Beyond Belief: SundanceNOW Doc Club Series on Faith
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Starting tomorrow, SundanceNOW Doc Club will premiere its “Beyond Belief” series of documentaries that provide an intimate look at what motivates and affirms belief, examining and challenging the limits of religious conviction. Highlights of the series include: “Raw Faith, an intimate look at Unitarian Minister Marilyn Sewell’s exploration of faith; “Living Goddess,” a powerful portrait of a young girl venerated as a goddess growing up in Nepal on the brink of war; “So Help Me God,” the warmly funny story of documentarian Simon Cole as he traverses America in search of the Almighty; and “American Mystic,” a lyrical film that celebrates the separatist spirit of early America by following three young Americans on the fringes of alternative religion. Watch these films to be informed, inspired, and moved.
SundanceNOW’s Doc Club, which is curated by renowned film festival programmer Thom Powers, offers subscribers streaming access to a monthly-themed selection of documentaries, along with the entire archive of previous months. For of $4.99/month, $19.99/six months or $29.99/year, doc lovers have access to many of the most acclaimed documentaries in recent years as well as many classics from filmmakers like Joe Berlinger, Errol Morris, Alain Berliner and many, many others
Interview: Alex Gibney of “We Steal Secrets: The Wikileaks Story”
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I spoke to Alex Gibney, one of my favorite filmmakers, about his brilliant documentary on Wikileaks.
The most interesting character in the movie is Bradley Manning. Where is he now?
He’s in prison, finally Leavenworth, after eight months in solitary confinement and being kept in a cage in Kuwait. While he was in solitary confinement, he was stripped naked, they took his glasses, they kept the lights on, sleep deprivation, no blanket. It was abusive treatment that rose to the level of torture. It’s really a shocking episode which I think was trying to send a message in the most brutal way possible. Like the British navy used to hoist the wretch on the yardarm of the ship. “Pay attention, if you’re thinking about leaking stuff. This could happen to you.” I made a film about the poor kid, Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan, and I think he’s a scapegoat. Governments and organizations go after someone who’s weak because they can. And Manning was weak — in some ways. In some ways he was very strong. That’s what makes him such an interesting character. He’s what Phil Zimbardo calls “an everyday hero.” He’s not a Daniel Ellsberg type. He doesn’t stand up there with his hands on his lapels and proclaim. He has a lot of problems, a lot of issues, a lot of emotional turbulence in his life. But he was determined to do something. And so he is important to all of us because we are all weak, flawed individuals who can occasionally do something big.
Why would the US military give a troubled, unstable person at a very low rank access to almost unlimited highly sensitive material?
They are desperate for bodies, especially smart people. He was in a discharge unit. A guy who was in it with him says in the movie, “This is the most unlikely military man you could possibly imagine.” But he’s in there because he wants to get a college education. This is the route for poor kids who want to go to college. The army doesn’t want to let him go because he is super-smart. But he has a lot of emotional baggage. He’s gay at a time of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He thinks he might want a sex-change operation.
The music choices in the movie were excellent.
I worked very closely with a guy named Will Bates, from a group called Fall on Your Sword. He created these wonderful themes for each of the characters in an environment where you feel the space of the internet. And all of these people live out worlds in their imagination, and there’s no place to do that better than rock and roll. So you have Midnight Oil, which is a favorite group of Julian Assange. You have Radiohead for James Ball. And for Bradley Manning — he himself says he was listening to Lady Gaga singing “Telephone” while he was downloading the documents. It’s perfect in terms of what she’s concerned about — gender identity, bullying. And then at the end, the Ink Spots, “If I Didn’t Care.” There’s a ghostly quality to that moment, like “The Shining.” It takes you into the past, like an artifact in space that seemed to be mythic in some way.
What did you have to cut out of the movie that we may see on the DVD?
I wish we could have kept more on Julian’s childhood on Magnetic Island off the coast of Queensland. It got its name when Captain Cook sailed by there and said their compasses were “fouled.” What a perfect metaphor for Julian Assange, messing with military compasses. There was a big section we had on Tunisia, and a much longer section on Iceland. That’s when the goal was at its purest and they were operating on this barren rock. It was tough to let it go. This version is a haiku — we had a three hour and thirty minute cut. There are some interesting characters on the DVD extras.
Do we have too many secrets?
Maybe we don’t have enough. You have to assume once you go online, anything you put there can be made public. Yet while you’re online you feel like it’s a private, sacred space. But you’re really broadcasting to the world. When it comes to governments and corporations, we should demand that less is secret. That’s where corruption flowers. When two Reuters journalists are killed and they won’t give the video to Reuters, what’s that about? What about when the images of Abu Gharib were made public? Their concerns were not about what happened, but that when we released the photos we gave comfort to the enemy.
The New York Times and The Guardian play a crucial role in your film in acting as a filter for processing and providing context for the documents Manning provided, and making sure that what was made public was not detrimental to the safety of our troops. What will happen to that function as traditional journalism is in collapse?
