True Stories: From the war in Iraq to internet security, Jeremy Zerechak uses documentary filmmaking to explore the issues
By Jennifer Doyle
When Jeremy Zerechak was called to relieve the first rotation of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, he took a leave of absence from his film studies at Penn State University, packed his duffle bag with video equipment, and arrived for training at the United States Army base of Fort Dix, New Jersey, with the intention of "capturing as much content as possible."
His outfit eventually was placed in direct security support of the Iraq Survey Group, which was the presidentially mandated committee tasked with finding weapons of mass destruction, and stationed at Camp Slayer. This location made Zerechak and his company neighbors to two of the most contentious groups of the Iraq War: the privately contracted military company Blackwater, and Kellogg Brown & Root, the subsidiary of Haliburton contracted to oversee all base facilities in Iraq.
"We were in the matrix of controversial elements of the war," he recalls.
Upon returning to Pennsylvania, he assembled the 56 hours of raw footage into a feature documentary and titled it Land of Confusion.
The film chronicled the search for weapons of mass destruction from Zerechak's "front-row seat" to the operation. The frustration and discontent in the film is palpable. Its presentation of soldiers' candid perspectives is likely to be the last of its kind, however. Since Land of Confusion was filmed, troops have been forbidden to possess media-capturing devices on tour.
Initially, the documentary triggered questions from the Pennsylvania National Guard public affairs office. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, at that time Robert Gates, had gotten wind of the film. Because Zerechak had used his own equipment, obtained releases from everyone in the film, and released it after his military contract was up, however, the inquiries didn't go far.
Land of Confusion went on to win a number of awards, including a special jury award for "bold truth in documentary filmmaking" at the Florida Film Festival.
It was at a Los Angeles festival screening when Zerechak heard the call of his second film. He met a patron who had worked as an intrusion protection specialist for the Federal Reserve. After picking the man's brain over the course of the festival, Zerechak returned to Pittsburgh "almost convinced" he had found a new project: detailing the intricacies of privacy and security in the age of information technology.
In his preliminary research, he uncovered an expansive story that was largely untold in the mainstream media. And when the media did touch on it, Zerechak says, it was subject to gross inaccuracies and hyperbole.
"I thought: This is going to be my next project. It's timely, pertinent, and has a rich history," he says.
He likens the process of committing to a project idea to buying a used car-it involves taking a big risk when "there could be all sorts of problems under the hood."
The average time it takes to produce a documentary film from development to end, he notes, is two and a half to three years.
"It's a little unnerving, but it's also bliss, because you finally decide that this is my new project, my baby, my monster-whatever you want to call it-this is what I am going to immerse myself in intellectually, creatively, and from an investigative standpoint for the next three years."
Zerechak's new "baby" was given a thoughtful name: Code 2600, which he chose for the 2600 megahertz tone discovered to be the key for hacking into the monopolistic 'Ma Bell' telephone company's network in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. As a result, the number 2600 has become something of a centerpiece in hacker culture.
Code 2600 strives to tell the story of privacy and security in the information age and to make people aware of how they fit into that story.
"People think that we're the customers of internet services like Gmail, but we're not. Gmail isn't free because the company likes you. We are their product," he says.
According to Zerechak's research, Google saves every search ever done on their engine, builds a profile based on an IP address, and sells it to advertisers for psychographic analysis-oftentimes without the informed consent of the user.
He also draws attention to the vast amounts of data stored on servers, often referred to as "data pollution." They are connected to the grid, accessible, and not going anywhere.
"It is actually more expensive for companies to go through their servers and delete information than it is to just let it hang out," Zerechak says.
He likens this information pollution to the environmental pollution of the industrial age.
"In the same way that we look back on our grandparents and ask them how they couldn't have paid closer attention and given more consideration to the environment, our grandkids might look back on us and say, 'How could you just let all of this data just float around?'" he asks.
The film draws upon the wisdom of "heavy-hitters" in the information technology (IT) field, including Bruce Schneier, one of the most well-known and respected technologists in the hacker security community, and Jeff Moss, founder of DEFCON and the Black Hat Conference, two of the largest hacker conventions in the world. Moss currently sits on the Homeland Security advisory board for IT security.
Despite the concerns it raises, the film also acknowledges the positive, measurable changes in the world that Twitter and Facebook have made, including the role that the social networks played in the Arab Spring.
"Code 2600 puts these privacy and security issues on the table, tells you why they are a problem, suggests how they could be affecting you, and gets into the sociological, historical, and philosophical aspects of that," he says.
What it doesn't do, he adds, is force an agenda on the viewers or suggest where they should stand on the issues. He rejects the idea that documentaries should serve as normative 'solution films.'
"When you roll the first foot of film knowing exactly what you want to say about the subject, you are approaching it from a premeditated angle, and that's rhetoric, that's propaganda filmmaking," he says. "It's not storytelling, it's not exploration, and it doesn't serve the genre of documentary film very well."
At the Atlanta Film Festival, Code 2600 was named winner of the 2012 Grand Jury Documentary Film Award. This distinction is one of the more significant qualifications for Oscar Award nomination eligibility.
"I was ecstatic that day," Zerechak says.
In the months since that win, Zerechak has been invited to screen the film around the world. He's traveled to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., where the documentary was shown to the former director of the National Security Agency.
While Zerechak promotes Code 2600, he's pursuing his master's degree in film at Ohio University. He joined the program because he believed it would exert a positive pressure on him to complete more projects.
Steve Ross, director of the School of Film, says that the relationship between Zerechak and the graduate program is mutually beneficial. Students like Zerechak who come into the school with prior experience in the field often become "additional professors on the ground," he notes.
He also recalls Zerechak's donation of an extensive personal collection of film props to the school, as well the time he used his carpentry skills to voluntarily upgrade the film equipment room.
"So much of what he's doing is really just a gift to the School of Film," Ross says.
Zerechak is currently in the exploratory phase of a project that focuses on the "old world sensibilities" of Amish and Mennonite communities, and is hopeful that his time at Ohio University will better prepare him for the future he intends to devote to documentary content.
"Documentaries allow us the intimate opportunity to engage in real life with real people that otherwise we never would have known about, met, or identified with," Zerechak says. "And that experience is priceless."
Zerechak and Ross are in the School of Film in Ohio University's College of Fine Arts.
This story appears in the special graduate student edition of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine, published in spring 2013.