The Epistemology of Surveillance8 min read

Andrea Lingenfelter reviews Dragonfly Eyes, a film by Xu Bing


A grainy black and white long shot, filmed from a high angle. A solitary figure is walking away from the camera, along the edge of what appears to be a lake or small reservoir. It’s night-time, and the person walks unsteadily, weaving from left to right, as if drunk, or maybe just tired. Then, without warning, the person falls into the water. It’s hard to tell if the person can swim or not; they seem to struggle. We see their head and arms, but after a few seconds, their head and arms disappear beneath the surface. Gradually the ripples subside.

According to the timestamp, this took place some years ago. But that makes it no less immediate, no less disturbing. We have become witnesses after the fact to a death – one that seems to have gone unwitnessed in real time. Powerless to help, we feel implicated all the same.

This unsettling sequence of images, caught on surveillance footage, comes near the beginning of the artist Xu Bing’s 2017 film Dragonfly Eyes. The entire film, in fact, is composed of clips like this one – indoor and outdoor surveillance footage, webcam footage, and a few bits of dashcam footage, taken from online video sharing websites. The source of the footage is key, because although as early as the 2000s Xu Bing had wanted to make a film that had “no actors and no cinematographer,” using found footage, it was only after 2010 or so that there was enough footage online for this project to be feasible.

Dragonfly Eyes is a love story – a “classic love story,” as Xu has described it. It’s a surprising choice for an experimental film, and, indeed, in the beginning, Xu had contemplated using an unconventional narrative. He soon realized, however, that unless the film was anchored by a conventional story, the audience wouldn’t be able to get their bearings. And so in the end, he and the screenwriters (poet Zhai Yongming and filmmaker Zhang Hanyi) decided on an old-fashioned love story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again.

This straightforward narrative works well to weave a disparate set of images drawn from many sources over several years’ time, and from all over China (primarily) into a coherent and unexpectedly immersive feature-length whole. As we follow the story arcs of the two main characters, their likenesses may keep changing, but their voices, dubbed over the original soundtracks, remain the same. Ultimately, the female protagonist’s changing appearance is incorporated into the story. Deeming herself unattractive and wishing to be beautiful, she radically changes her appearance with plastic surgery (with her new likeness represented by that of a real-life Youku star). The idea that we may not actually have selves, or that the self is in fact fluid or illusory, is one of the film’s subtexts. This is consistent with the film’s Buddhist themes, themes that both Xu Bing and Zhai Yongming have called attention to in their discussions of the film. Perhaps not incidentally, one important recurring character, a Buddhist nun, is voiced by Zhai Yongming.

Dragonfly Eyes is a love story – a “classic love story,” as Xu has described it.

The experience of viewing Dragonfly Eyes is quite unique. I found myself immersed in the story for many minutes at a time, only to be brought up short when I suddenly remembered that the story I was deeply involved in was merely an overlay – the person on the screen had in reality spoken different words from the words I heard, and was participating in different stories all their own, stories that had nothing to do with the story I was watching. This uncanny feeling recurred many times throughout the film, as if the fourth wall was there one moment and gone the next.

The violence in the film is particularly unsettling, because it challenges the viewer to reexamine their thinking about cinematic violence. Violence is so commonplace in conventional narrative films that we have become desensitized to the point that we scarcely notice it. But because everything that we see in Xu’s film happened to real people, it isn’t so easy to shrug off. In one scene, captured in black and white, a man is pulled out of a restaurant and is beaten and kicked by several other men in the street. The film is too grainy for any of the faces to be recognizable, but it is clear that the man was actually being hurt. The sequence was hard to watch; and yet as I watched I reflected that bloodshed and death are common elements in feature films, elements that function to advance the plot. Murder and mayhem are plot conveniences; nobody really gets hurt. In Dragonfly Eyes, as in standard feature films, the violence also supports the plot, but one cannot watch this film without having the uncomfortable realization that, unlike the make-believe violence of everything from summer blockbusters to cozy murder mysteries, the violence onscreen is jarringly, painfully real.

When asked about the ethics of using images of people without their knowledge, Xu has stated that the producers of the film attempted to get in touch with all of the people whose likenesses had been used for major characters, and that everyone they were able to contact agreed. One man, the lone proprietor and employee of a tiny computer repair shop, especially welcomed his inclusion in the project. He thought of his in-store webcam (perched high enough to catch the man, the counter, and any customers) as his sole connection to the outside world. Dragonfly Eyes fulfilled his desire to connect with people beyond the confines of the small storefront where he spends long and solitary days. The response of the computer repairman, and others, raises interesting questions about the diminishing value of privacy in an age of increasingly ubiquitous surveillance.

Speaking of their collaboration, Zhai Yongming and Xu Bing describe a process of give and take, of assembling footage and writing the story that had to match. While a half dozen or so assistants pulled footage off the internet, organizing it by categories, Zhai Yongming and Zhang Hanyi wrote the screenplay. Sometimes, Zhai would get a particular story idea, but there would be no footage on hand that fit what she had in mind, and she would have to make adjustments to the script.

The centrality of Buddhist concepts to the story is evident in what the film suggests about the nature of reality. As Xu Bing observed in an October 2017 interview, everything that you see in the film “has really happened,” but all of these real life elements have been put together to make something that is “fake” (jiade) and “concealed” (yangai). The “fake” part is the imaginary story told by the narrative; what’s “concealed,” or obscured, is the reality of the original footage, the original stories and backstories, which are there but unavailable to us – hiding in plain sight.

Exposure is all but inevitable, but people’s willingness to be exposed may not be.

The title Dragonfly Eyes is a metaphor for the compound eye that pervasive surveillance cameras resemble, if not morphologically, at least in function. That the people whose likenesses were used in the film tended to embrace the project says a lot about our era of exposure. Exposure is all but inevitable, but people’s willingness to be exposed may not be.

Disturbingly, the film ends with a sequence of violent images, including dashcam footage of a plane crash and other fatal accidents. Like the drowning at the beginning of the film, these events didn’t seem directly connected to the story. My initial response was visceral: life is short and terrifying, horrible events are taking place all of the time, and it’s a small miracle that any of us slips through the net. While there are scenes throughout the film in which real people are seriously, even mortally injured, this final montage still stands out. The bracketing of the film with such violent scenes is puzzling. Why does the film begin with a possible suicide, and why does it end with a montage of crashes and explosions? Neither seem to be related to the rest of the story.

Based on Zhai Yongming’s comments, I can only conclude that this structure is meant to echo the Buddhist themes that Zhai and her collaborators have described as underpinning the film. Life is cyclical, and each life is bookended by a pair of deaths: the one that precedes it, and the one that ends it. In the film, as in Buddhism, human beings exist in an endless cycle of life and death, which very few are able to escape.


Xu Bing, Dragonfly Eyes, 2017. Produced by Xu Bing, Zhai Yongming, and Matthieu Laclau, screenplay by Zhai Yongming and Zhang Hanyi.