campers to turn off their cameras; to receive it, they needn’t perform. This grace extends to the paranoid figures in Snowden; it isn’t reserved only for those who have been scrutinized and proven “clean.” And because Christ walked upon the earth as a man, this grace is given by a God who intimately understands our temptations, weaknesses, and needs. Unlike the omnipresent cameras of our current age, we can take comfort in the sovereignty of God. When he turns his eyes on us, we’re not only seen, but also known.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, Arts & Leisure