There’s a part of this film that argues for renegade organizations like Wikileaks, but there’s a part that argues very strongly for traditional journalism and the kind of decisions you have to make about what should and should not be secret and how stories should be properly contextualized. When I began this movie, I was interested in the leaking machine, the technical challenge and the technical solution, which we may have to continue to pursue as the Obama administration makes journalism more of a crime. But what Manning needed was a journalist, someone in whom he could confide and trust. That relationship turns out to be terribly important.
Instead, he had a relationship — online only — with a man who had the wrenching moral challenge of protecting Manning or telling the police what he knew.
The biggest problem for him is that he lied to Manning. He squeezed him like a lemon. He said, “Your secrets are safe with me.” Maybe he meant it at the time or maybe he had decided to keep probing so he could get more secrets. He’s a complicated character. If you’re a journalist, you have a bigger conundrum. You have to examine whether this information is in the public interest, whether people will be hurt. But Assange would say journalists are too subject to political pressure.
If everything becomes secret and leaking becomes a capital offense – which is what Bradley Manning is facing — where are we at now? You’d think the law would provide us that easy guidance, but it’s much more of a gray area. The job of a journalist is to find out stuff. The job of the government — sometimes — is to keep stuff secret. There’s a natural tension there. But now they want to make finding out stuff a crime.
Who should decide what is private?
It can’t just be corporations or government. It has to be all of us.
The internet has made it possible to share all of the world’s knowledge. Sometimes that is a good thing, whether we’re able to track down just the exact item we want at the lowest possible price or make micro-loans to entrepreneurs in emerging economies, tracking down lost friends and family, or crowd-sourcing complex problems. Sometimes it is a bad thing as when personal or embarrassing information we think of as private becomes very public. In essence, it is great when we have access to other people’s information; not so great when they have access to ours.
So, who decides what stays secret? This brilliant documentary from Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Taxi to the Dark Side”) explores that question through the stories of two mesmerizing personalities, itself a meta-narrative as the documentarian is exposing the secrets of the secret-sharers.
In 1989, a worm infected more than 300,000 computer systems throughout the world. Like a real-life “WarGames,” it was the work of a smart-alecky teenager. It was Julian Assange, who would grow up to found Wikileaks, a website set up to receive and make public confidential material, protecting the people — whistle-blowers or thieves, depending on your point of view — who provided it.
And then there was Bradley Manning, a private in the U.S. military. Like Assange, he had exceptional computer skills. He had personal and philosophical reasons to be angry at the U.S. government. He was struggling with issues of sexuality and gender identity. He was isolated. And no one thought he was a risk.
The combination was like gasoline and a match, or maybe the Enola Gay and Fat Man. This is the story of two men who think of themselves as following in the tradition of Daniel Ellsberg in exposing the secrets of military operations, while at the same time they are exposing the vulnerability of our systems for keeping information restricted. If what is released brings to light shameful violations of core principles of honor and integrity, is it honorable to make it public? What if it exposes our operations to our enemies?
Gibney’s portrayal is itself a model of even-handed, serious consideration of these issues, as highly principled and professional organizations (the New York Times and The Guardian) play a responsible filtering function in sorting through “a mountain of secrets dumped into the public domain” and providing perspective and judgment, and as Assange and Manning themselves find their own secrets exposed to the world and are charged with crimes that have led to Manning’s being imprisoned under the severest of conditions and Assange essentially a prisoner unable to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London without being extradited to Sweden to be prosecuted for sexual assault. The film explains that 9/11 was a “watershed moment for the world of secrets,” for both keepers and sharers. There was an unprecedented need to track terrorists and that meant an unprecedented sharing of information. And that meant that a young private had easy access to endless classified material. It was routine for the bored young soldiers to bring in blank CD’s to download music while they worked. It appeared that is what he was doing, but he was downloading hundreds of thousands of documents.
“Was it once not considered patriotic to stand up to our government when it’s wrong?” someone asks. Well, maybe. But not at the time. There is a lot of blaming the messenger for the bad news in this movie, perhaps most sickeningly in the attacks on the women who have accused Assange of abuse. And, as is so often the case, heroes are not the lantern-jawed Boy Scouts we want them to be. That’s in the movies. No fictional story could have come up with the almost sociopathic arrogance of Assange, who likes to brag that “I’m a combative person so I like crushing bastards” or the anguished Manning, whose betrayal of his country is matched by his betrayal by the one person he trusted, an online-only friend who gave his name to the authorities.
The government will always try to control information, whether it is George W. Bush prohibiting the release of images of coffins of dead soldiers or protecting the names of CIA field personnel. The government will aways try to get information, whether it is tracking down Bin Laden or seizing the phone records of reporters. This thoughtful, balanced, essential examination of the clash between privacy and transparency exemplifies the best that intelligence, dedication, and honor can bring to illuminating these issues — and the devastating impact of leaving those decisions to the arrogant and unstable.
Parents should know that this film includes some images of war violence and discussions of sexual assault and gender identity issues.
Family discussion: How do we “destroy corruption?” How do we achieve “a more civilized and just society?” Is there a way to keep secrets? Should there be?
If you like this, try: “The Most Dangerous Man in the America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” and “Gatekeepers,” with the former heads of the Israeli secret service revealing their own most classified secrets about shameful episodes in the conduct of their efforts to keep Israel safe.
