Hot Docs 2018: The Cleaners

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In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle’s work makes him a nightly witness to the sordid underbelly of late-1970s New York City. So much so that he longs for a rain to “come and wipe this scum off the streets.” In 2018, just an hour online reading the comments on news sites, witnessing social media mobbings, or going down a few too many click holes will leave you longing for a similar cleansing wrath. And that reaction is to what’s been allowed. Now imagine being the person who has the job of monitoring and approving all the content people try to post to social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube.

That is what The Cleaners is about. The film introduces us to several Filipino “cleaners,” who spend hours reviewing and approving or deleting the content posted to social media. Working for third-party companies hired by Facebook and other social media platforms, the work of these cleaners is not widely known about and little discussed, despite the power these individuals hold. What is more, the movie also reveals the human cost of having to witness the horrors people try to post. One cleaner commits suicide. Others quit. Others feel that they can’t step away from a good job in a tough country.   

The Cleaners is at its strongest and most focused when it sticks closely to these interesting people. At other times, directors Hans Block and Moritz Reisewieck want to connect the cleaners’ stories to larger social narratives and economic and geopolitical events playing out in the news cycle and surrounding commentary. For example, the film touches on issues such as government and corporate censorship, the recent public scorning and legal travails of Facebook, Russian election meddling, polarization in Trump’s America, Rohingya genocide, the rise of authoritarian regimes—such as those of Duterte in the Philippines or Erdogan in Turkey.

Other issues, such as the horrible realities of suicide live feeds, child porn, and online sexual exploitation, better connect with the story of the cleaners as employees having to make difficult decisions and the toll it takes on them. While I can understand Block and Reisewieck’s desire to link up to these larger social issues and current events, the film doesn’t make strong, coherent links, and the multiple focal points only obscures the most interesting and revealing storyline.

In an attempt to hold the film’s different interests together, The Cleaners spends far too much time showing us vague images of what looks like coloured streams of digital information rising from the surface patterns of the globe. It’s a visual pattern to structure the film, but it’s not helpful and not particularly interesting.

Ultimately, I was left wanting a talking head or a voice-of-God narrator or even a title card to offer a bit more context and put the pieces of these interesting individuals together into a unified storyline or message. However, one barrier is that the work the cleaners do is all confidential. Each cleaner’s identity has to be suppressed, since they are not supposed to be talking about their work. As well, the connection between these third-party companies and the social media giants is meant to be invisible. So, in this sense, despite some flaws and incoherencies, the film remains valuable as a documentary exposé generating food for thought—if you can stomach the dark corners of the Internet age.

6 out of 10

The Cleaners (2018, Germany/Brazil)

Directed by Hans Block & Moritz Reisewieck; written by Hans Block, Moritz Reisewieck, & Georg Tschurtschentaler.