a critical summary of Jessica Lake’s text Red Road (2006) and emerging narratives of ‘sub-veillance’ (in film)

Jessica Lake’s reviews surveillance mechanisms in film by analysing Red Road (2006) and emerging narratives of ‘sub-veillance’ (2010). The film Red Road is directed by English filmmaker and former actor Andrea Arnold and set in Glasgow. The protagonist of the film is called Jackie. She works as a CCTV operator, and we follow her as she surveys streets, a council estate and high-rise flats. Glimpse into office buildings and the personal lives of others. Jackie recognises a specific man. She initially follows him around on her many monitors. She takes the CCTV footage home and soon takes the bus to the other side of the screen. The seemingly ‘objective’ view of CCTV cameras moves to an ultra-subjective view in the streets. Jackie’s in-person street view is mediated through glass windows. Quickly, the barriers between her and the man (Clyde) dissolve. 

Through Glass 

Camera lenses, screens, bus-, laundromat, and cafe windows interfere with Jackie’s sight. The glass mediates her gaze. What we can see as a viewer watching the film obscures the same way. Visibility in the film is limited by lens and screen, unlike Bentham’s panopticon’s axial visibility; as Lake argues, “the practice of surveillance reconfigures screens as points of entry or exit” (Lake, 2010, p. 238). Things seem out of reach or missed when we travel through the CCTV screens. Glass, however, does not symbolise distance in this narrative but instead is a tool. Explaining that Jackie even picks up a piece of glass to use as a possible weapon, Lake argues that Jackie considers glass a potential means for bodily invasion. (2010, p. 237) Jackie’s haptic and optic senses on glass, screens and CCTV content tie with movement. ‘Haptic’ is to motion and touch what ‘optic’ is to vision and sight (Lake, 2010, p. 238). As a CCTV operator, the protagonist zooms in and out, panning and switching between screens. Jackie controls the screens with a joystick, the act of surveilling seems similar to controlling a transportation vehicle or playing a computer game. The content on the CCTV screens is interactive and manipulable, unlike the television or cinema screen. 


Jessica Lake coined the word sub-veillance. Her essay Red Road (2006) and emerging narratives of sub-veillance unfolds the origin of how it differs from surveillance as a specific film genre (Lake, 2010). The prefix sur- in surveillance defines above, upon and over. Sub- derives from below and under, as in lower (in rank) or inferior. Lake claims that Andrea Arnold’s film Red Road (2006) reverses the dynamics of looking by arguing that looking takes place from below. She implies that “those traditionally considered as subordinate” are watching instead of being watched (Lake, 2010, p. 231). Redirecting the act of watching as something done by “children, by women, by prisoners, by the poor, by coloured and colonised peoples” create a situation of sub-veillance and thus subversion by overthrowing traditional surveillance (Lake, 2010, p235). Red Road (Arnold, 2006) reveals how individual motives twist and unofficial motivations for surveillance -the cultural, social and subjective- reshape/play with perception. This narrative unveils the obscured panopticon guard. It questions conventional stories and theories of surveillance. Traditional power dynamics evident in surveillance systems are recognisable but shift. Still, sub-veillance differentiates from sousveillance, which means reverse surveillance. Sousveillance counters corporate surveillance by giving ‘ordinary citizens’ power. Lake claims that it, contrasting to sub-veillance, overlooks one crucial point; the alleged ‘ordinary citizens’ have no social identity. 

Three categories 

Gender, age, race or class are not considered, which is genuinely problematic. White middle-class men represent ‘ordinary citizens’ as spectators. Analysis of surveillance in cinema is stuck in the panoptic model. Lake asserts the asymmetry in representation in films about surveillance by using Torin Monahan’s argument: ” [surveillance operates in] a discourse of surveillance dominated by masculine dreams of disembodied control from a distance” (as cited in Lake, 2010, p233-234). She classifies films into four categories: surveillance and male voyeurism, neutralising criticisms and potentially progressive. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1945), Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960), Blow Up (Antonioni, 1966), The Conversation (Coppola, 1974) and The Lives of Others (von Donnersmarck, 2006) fit in the first category. The films Enemy of the State (Scott, 1998), Minority Report ( Spielberg, 2002), Panic Room ( Fincher, 2002) display mixed feelings involving care and control, protection and violation. These films “neutralise ‘real life’ criticisms of state surveillance and privacy” (Turner cited in Lake, 2010, p234). Films like The Truman Show ( Weir, 1998), Gattaca ( Niccol, 1997) and Code 46 (Winterbottom, 2003) ponder on potentially progressive. They examine how the image of surveillance shapes the viewers’ perception. The Truman Show (Weir, 1998) encourages the audience to question surveillance instead of demoting them to passive watchers. Lake declares that encouragement in this film is still confined “to assessing the ideological impact [..] upon audiences” (Lake, 2010, p. 234). They steer the audience in a set direction. Actions to defy what it means to look or to be looked upon are not considered in these films but resonate with the narrative of Red Road (Arnold, 2006). Both this film and Hidden ( Haneke, 2005) fit in the category ‘sub-veillance’. The second and third film categories merely focus on state or organisational surveillance and therefore unfold surveillance within a non-critical cautious political correct report or conventional, almost mythical, panoptic framework. Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century concept of the panopticon “deliberately de-personalised and de-subjectified power” had the power to become non-corporeal, argues Michel Foucault, who wrote about it extensively (as cited in Lake, 2010, p. 233). The panoptic framework does not take into account that power exists in many forms. Lake argues this to ground her claim that the panoptic frame of reference is outdated. It overlooks crucial issues. What do we tolerate from an (established) surveillance model that retains distance and objectivity? The first category films listed links the practice of surveillance (to the sexual drive of males) voyeurism. Analysis of this category confronts Foucault’s theory of the panopticon by inserting that the identity and motivations of the surveyor are significant to how people are surveilled. Looking at Red Road (Arnold, 2006), where we follow Jackie’s gaze, the individual ‘sub-veyor’ feels more intimidating than anonymous state surveillance. The protagonist could be both the predator and prey, the victim or vigilante. 


What Lake excludes is how Red Roads’ protagonist misuses surveillance. Failure of oversight correlates with individual human failure in this film. By problematising the concept of “the little man against the system” (Lake, 2010, p233), Lake touches upon diminishing traditional ideas about who is allowed to look and at whom alone. White, middle-class men are rarely challenged in their role as ‘acceptable’ surveyors, especially when they stand against the faceless gaze. Lake unveils how film forms our interpretation of surveillance by faceless organisations (corporations, governments) and opposition but understates tensions of an individuals life. This reading makes her assumption of how viewers view the ‘sub-veying’ protagonist a bit narrow. Additionally, the text underestimates how films challenge the stereotypes and the (grim) landscape–how the viewer sees Red Road’s Glasgow, regards council estates and other settings that interfere with the viewer’s judgment and position toward the protagonist. Finally, Red Road (Arnold, 2006) challenges both the ethical justification of revenge and manipulation on behalf of the sub-veyor. There are multiple ways to interpret evidence of (haptic and optic transgression) surveillance in film. Cutting the personal(ity) from surveillance film analysis might debunk the point of watching from below.

Lake, J. (2010). Red Road(2006) and emerging narratives of ‘sub-veillance.’ Continuum,
24(2), pp.231–240.

[This text was initially written for a Contemporary Literature MA module at The University of Westminster in November 2020.]