For ‘The Cleaners,’ The Digital Dystopia is Now

Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck’s documentary is a harrowing look at the dark side of the internet.

In case you somehow missed the news lately, you should know that we’re all doomed. Don’t take my word for it: take it from the subjects of The Cleaners. In their debut feature, filmmakers Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck not only captured a dystopian moment for the history books with clear-eyed curiosity, but they also managed to make repeated scenes of people sitting in shadowy, computer-lit rooms appear riveting.

The prescient documentary’s topic couldn’t get much heavier. The Cleaners tells the story of several Filipino workers tasked with sorting through thousands of flagged images — from sites like Facebook and Google — per day, determining in just a few seconds whether the posts have broken the site’s content rules. The film also checks in with a few of the artists, activists, and provocateurs whose content has been blocked, not solely by algorithms (as many assume), but by these human moderators.

Overall, it’s a feat of stunning, unprecedented access: according to the documentary, tech companies largely refuse to acknowledge the existence of these outsourced workers and keep them employed under strict confidentiality agreements, yet Block and Riesewieck speak with them secretly, usually in the dead of night, always in an abandoned office building.

With headline-ripped themes and the exploitative material of the dark web at its core, The Cleaners could have easily been heavily sensationalized, the documentary form of a clickbait article. Instead, it largely avoids onscreen melodrama, opting for maximum emotional impact through crisp visuals and surprisingly captivating explanations from the titular “cleaners,” who are usually young, religious, and aspirational people with limited initial knowledge of the extreme and complicated content they monitor.

Sex, drugs, violence, threats: as images flash chaotically across the screen, you may think for a moment that the story doesn’t get any worse than you could imagine. But what about countries that block content that speaks ill of their governments? What about Facebook pages that manage to skirt the rules while still encouraging genocide? What about the censorship of breaking news or the influencing of elections? As the moderators sink deeper into the ethically murky world of the web, we’re forced to reckon with the harrowing idea that technology has likely progressed too quickly to be controlled.

This may be the film’s greatest strength. It’s light on narrative, but it doesn’t skimp on effective, fact-and-example-backed existential dread. Over the course of its 88 attention-demanding minutes, The Cleaners managed to convince me — a stubborn, smartphone-loving Millennial who has read every existing debate about technology and has historically always landed firmly on the pro-tech side — that the internet in its current iteration might be actively killing the free world.

Profound revelations aside, the film hauntingly captures these moderators’ precarious existence within the confines of several uneasy opposites. The subjects’ positions are points of honor for their low-income families, but they also leave the job overwhelmed by what they’ve witnessed, rattled and displaying symptoms of PTSD. Their personal beliefs and professional responsibilities are often at odds, and their role is simultaneous proof of Silicon Valley’s lack of humanity and its attempt to abide by a set of principles.

With no easy answers given, viewers are left to ponder the same choices as the moderators, whose two-option mantra may as well be our own. If one witnesses something terrible, these cleaners ask themselves thousands of times per day, when must one try to “delete” it, and when can one just “ignore” it?

Bay area freelance writer, assistant podcast producer, apple cider lover. More: @aandeandval