Sonia Kennebeck is an independent documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist with more than 20 years of directing and producing experience. She has directed eight television documentaries and more than 50 investigative reports. National Bird, her first feature-length film, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival 2016 and was also selected for Tribeca, Sheffield, and IDFA. She lives in New York where she runs her own production company, Codebreaker Films, that makes films about international politics and human rights. Her latest film, Reality Winner, is currently playing in select theaters across the United States.
When people ask me in Q&As and interviews why I made a film about Reality Winner, I have a set answer. I say that I was drawn to Reality’s story early on. When I read that she had been arrested, I paid attention to her case because I’m interested in national security stories and I know how rare national security whistleblowers are. (My interest in national security stories started when I moved to the U.S. as a student just a couple of weeks after 9/11 and was a witness to all the policies that were put into place after that event.) I say that I also understand how severe the Espionage Act and these types of investigations are. But that’s the short answer, not the full answer.
The longer, more complex answer is that I have a personal connection to the Espionage Act and whistleblowers that started with my previous film, National Bird, which is about three whistleblowers who broke the silence around the United States’ secret drone war. What I experienced during the production of National Bird, when my lead protagonist Daniel was raided by the FBI, directly led to me wanting to make a film about Reality.
I was already filming with Daniel when the raid happened. He called me in the middle of the night and asked me for help getting in touch with an attorney who specializes in whistleblower protection. That’s why I was so personally involved from the very beginning in what happened. I connected him with a whistleblower attorney, Jesselyn Radack, who is still representing him today. All of us together, under the advice of the attorneys that we were working with, decided we would continue filming and complete National Bird. Much later, it turned out that the raid had nothing to do with the film, but because I had been documenting Daniel’s story for such a long time, I knew I was also part of his investigation. We’d had a lot of communication, and as part of an Espionage Act investigation the FBI goes through the person’s messages and phone records, so I knew my communication with Daniel would be part of it. I wasn’t concerned about anything that we had said, because I made sure that no one I had contact with for National Bird disclosed classified material to us, but I was worried about my own research, connections and communications with other people. As a journalist, you have a responsibility to protect your sources, which is a huge part of what Reality Winner’s story is about.
Protecting sources is now becoming increasingly difficult due to electronic communication and the government having the technological capabilities to restore everyone’s communication and then go back later and find something that can be used against someone. Or even just private information. It’s incredibly intrusive. Reality’s story was so personal to me because that’s what happened to her: the government used personal information – even her diary entries, her communications with her sister, the jokes that they were making – and built a case against her with things that really didn’t have anything to do with the document she leaked. That’s why this story and this film should really concern all of us, not just journalists and filmmakers, because anybody can become part of such an investigation. And everything you ever said can be taken out of context and be used against you. It’s really important to me that everyone knows and understands this. I think the public is starting to get aware of it, but I really hope that people don’t self-censor as a result, or are afraid to speak their minds or share personal thoughts with family members. What we need to do instead is push back against this mass surveillance and mass storage of personal data.
It definitely was stressful making a film about Reality, who was suffering so greatly in jail, and then later on in prison, and also having an overlapping timeline where Daniel was going through something very similar. Daniel’s case started under the Obama administration, but not much happened until Trump was elected. His administration wanted to go after whistleblowers much more harshly, with all the force they had. Reality was the first person they arrested and they wanted to make an example out of her, but then they also began looking at previous cases, one of which was Daniel’s.
The beauty of cinema is that you can do hard-hitting pieces of investigative journalism, but also include the emotional component and the personal story. That’s why I transitioned from journalism to film, because when I worked in investigative and broadcast journalism, I felt so constrained by the form. The pieces were much shorter and I had to limit the information to the pure facts, so there was usually not much space for the human impact of the events I was focusing on. My films are based on extensive research, but they are also always about people. Many really powerful stories develop their emotional impact over time, when you become part of people’s lives and see what develops. In the case of Reality, if we had just filmed once or twice at her pre-trial hearings and had shown her family’s anguish, that would have been emotionally impactful, but what really allows you to become part of her story is continuing to be with her and her family over all the time she was incarcerated. It’s not just a snapshot of a moment.
Sometimes, you have to follow stories for multiple years. For us, the film wasn’t complete until Reality was released from prison and could then comment on her own emotions and feelings, complementing the material we’d captured over a long period of time. The trust that Reality showed toward me came from me and my crew working on the film over many years. I think that played a very big role in the interview she gave me once she was released, in how vulnerable she was and how much of herself she revealed. During her prosecution, it was very difficult for me to be in contact with her because of all the government’s restrictions. All our communication was monitored, so what we talked about was highly restricted as we just didn’t want to risk anything. I was extremely cautious and didn’t ask the questions I really wanted to ask, because we didn’t want to give the FBI anything that could potentially be used against her.
The first time I was able to talk to Reality very openly was when I met her after her release. We had a conversation without the camera, just the two of us connecting and speaking alone. And my interview with her was the first she gave after her release from prison, so you can really in that moment sense how she was talking about many things for the very first time.
Featured image by E.J. Enriquez shows Reality Winner in Reality Winner; all images courtesy Sonia Kennebeck.