The control of information can be used to control the population. In the modern era, we have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of information being recorded on all of our activities, from what we purchase to who we communicate with online. Businesses now use data mining to find more effective ways to advertise to us, and the government has increased powers over surveillance which they claim is in the interest of public safety. With all of this information recorded and stored, the hope is for a more efficient and safer government. However, the question this raises is whether efficiency is worth the loss of individual rights to privacy. Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film, “Brazil,” portrays a world where bureaucracy and the control of information is standard practice among the world’s governments, a world not too different from the one we live in today.

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The film’s main theme can best be seen in the dialogue between Sam Lowry and a government official, when Sam offers to provide identification. When the official tells Sam no ID is required, Sam claims “But I could be anybody,” to which the official responds, “No you couldn’t sir. This is Information Retrieval.” With this encounter alone, we are able to see the extent that the control of information influences policy and drives power: the government knows all, and therefore cannot be wrong or make a mistake. The apparent irony of the above dialogue can be seen in the overarching plot of the film, which involves a case of mistaken identity. The film centers on Sam’s investigation into the arrest of Harry Buttle, a law abiding citizen, who has been mistaken for the terrorist, Harry Tuttle.

Because the form printed authorizing his arrest has a mistake, the government insists the arrest is legitimate. This demonstrates how the government has become entirely reliant on its automated systems, and refuses to acknowledge that an error could have been made. In this society, everything is on record, and all that matters is what the records say, independent of truth. If we compare this society to our own, we can see how much of our identities are associated with records that are kept on us. Tax records, birth certificates, passports, college diplomas, arrest records, and numerous other types of information exists that constantly tracks our life decisions, for good or bad. Everything is on permanent file.

What should have been an easily resolvable clerical error in the film soon becomes an exploration of what happens when a government becomes too reliant on processed information. As the protagonist, Sam Lowry, attempts to find out the truth of what happened, we begin to see little aspects of society that point toward the absurd bureaucratic processes that define this system of governance. For instance, when the initial arrest is made, the officer hands Buttle’s wife a slip of paper and says, “This is your receipt for your husband…and this is my receipt for your receipt.” In another scene, when Lowry is attempting to find out what the records have on Buttle, he is given numerous terms from different agencies such as “inoperative, excised, dormanted,” and “completed,” to which Lowry simply responds: “He’s dead.”

In the first instance, the ridiculous double receipt satirizes the need for every action, no matter how significant, to be recorded. In the second example, we can see how the control of language and euphemisms exist to obfuscate the truth, even to the point where simple communication is compromised. However ridiculous and invasive the system, however, its adherents insist that the government is efficient due to its ability to control and access all types of information. As one government employee in the film confidently states, “We don’t make mistakes.” The irony, of course, is that the entire film’s plot hinges on a very clear mistake made on the documentation that saw the wrong man be arrested.

Although the film uses humor to satirize this system of government, we can also see how the obsessive control of information has created a government that refuses to acknowledge its own errors. In its obsession to be more efficient, the government portrayed in the film has become highly inefficient. When we look at how much of our lives are being recorded in the real world, including every post on social media, every transaction made with a debit card, and even in our text messages and emails, it can be discerning to realize that the world portrayed in the film is becoming more of a reality.

  • Gilliam, T. (1985). Brazil. Jonathon Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro. 20th Century Fox.