Project X review by Stephen Green

I spent my whole life wanting to be a mathematician. I excelled in it at primary school, continued it into secondary school where my capabilities made up for deficiencies in the social sciences and the like. This continued into college where I did my A Levels in Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry, letting the STEM grandeur take over and shedding all other pursuits as inquisitive hobbies. This narcissism only continued when my master’s application was accepted, narrowing my focus even further, it was to become the subject that'd change me for the rest of my life. After finishing my second year I looked for options what to do after graduation; this researched fared poorly. What I learned is that in the UK climate, Mathematics main utility is to continue the study of mathematics. It's not a surprise that the vast majority of graduates either go into further study or more likely go into teaching, the ouroboric cycle continues endlessly, what if you didn't want to teach? What if you wanted to flex your muscles in a subject that didn't involve being shoved into economic or statistical categories that would only look down on you for doing straight modules? The struggle to find intellectual salvation seemed fruitless, until I found a company that had what I was looking for.

I applied for this job, and after nearly a year of back and forth between the company, I got it. For three months I worked in an office with likeminded people in what I can only describe as "my dream job". The problem was that due to a clerical error I was assigned to a department that ill-suited my sensibilities, the following time there was spent handling government documents that couldn't understand or appreciate. The filing and noting of particulars, the regiment of protocol drilled into your head: REDACT THIS! REDACT THAT! DON'T READ THAT! READ THIS, THIS AND THIS BUT NOT THAT is something I think about often, yet it's tumultuous nature later became relaxing. These three months, walking into the same nondescript office ad nauseum under strict secrecy is the most isolated I have ever felt. My friends had all graduated and knew I wouldn't see most of them ever again, my colleagues were on different wave lengths than I was and my social skills with my new housemates flunked within a week. Even now, two years on that period in my life feels like an empty void, one that only I could ever have. Until now.

Project X is Laura Poitras's sixth short film. Most well-known for Citizenfour she too has had her life pried open via governmental records, her space existing in this bracket, an outsider thrust into a secret corporate controlled world. Her book Astro Noise is a fascinating reveal into the lives of these digital outlaws along with her own, very personal stories of being one of the most surveyed people on the planet, put in the exclusive club of the highest possible terror threat levels for journalistic reporting. More than that though, records of her personal struggle reading Astro Noise was the only time where this three-month void in my life felt unsolipsistic. My personal struggle suddenly didn't feel so personal, her 20-page diary extract helped me understand what I was doing in a way her previous films only glimpsed at (Citizenfour's humanism is a direct result of this, deliberate withdrawals, focusing on Snowden as a human being rather than a talking head is a rare skill and one she pulled off brilliantly despite some minor quibbles) However the problem is that Citizenfour wasn't a film about her. For as interesting and as likeable as Snowden is her thought are still being filtered through his and Greenwald's POV. Even in her other films there's a narrow path from beginning to end that feels far too straight forward for the material being covered, or to put it in Adam Curtis terms, a hypernormalisation if you will.

This film is different. In eighty seconds the terms are defined. Blue prints show a featureless structure, the Black Monolith from 2001 re appropriated as a term for bureaucracy. Shadow figures beam onto its walls, seemingly friendly but projecting (literally) for infinity in an otherwise featureless landscape. Juxtapositions of classified documents take place. This happens in every movie about the break of public trust ever made but never has its contrast been so apparent and horrifying, the documents are the past, the plans are the present and then a stark shot of a tower wills itself into the future. A journey then takes place. Rami Malek plays The Voice Of Reason, a serious, but measured character stating the conditions of your expedition. Each syllable is no more enunciated than the adjacent, as the terms are read the imagery follows suite with only the lights emanating from similar grey brutalist architecture complimented with dark green bushes and tiny American flags guiding you until you hit the word


No other word conveys so much with the absence it fills. Hayak's timbre erupts for three syllables like driving over a speed bump, the mundane finally has life as the camera continues to tour. In John Ford's The Grapes Of Wrath the camera was given life by strapping it to a car for the very first time. The images filmed with this method echoed the great depression, 76 years later and nothing has changed. Poitras (and her co-director Henrik Moltke who has done his own work in similar fields) keep these images strictly at ground level. This is a very crucial point that I think distinct this type of film making greatly from similar landscape stylists, instead of keeping this at a universal view, this segment is always at the point of view of the worker. The effect is two fold, making the journey far more engaging and relate-able to anyone who has had similar experiences (at least the trick worked on me) and flat-lining the buildings in one frame. At the midpoint on arrival the voice changes. Michelle Williams, in her best performance of the year beating out Manchester By The Sea and Certain Women plays The Voice Of Authority. All humanity is gone, artificial intelligence would have a hard time naturally mimicking the detachment to everyday life Williams displays in her voice here. Her SHODAN-esque modulation is used for surveillance. This is key as the duality here between Rami's flattened exclamation of the terms segways into The Act, in front of an operator staring straight up. There is nothing else, only the structure TITANPOINTE. The viewer is then briefed. Terms like SIGNAL are thrown around, the directors well aware that the governments nomenclature has either entered the zeitgeist or can be decoded with known knowledge which are mixed in with normal speech. Rami interrupts with more protocol, you are never free of it as looking at structural plans and grim shots of the building continue to mix.

However, eight minutes in something strange happens. The once grounded view that Poitras used to mine depth from has vanished. Instead the camera points straight forward at night-time Manhattan. Where is everything? Where is this featureless tower that was once the films focal point with half the runtime devoted to it's existence? Where are all the similar governmental departments slotted into perfunctory pieces of scenery like lego bricks? Where is anything but a mess of segregated lights in the landscape? With one minute left an image sticks out like any other. The structure at the focal point of the shot of the skyline. There are no lights on this building. It is devoid of any features or joy. It's mission statement is just to exist and that's what it does, it's insides a complete mystery to anyone on the other side of [REDACTED]. No film this year (or this decade (or maybe even ever)) has horrified me more than this two second shot. Only in our current climate can such huge creations be built for the sole purpose of nothing to the outside world. In our technocratic age where nearly the entire history of the world's memory are the elites still hell-bent on making their darkest secrets unknown. And then the sun starts to rise, but you won't see it because everyone with more power than you have doesn't want you to see it. A small postscript at the end makes some facts explicit. Formally it could be argued as unnecessary and if I hadn't lived my life I would agree but we live in a very complicated age and if 2016 has taught us anything is that even the most basic facts need to be posted right, front and centre to extinguish any signs of doubt. Maybe I'm reading too much into this short film that was posted on a website designed to attract attention on relevant topics (a similar video Speaking Is Difficult tackles the subject of school shooting via police distress calls in a similar method that is also as riveting).

One night I had to work late in the office doing file work. I got a drink from the water machine and walked outside, illuminated by similar grey buildings castrating the nearby area into a jungle of brick and mortar and started thinking about everything I have ever done in my life that lead up to that point. Two years later I am continuing on with my PhD, hoping to be assessed in the next couple of weeks still reeling over this ten-minute epiphany that has brought me more insight than nearly any piece of fiction in my lifetime. And as I stare out of my office into a university full of students, I think about whether any of them share the same background as I do, and if any of them will come out on the same path I did. But that's my interpretation, I'm curious what yours will be.