Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant: Three Documentaries On Information Freedom

Three recent films—‘The Hacker Wars,’ ‘Silenced’ and ‘Citizenfour’—take wildly differing approaches to documenting truth-tellers.

Oct 29 2014, 12:30pm

Image: "The Hacker Wars"

"All journalism is a form of activism," Glenn Greenwald recently told Bill Keller, the former managing editor of The New York Times. "Every journalistic choice necessarily embraces highly subjective assumptions—cultural, political or nationalistic—and serves the interests of one faction or another."

Greenwald's point isn't that partisan journalism is superior to non-partisan journalism—that Fox News and MSNBC are more honest and responsible than the Times because at least they state their biases. His point is a more nuanced one about what exactly "objectivity" is, and the subtle ways in which opinions get expressed even when being suppressed within an institutional, "objective" voice.

In discussions of politically-charged subject matter, even simple word choice can represent an opinion. Do we talk about 'torture' or 'enhanced interrogation techniques'? Are the Israeli homes in the West Bank 'settlements' or 'a military occupation'? Do we best describe Edward Snowden as 'whistleblower,' 'spy,' or simply 'former N.S.A. contractor'? What happens when a reporter comes to believe, as a result of his research and expertise, that 'torture' is the correct word?

The issue of objectivity in reporting occurred to me after watching a trio of recent documentaries that make almost no claims to it. What's interesting is how they rebuff the assumption of objectivity. Unlike writing, in which an author is responsible for every word [oh, really? —Ed.], documentary filmmaking involves both one human's perspective and an objective reality: a director shoots and edits, but some reality must exist if the lens and the microphone are going to capture anything. Film, I thought, should offer a foothold where the written word did not.

The films I saw—"The Hacker Wars," "Silenced" and "Citizenfour"—got me thinking about this too because of their subject matter: each grapples with the question of, essentially, how to tell some truth in spite of great personal cost. (It's a challenge that obviously resonates for the filmmaker and journalist as well, and complicates any claim to objectivity.) But they also provoked me because of the way they relate to their human subjects; indeed, through some unlikely alchemy of intent and accident, the cinematic style of each film bears echoes of the people it is describing.

"The Hacker Wars" tells the story of three combative hackers and their acts of civil disobedience, with loud music, obnoxious graphics, and an adolescent energy. "Silenced" captures the testimonies of three national security whistleblowers, with the sort of bold and principled outrage that motivated the whistleblowers themselves. In "Citizenfour," Laura Poitras's verité masterpiece about Edward Snowden, the story unfolds with the same kind of astonishingly simple confidence and grace that its protagonist exhibits.

The tribute: The Hacker Wars

Barrett Brown at rest. Image: "The Hacker Wars"

"The Hacker Wars," Vivien Lesnik Weisman's celebratory ode to hacking as a form of civil disobedience, highlights the heavy punishments that the US government has doled out to those who have hacked powerful establishment systems in the spirit of a freer society. Weisman's lens, trained on hacktivist movement heroes like Barrett Brown, Jeremy Hammond, as well as Greenwald, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, and journalist Chris Hedges, is sullied somewhat by its biggest focus: the most screen time is devoted to Andrew Auernheimer, aka Weev, a self-described troll who sees himself as a provocateur in the tradition of Socrates, believes strongly in fucking shit up as a self-evident good, and is fond of telling reporters things like, "the Jews in Germany had something coming to them."

Weisman follows Weev during his halcyon days, when he was exposing security flaws at AT&T and Apple, as well as his arrest, sentencing, and defiant partying just before going to jail, along with his post-prison commitment to continued activism. It's hard not to be a little seduced by Weev's gleeful rejection of acceptability, but he's not exactly the plaintiff with whom a strategic prosecutor would want to go to the Supreme Court to debate these issues.

In his case and others, the adversaries are big corporations, the mainstream media, and the government. Used to prosecute hackers, laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act are often seen as clunky and broken measures employed to draconian effect to stifle free speech. (Aaron Swartz is cited as a martyr here.)

In its review of "The Hacker Wars," The New York Times complained that the film lacked the kind of objectivity required to give an audience a general understanding of the world of hacktivism. Of course, the hackers, trolls, anarchists and free-floating radicals depicted in the film would surely be quick to deride this; the Times itself is often regarded in such circles as the mouthpiece of the compromised "objective" mainstream media.

the universe of the film is one in which the hacktivists are heroes and no reasonable person disagrees

To be sure, "The Hacker Wars," does not follow the unspoken rule of making a legitimate political documentary: despite the fact that a filmmaker who chooses to make a documentary about a political topic usually has a political point of view or agenda, in order to be taken seriously, he or she must attempt to appear to give equal weight to the opposite argument, if only, ultimately, to gain an advantage, and be more persuasive for appearing to be objective.

