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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

New York City based Claus Mueller reviews film festivals and related issues and serves as a  senior editor for Society and Diplomatic Review.

As a professor emeritus he covered at Hunter College / CUNY social and media research and is an accredited member of the US State Department's Foreign Press Center.



DOC NYC 2023

DOC NYC has remained the largest and most important North American documentary festival. Held in person this year from November 8th to the 16th alongside streaming selected productions from the 8th to the 26th, DOC NYC once again displays its well-earned reputation for excellent curatorial program choices reiterated by the significant number of featured documentaries that have nominated for and received Oscars. DOC NYC 2023 selected 114 feature length documentaries and 129 short films. The program included 33 world and 29 US premieres. This year’s DOC NYC had a 5% increase in in-person attendance compared to 2022, and this expansion was epitomized by fifty sold out screenings and the growing nationwide on-line audience.  The festival attracted a record number of 1,000 industry representatives including film makers.  Among the major sponsors and signature media this year were A&E, Netflix, HBO, National Geographic as well as New York, WNET, the New Republic and WNYC. The other supporters were Bloomberg Philanthropies, Hulu, NBC, Amazon, and Ford Foundation Just Films to name but a few. Below are reviews of two extraordinary documentaries.

AT THE BORDER (Come as You Are) (2023)

This Venezuelan US coproduction by Braulio Jatar and Anaïs Michael world premiered at the festival with an impressive yet subdued portrayal of survival on the frontier separating Venezuela and Colombia. It presents a low-key documentation, bordering on ethnography, of the everyday life of two young men earning their living as smugglers (Coyotes) in the dangerous border area of Colombia and Venezuela. Español and Barrabas survive despite the dangers surrounding them from corrupt officers of the law, armed gangs, and natural disasters. Their income is unpredictable and based on escorting individuals or families migrating from Venezuela to Columbia or bringing back market merchandise strapped on their backs to the progressively impoverished Venezuela on the other side of the border.

Español and Barrabas compete with other teenaged people for these jobs and survive in the dangerous border region of dirt roads, illegal pathways, and frequently flooding rivers. On “Death roads” they report coming come across the bodies of those who perished in the smuggling trade or were killed by armed gangs. They know the rules of the game, set by the armed gangs who control clearly defined sections of the border crossing regions. Violating the rules can easily result in their own deaths.

There is no predictable employment in the border city of Cúcuta where much of the film was shot. As noted by Barrabas, life there was easier five years ago. Braulio Jatar, who is from Venezuela, illustrates his country’s problem by observing that “a lot of people [from Venezuela] were going to Columbia just to eat at the soup kitchens... which were serving around 3-5,00 daily”.  Since 2014, close to eight million Venezuelans have left their country. More than one million live now in Columbia.

Español and Barrabas, try to use their scarce income to support their relatives in Venezuela, including funds to join them. However, their own legal status is as uncertain as that of the hundreds of thousands of other Venezuelans living in Columbia. Columbian authorities have promised a special status for Venezuelans living there and many have filed applications, but the new rules were not yet enacted. They can be expelled at any time, a fate faced globally by virtually all “illegal” immigrants. They all hope to receive legal status in North American, European, and other high income countries but most countries now constrain immigration except for those with significant income or high levels of education.  The former Coyote Barrabas and his companion Genima, along with their young child, have given up on living in Columbia. After having spent some time in other Columbian cities they are now headed for the Unites States.


Filmed over four years the AT THE BORDER feature superb cinematography and  a compassionate story with extraordinary insights into how young smugglers make a living in the cross border trade of people and merchandise between Columbia and Venezuela. The story offers little of the overt violence and open conflicts recorded in many films about migrating groups. The filmmakers show the human face of survival in chaotic conditions with an observational approach not driven by political messages.


Directed by Jialing Zhang, TOTAL TRUST is a German Dutch 2023 coproduction with support from arte. The documentary premiered in the United States at DOC NYC. It is considered the first major documentary that investigates the surveillance system developed by China. TOTAL TRUST received the Grand Jury Prize in the International Competition. As the producers note, “Digital surveillance tools have been used by governments to control their citizens, not only in China but all over the world. This is no longer an ‘imaginable future’ but a reality”.  