I wonder if Rachel McAdams has a sense of deja vu — this feels a lot like “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” And a lot like “Groundhog Day.” But, coming from the guy who wrote “Notting Hill” and “Love Actually,” it just could be wonderful. Coming in November.
Please, please don’t call this third entry in the story of Celine and Jesse the final chapter of a trilogy. The audience is almost as invested in them as we are in the stories of the “Up” movie documentary series that has visited a group of English people every seven years since they were children and now shows us how they are doing in their 50′. Those of us who follow the series know their stories almost as well as our own and look forward to the next installment as though it was a college reunion of our friends.
We almost feel that way about Jesse and Celine. They may be fictional characters, but they are so closely connected with the actors who play them and co-write the screenplays that are so intimate, so true to the nature of love in ways that movies seldom approach that it invites us into their most intimate moments, and our own. Most movies take shortcuts when the characters fall in love, giving us a quick, “You’re a fan of that esoteric musician/writer/sports figure no one heard of? So am I!” or just a montage with a pop song while the couple bicycles on the beach and marvels over the choices in an open market.
But the first in this series, “Before Sunrise,” was that rarest of films that show us that falling in love is when you start a conversation you never want to end. Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a college student on his last night in Europe before returning to America, impetuously invites a French student named Celine (Julie Delpy) to get off the train and spend the night with him, walking around Vienna. They talk about life, love, and everything and agree to meet in six months and part without exchanging contact information. This was 18 years ago, before texting, tweeting, Google, and Facebook. Writer-director Richard Linklater did not plan to tell another Jesse and Celeste story, though he did include a brief scene with the two of them talking in bed in his animated film, “Waking Life.”
That scene, as marvelous as it was, was non-canon (or, as comic books would say, “an imaginary story”). When we meet them again nine years after their original meeting in “Before Sunset,” they have not seen each other since they said goodbye in Vienna. Like “An Affair to Remember,” one of them was there six months later, and one had a good reason we will find out for not being there. Jesse, married and with a young son, is a writer whose recent novel was inspired by his night with Celine. When he goes to a book signing in Paris, she is there. Once again, he has to catch a plane back to America, and once again they walk through a European city and talk and talk and talk. This time, Hawke and Delpy were credited as co-writers. In the swooningly romantic last moment (spoiler alert), he misses the plane to stay with her.
And now, another nine years have gone by, and they walk around another spectacularly beautiful city, this time on their last night of a working vacation in Greece. Once again, there is a plane returning to America, but this time it is taking Jesse’s son back to his mother, Jesse’s now-ex-wife. It is a wrenching goodbye, in part because Jesse’s son, a young teenager, is so mature and understanding. “It’s like sending him back across enemy lines,” he tells Celine. “This is the one thing I promised myself I would never do.” And then Jesse gets some bad news from home, increasing his sense of isolation from his home.
Jesse and Celine are happily unmarried and the parents of twin girls. In the first movie, they had the excited rhythm of very young people discovering the pleasures of connection. In the second, they had the tentative rhythms of people who knew pain and loss and were struggling to trust again, exploring the possibility of re-connecting. Here, in a long drive from the airport, they talk with the rhythm of people who are deeply connected, laughing, sometimes pointedly, about petty irritations, skirting old wounds. They are comfortable with each other, but struggling to keep a sense of themselves as individuals and as people in love in the midst of domestic chaos. Jesse hates being away from his son, but cannot get custody so he can live with them in France or move back to the United States without disrupting Celine and their daughters.
They have a long, luscious lunch with friends who exemplify every stage of love and talk about meaning and memory and love and art and relationships and the notion of self and the differences between the sexes and the way each generation thinks it is inventing the world and watching it collapse. When they were young, they could not wait and wanted everything to speed up. Now, they want everything to slow down.
Then once again Jesse and Celine go for a long walk and talk, sparing, flirting, testing each other. Their friends have given them every parent’s greatest desire, a night away from the children. They find themselves in a surprisingly generic hotel room, begin to make love, and then enter into the kind of massive meltdown of an argument that only people who know each other very, very well can have. Early in the film, talking about her career, Celine says she is “tired of being a do-gooder that rolls the boulder up the hill” like Sisyphus. We get the feeling that the same applies to the stresses of keeping a relationship strong and intimate when you have to spend so much time scheduling and handing off.
They sit to watch a sunset. Celine says, “Still there, still there, still there….gone.” They know that ahead of them lies loss of all kinds. Will they face it together? There are movies where the sequels are so bad that they reduce your affection for the originals. With this series, each film deepens the meaning and sensibility of the story so that now, taken as one whole, the three (so far) have become one of the most romantic stories in the history of film. I’m counting the days until part four.
Parents should know that this film includes very strong and crude language, sexual references and situations, female nudity, and tense emotional confrontations.
Family discussion: How do the other people who join Jesse and Celine for lunch illuminate the stages of relationships? What do you think will happen to them in the next nine years?
If you like this, try: “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” the Canadian film “The Barbarian Invasions” and one of the best movies ever made about a relationship over many years, “Two for the Road” with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney