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SXSW 2010 Interview: “Erasing David” Director David Bond

by David Cornelius

The South by Southwest rundown on “Erasing David”: David Bond lives in one of the most intrusive surveillance states in the world. He decides to find out how much private companies and the government know about him by putting himself under surveillance and attempting to disappear - a decision that changes his life forever. Leaving his pregnant wife and young child behind, he is tracked across the database state by two ruthless private investigators, on a chilling journey that forces him to contemplate the meaning of privacy - and the loss of it.

Just what is “Erasing David”?

“Erasing David” is a feature documentary. I wanted to ask how much of our personal information is floating around in government and corporate databases? To find out, I went on the run for a month and set two of the world’s top private investigators the task of tracking me down, using only publicly available data.

What inspired you to attempt this challenge - and document it?

When my daughter was a small baby, a letter arrived from the UK government. It was an apology - they had lost her and my data on a CD (it included her name, date of birth, address and my bank details). It really spooked me and I started noticing the growing number of press stories about the database state. I read some research from the London School of Economics that said that the UK is one of the three most intrusive surveillance states in the world. That’s when I decided it was time to make the film. I wanted to know how much private companies and the government know about me by putting myself under surveillance and attempting to disappear. I guess saw it as an adventure which I hoped would make a point. What I didn’t realise was that the experience would be profoundly unsettling and transformative.

There’s a “chase movie” vibe to this whole thing. Did you plan from the start on taking this approach, or was the suspense an unexpected result of the challenge?

We were pretty sure that given we had a hunter and a quarry, there would be some chase-driven tension in the final film. That said, our initial plan was that the chase element would be a relatively small segment of the film and that there would be much more discussion of the issues. In the edit, we discovered that watching a real-life chase is really compelling, so we went with more of it! I was really surprised at the effect that the challenge had on me. When I look at the film now and see myself looking pale and gaunt it takes be back to how frightening it was at the time. There’s a good reason why people use the phrase “he has a hunted look” - I really had a hunted look!

One thing I noticed was that for the whole time I was running away, I had a really stiff neck. A doctor told me that this is a common symptom if you are constantly in “flight” mode. Basically it is your body telling you to look behind you! So at the time, I barely slept, I began to have paranoid thoughts about everybody I met or even passed in the street. I wondered if people were agents of the Private Investigators. I even began to wonder if my producer (and great friend) Ashley had betrayed me in order to make the film turn out a certain way (he hadn’t, by the way, and he’s forgiven me for thinking that!). By the end I had started talking to myself and was showing signs of deepening paranoia.

The really freaky thing was that this didn’t just stop when they caught me. For a good few weeks afterwards I found it really hard to sleep and settling back into family life was much harder than I thought it would be. The long term effect of making the film (it is over a year on since they caught me, now) has been the most profound. I routinely question exchanges of data and information that most people don’t notice. This can be a pain - but it is also really liberating: I better understand the Faustian pact we have with governments and corporations. And I am resolved to fight my and my family’s corner when it comes to letting others learn about, profile and map us.

Why did you decide to place yourself at the center of the story instead of just staying home and working on a simpler “talking head” style documentary?

I love “talking head” documentaries, and I think we could have treated the issues that way. Sometimes, though, I wonder whether people who are not into the issue can struggle with such a treatment. I wanted people who are really not worried about the database state to enjoy the film and for it to draw them into the issues. To make that work, we needed a strong personal story that highlights the boundary between individual and state. I was already into the debate, I had a young family, I was cheap to hire: what can I say, I gave myself the job... Is that nepotism?

Just how hard it is to film yourself while simultaneously trying to remain unnoticeable?

I tried to look like a terrorist. I mean a tourist. I had a small HD camera that looked like a tourist camera and I basically hid behind it. It should work fine, but then the paranoid UK government introduced a law so now anyone taking a photograph of a police officer or certain types of building can be deemed to have committed a criminal offence, so you do have to be really careful with the “tourist” cover.

There is definitely something paradoxical in the film. I’m trying to hide - to erase myself - whilst simultaneously filming myself and then screening the results. I like the paradox though. I think it reflects what we all feel - that it would be great to be recognised, but also great not to be...

What got you started making movies?

I’m colour-blind and I made a short film called “Lions are Green” about the experience of seeing the world differently. Colour-blind people may well see the world the same as other colour-blind people - but because they are in the minority, no language develops to describe how it looks. That’s how I got started and I think it’s the same challenge of how to express a minority feeling that keeps me going.

Any lessons learned while making this movie?

Ask and it might happen. We asked Michael Nyman to do the music. It turned out he’s a privacy campaigner and he said yes.

Are you nervous about coming to South by Southwest?

This is Erasing David’s US premiere and I’m thrilled that it is happening at SXSW. I’ve wanted to come to the festival for years. My friends are really jealous that I’m attending. So, yes, nervous but really excited.

What’s next for you?

We’re developing various ideas at the moment. The linking theme is how the individual relates to the group - and how the group shapes the individual. That’s what interests me. Watch this space!

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d probably be...

...sorry, does not compute.

Beatles or Stones?


In ten words or less, convince the average moviegoer to watch your film.

Erasing David: thriller documentary. You’re in data danger. Be afraid.

“Erasing David” has its U.S. premiere as part of the SX Global series. It screens at 8:00 PM March 12 and 11:00 AM March 16.

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originally posted: 03/04/10 21:20:09
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