"Hacker Wars," by contrast, is biased to the point of not even presenting an argument about which one might be biased. The universe of the film is one in which the hacktivists are heroes and no reasonable person disagrees. And I think it's that very bias that makes the movie interesting and worthwhile. I can think of few movies that portray so accurately a portrait of how a certain segment of the "hackvitism" subculture sees itself.

Its potentially cheesy cinematic tools—fast cuts, dubstep music, internet image macros—deepen the story by visualizing the self-mythologies that play an essential role within the hacktivism movement. These hackers think they're awesome. Weisman thinks hackers are awesome. Her other interviewees mostly seem to think they're awesome. A general audience might not think they're awesome. But without understanding how awesome they think they are, and why, a general audience can never hope to understand why they do what they do, or even what they do. And these are things that a general audience should be trying to understand, as information security and its breaches become increasingly relevant.

Because it's a boots-on-the-ground look at a revolutionary subculture, made by someone who's a part of the movement, "The Hacker Wars" is of anthropological interest regardless of one's opinion on the politics at hand. Are Weev and Barrett Brown the Marat and Robespierre of our time? Maybe we'll know in a couple hundred years. In the meantime, the internet has the political import of the streets and the printing press. As much as Weisman may be trying to make a piece of propaganda, she hasn't succeeded, simply because of the inherent virtues of verité footage; so long as she has shown us a little piece of reality, we might figure out for ourselves what to think of it.

Earlier this month, Weev took his trolling behavior to a new low, penning a hateful op-ed for a white supremacist website and sharing a shirtless self-portrait that revealed a giant swastika tattoo on his chest. Gawker was aflame, Twitter abuzz. Joe Fionda, one of the film's producers and a prominent character in it (his hacker alias is subverzo) told me the filmmakers weren't very worried about it. "The guy can be the biggest asshole in the world," he responded. "He just might be. But that doesn't mean he should be unfairly treated by the system."

A critic would do well to apply this same standard to "The Hacker Wars." In many ways, the film is a ham-fisted hipster love letter to a bunch of assholes. But for anyone who wants to know how these assholes see the world, it's a good place to start.

Former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Image: "Silenced"

The activist documentary: Silenced

James Spione's film "Silenced," which recounts the stories of embattled former government employees Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou and Jesselyn Radack, is the kind of well-made, excellent documentary that the Times wishes "The Hacker Wars" was. In 2001, Radack was an attorney at the US Department of Justice when a call came in from Afghanistan. John Walker Lindh, an American terrorism suspect, had been arrested, and those who had detained him wanted to know if they needed to give him a lawyer. She replied yes. But as she soon discovered, he wouldn't get a lawyer, which became even more alarming to her when she heard Attorney General John Ashcroft tell reporters that he did have one. She confronted her boss about it and was told to drop it.

One of the most memorable sequences of "Silenced" takes place a few months later. Radack learns from someone at the Dept. of Justice that there are only two emails from her in the file for John Walker Lindh. She knows she's written more, so she goes to see the file for herself. In a shadowy hallway, she opens a set of drawers, finds her file, opens it, and sees that all but two emails have been removed. It is a hair-raising moment. Radack realizes that something is not right, and so does the audience.

It is, of course, a reenactment. The movie doesn't deceive the audience about that, and the reenactments are all tastefully done, in black-and-white, with faceless gestures, like a hand picking up a phone, or with the actual people themselves. They're also valuable to the storytelling: much of what's described in "Silenced"—the persecution of Thomas Drake over his whistleblowing at the NSA, the government's pursuit of John Kiriakou, the CIA officer who was the first to speak publicly about the agency's torture program—has already occurred by the time Spione began his film. As a result, the footage has all been collected with a thesis already in mind; there's very little footage in the film that isn't there to illustrate a point that it's trying to make.

telling the story after its events have unfolded makes it harder to show the grey areas where truth, rather than polemic, actually live.

"Silenced" is a compelling, suspenseful, and intelligent movie with a clear objective that it achieves: to inform the public about the harsh treatment of government whistleblowers, which the filmmakers clearly consider an outrage. It's responsibly reported. It's not propaganda. It's a good example of a growing genre of activist documentary. With the exception of an extended sequence at Kiriakou's home prior to prison that veers into the sentimental, the film is persuasive and reasonable from beginning until end.

But the flaw of "Silenced" is its flawlessness. Spione couldn't make a serious claim to objectivity and he probably wouldn't: the film is animated more by a Greenwald-like outrage than a Keller-like curiosity. Besides, telling the story after its events have already unfolded makes it harder to show the grey areas where truth, rather than polemic, actually live. It's always the truth that a reporter wasn't anticipating that is most convincing, and when a film is constructed retroactively, that unanticipated reality is no longer available. The truth can feel vulnerable.