For decades, surveillance was developed by public and corporate agencies in postindustrial societies. In response, European Union countries have already passed rules protecting individual privacy. China is the only advanced country which has openly developed smart digital surveillance systems, since 2014, as a part of its socialist market economy with a Chinese face. China has installed an estimated 170 million camera systems, with plans for an additional 600 million over the next three years, many with high speed and resolution capabilities. Cameras are in road locations, inside apartment buildings, and in front of the homes of suspected opponents of the government. The largescale establishment of facial recognition databases made possible by these systems are not unique to China. According to The Perpetual Line Report by Georgetown University, the faces of 117 million Americans are in these databases. In the UK, and other European countries, facial recognition technologies are widely employed by legal agencies including their secret service apparatus.

What distinguishes China is the effort to link location data collected by camera surveillance with information from other sources to a designated system of social credit scores. This system aims to establish separate social and economic market sections where both individuals and corporations can be rewarded or punished but is far from being completed. In the social sector, apart from electronic data collection, paid or volunteering individuals record behavior in or outside residential buildings or roads. Individuals are assigned to collect data in specific circumscribed blocks. Advanced technologies allow the increasingly sophisticated application of facial and physical recognition which are applied. Data is in turn transferred to governmental offices including legal organizations. Recorded “violations” range from dirty streets, traffic infractions, lack of identification papers, participating in protest and oppositional actions, and in former times breaking the zero-covid rules. In the limited number of towns where the social credit score system has been applied, individual reports show that the accumulation of negative points, having a “low rank”, may be punished by denial to travel by  air or high speed train, limiting internet access or access to hotel accommodations. Among other scorable offenses are bad driving, high debts, or posting incorrect or “wrong” information. Many negative points can result in placement on a black list that is supposed to be consulted by employers. Individuals scoring high in social credits can receive discounts on products and services.  

The Chinese government has just passed draft legislation facilitating the expansion of the social credit system, but observers note that such a system will hardly be fully implemented in the near future. The political goals of an obedient and submissive population lie in a dystopian future. It should also be noted that most Chinese are apparently not opposed to such a system. In a similar vein, its doubtful that North Americans object to, or perhaps even understand, the massive collection of individual data through corporate or public individual electronic devices or the application of facial identification.

With some of the footage secretly recorded, TOTAL TRUST demonstrates that the current and future accumulation of massive amounts of data covering individuals results in increasing governmental knowledge and power, with the consequences undermining human and civil rights while engaging in punitive actions.  If everything about the individual is known to the government, a totalitarian system can readily be organized. The principal individuals and their families in the documentary are civil rights lawyers and journalists who shared their conflictual experience with governmental agencies, either anonymously or through encrypted means, with TOTAL TRUST. These professionals are prosecuted in court for defending individuals against their alleged violations of the laws or tried for publishing articles about governmental officials trespassing established laws including sexual abuse. Among the worst offenses with resultant long detention is the subversion of state power. All actions opposing an official agency once recorded are met with a wide range of sanctions including detention, isolation of those who testified for the accused, loss or restriction of professional license(s) to work, placing a suspected individual into distant internment from his family without allowing personal contact, and making it more difficult for defendant’s children to attend schools. Another destructive consequence is likely social isolation from peers because articulating opposition requires courage. Few act on their courage or convictions publicly because they may be recorded doing so and therefore are forced to embrace internal censorship. One consequence of the suspension of civil rights is the attempt by the victims to leave China.

Produced undercover, the documentary TOTAL TRUST by Jialing Zhang unquestionably deserved the DOC NYC 2023 Grand Jury International Competition award for its report about the Chinese surveillance society. A follow-up on the current political and personal consequences of the status of ‘Capitalist Surveillance’ in advanced Western societies would be welcome.

Claus Mueller New York







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