Ready for his close-up. Image: Radius / TWC

The verité approach: Citizenfour

Laura Poitras's "Citizenfour" is, among other things, a reminder of how infrequently circumstances conspire to place a truly excellent documentary filmmaker at the very center of an interesting and important story just as it is unfolding.

In the central scene of her gripping, brilliant film—the third in a series on the post-9/11 world—Poitras (who is mostly unseen) and Glenn Greenwald have just met up with Edward Snowden and are hiding in a hotel room in Hong Kong. They are about to break the most explosive story about government surveillance ever reported. An alarm goes off in the hallway. Will the door come crashing down, as Poitras feared at the time? Her camera keeps rolling, capturing the palpable anxiety (and occasionally, strange levity) in this moment of quiet before the storm. It turns out to be an unfortunately timed test of fire alarm.

A few days later, after the team publishes the video that revealed his identity, Snowden—suddenly, perhaps, the world's most wanted man—is in the bathroom, applying hair product and contact lenses to try to make himself look less conspicuous, fumbling with an umbrella as a disguise, debating whether to pick up the phone. ("I'm afraid you have the wrong room," he tells a caller before hanging up. "Wall Street Journal," he explains.)

It is the kind of scene that one would only expect to see in a fictional movie, because the circumstances required for it to be captured live on film are so unlikely: someone at the very center of a massive international news story has to trust a cameraperson enough to allow her to have complete access to him, right at the moment when the drama is unfolding, at the moment, when, as he says, anything could happen.

This, of course, is exactly what happened with Snowden and Poitras. The verité footage is fascinating for many reasons, not least of which is how essentially banal some of it is. Even at the center of a global storm, even with a protagonist as charismatic as Snowden, a person is a person—and shit, should I answer the hotel phone?

When the door finally closes behind him—he and a local lawyer have decided not to take a cab to escape, but to call a friend instead—Poitras the director has no idea what sort of future Snowden is walking into, or if she will ever see him again. The audience only realizes this if he or she thinks about it; these sequences have no voiceover, as well as no music, and, as throughout the Snowden sequences, one has to make an effort to remember that the footage only exists at all because Poitras is there. (Snowden was initially hesitant to appear on camera, but she convinced him.)

Poitras is at pains to make "Citizenfour" feel something like a primary source. It shows rather than tells.

It's her access, and the choice not to editorialize at all in these moments, that elevates "Citizenfour" to a work of art, and something that is interesting to a general audience, regardless of political affiliation. Love Snowden or hate him, you have a chance to see how he looked that morning, just before he left the hotel to seek asylum in Hong Kong.

It might be natural to assume that Poitras would be biased. She is the only one of these filmmakers who is also an actor in the drama she describes—and is herself an apparent target of government surveillance. And to be sure, the film often feels like a tribute to Snowden and his courage. Contrasting points of view aren't on offer here. But Poitras doesn't lobby her audience. She is at pains to make "Citizenfour" feel something like a primary source. It shows rather than tells.

In the last scene, we are in another hotel room, in Moscow in the summer of 2014, a year after Hong Kong, and Greenwald is telling Snowden (and Poitras, filming) about a new set of leaks. The film doesn't mention The Intercept, the investigative journalism start-up where Greenwald and Poitras are now editors, and from which they've been publishing articles about the Snowden documents, but it's implied that as far as the movie is concerned, this is the beginning of the story, not its end.

Even if it had been dreamed up by a Hollywood scriptwriter, the moment couldn't more beautifully dramatize the themes of secrets and surveillance and the peril of revealing both. In a film admirable for its sense of calm, there is, at this last moment, a dash of cinematic fun. We didn't know it would happen this way, the film seems to say, but the good guys just might have won. The gang is all together again, and there's another story looming, one even bigger than the one you just watched. Stay tuned for the sequel. And then there's the music, an unexpected but haunting explosion of Trent Reznor. Through its earlier restraint, the movie has earned this triumphant, if ever uncertain, moment.

Poitras' carefully controlled film, which is ultimately itself about the challenges involved in telling a story, proves what art has known for millennia: subjectivity is not the same as opinion, and in trying to capture some truth, a subjective approach may prove more complicated, but more compelling too.

"Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines," Glenn Greenwald told Bill Keller. "We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms." Greenwald is urging journalists to be more cognizant and more responsible for the words they use. In film, the medium of camera and lens may simply force the issue, but it applies to all journalism. It is a humane imperative that journalists not cede their moral compasses, but be guided by them. One lesson you could draw from each of these films: journalistic truth is not at odds with subjectivity; a journalist needs her subjectivity in order to determine what is true.