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FDL Movie Night: Silenced

By: Monday December 1, 2014 4:46 pm

2014 “SILENCED” TRAILER from James Spione on Vimeo.

During President Barack Obama’s presidency, a record number of government employees have been prosecuted for leaking or blowing the whistle. Several of them have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law that was intended to be used against spies and not for punishing people who disclose information without authorization. Simultaneously, the amount of information being kept secret by the government has increased exponentially while the United States expands the reach of its global security state.

Silenced immerses viewers in this world.

The film, directed by James Spione, tells the personal stories of three whistleblowers—former NSA employee Thomas Drake, former Justice Department employee Jesselyn Radack and former CIA officer John Kiriakou. These three stories are likely familiar to those that regularly read Firedoglake, however, no piece of writing here at FDL has offered the intimacy that Spione’s film powerfully achieves.

Drake blew the whistle on NSA surveillance and what the government should have known prior to 9/11. Radack blew the whistle on how John Walker Lindh (“American Taliban”) was being treated when she uncovered evidence that the Justice Department was trying to conceal how it had violated his due process rights. Kiriakou blew the whistle when he said on ABC News in 2007 that waterboarding was torture and it was part of Bush administration policy.

Spione draws the audience into the lives of these whistleblowers. He demonstrates they are not government drones but thinking and breathing intelligent people with families and children. And consciences too.

The emotional arcs of each of their stories combine to show the merciless nature of the government in their commitment to making an example out of whistleblowers who challenge the abuse or misconduct of institutions. The very real impact on the families of each of these people is depicted and recounted on screen.

Spione developed a rapport with Drake, Kiriakou and Radack, like all good documentary filmmakers must do. This made the three whistleblowers comfortable with opening up and describing very intimate aspects of their struggle so viewers could truly begin to grasp what someone means when they say President Obama has engaged in a war on whistleblowers.

(Click link to view)

NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake: How surveillance and data collection can be used against you from James Spione on Vimeo.

The crucial role of media in these cases is given attention as well. For Drake, he says it was a “saving grace.” Part of what contributed to his case collapsing was the coverage from “60 Minutes,” an editorial from the Washington Post against his prosecution and a feature story in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer. (That story is a major part of how Spione discovered what was happening to him.)

One of the more remarkable scenes in the film is when NBC anchor of “The Today Show,” Savannah Guthrie, is interviewing Kiriakou just after he has been sentenced to time in prison. Many of Guthrie’s questions seem to come straight from a government prosecutor.

The full interview is online, however, Spione was granted access to bring a camera into the studio while the interview was happening. He was able to capture the aggressive nature of Guthrie’s interview right up to where she whispers, “Take care,” just after grilling Kiriakou on television.

The sequence raises the question: Is it really the job of a media anchor to litigate the government’s case or should she have had someone from the Justice Department on the show if this is really what she wanted to talk about? Because in this moment when Kiriakou had rare access to the court of public opinion, the scene in the film shows Guthrie impeding his effort to argue he is a whistleblower and should be pardoned.

Finally, with Citizenfour, the documentary on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden by Laura Poitras, screening in select theaters, it is worth briefly comparing the two films. Citizenfour provides a remarkable glimpse at what goes through the mind of a whistleblower, as he is making split-second decisions that will determine how the public responds or does not respond to his disclosures of information and whether he remains free. That real-time drama was not captured on video for Silenced. On the other hand, Silenced does a better job of presenting the war on whistleblowers as it has unfolded during Obama’s presidency. The way the film is structured also is better, making it easier for people who know very little about this topic to understand the issues whistleblowers in America face.

(Click link to view)

Whistleblower John Kiriakou on government surveillance: “It’s an issue of basic, fundamental American rights.” from James Spione on Vimeo.

FDL Movie Night: Citizen Autistic

By: Monday November 17, 2014 4:21 pm

Citizen Autistic is the followup to director William Davenport’s film Too Sane for This World, which documents the lives of 12 people living with either autism or Asperger’s syndrome. In Citizen Autistic, Davenport explores institutional challenges faced by people within the community when dealing with a world that thinks they need to be “cured,” and organizations that exploit their condition and deny them self-advocacy.

The film begins by documenting the horrific practices inflicted under the guise of “treatment” at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts, and the efforts to ban them. But it segues quickly into the conflicts within the autism community regarding the operations and objectives of Autism Speaks, the 1000 pound gorilla advocacy group.

Through interviews with people like Ari Ne’eman of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network Landon Bryce of the Autcast, Davenport paints a portrait of an organization that sucks up all the money using fear-mongering propaganda techniques that stigmatize people with autism, funneling the lion’s share into the search for a genetic “cure.”

Perhaps more damning, however, is the way in which people with autism feel they are denied self-advocacy by Autism Speaks. There are no people with autism on the organization’s board, and the activists interviewed feel that its goals are primarily defined by families who feel burdened by the challenges that autism can present and just want it to go away, rather than by people who feel that it is an integral part of who they are.

Davenport documents the lavish salaries that Autism Speaks pays its staff, and asserts that only a small fraction of the money it raises each year goes to provide services to people with autism. These kinds of problems are not new to big foot advocacy groups (I’m looking at you, Susan G. Komen), but the way in which members of the autism community feel exploited, stigmatized and excluded by Autism Speaks are. The film actually documents efforts of intermediaries to moderate discussions between advocates with disparate goals, and the film will hopefully play an important role in bringing the battle for self-advocacy to the fore.

FDL Movie Night: Some Kind of Spark

By: Monday November 3, 2014 4:00 pm

It’s hard to know whether to feel tremendously uplifted or outrageously depressed after watching Some Kind of Spark, the documentary by Ben Niles following the lives of children who participate in Julliard’s Music Advancement Program (MAP) for inner-city youth.  It’s a reminder of how much the lives of children are enriched by a musical education — and sadly an implicit lament about how children are increasingly being robbed of such opportunities.

One of the most appealing aspects of both the MAP program and the film is that the children who participate are not culled from elite musicians, nor should they be.  We meet Pete, a young boy who has just arrived in New York after the earthquake in Haiti.  He’s never played a flute before, but that’s what he wants to learn in the program.  Alejandro wants to be a drummer and have a career in music.  Rahman plays the trombone.  Kara is a violinist whose mother often pushes her when she’d rather be texting with her friends.  Ami dreams of being a bass player like Esperanza Spalding.

The relationships the children develop with their mentors are often touching, as we see in the moment Rahman “gets it” and his teacher observes that he has learned to do more than just methodically bang out notes — he is starting to feel the music.  Alejandro’s teacher coaches him through stage fright before a recital.  And when Ami freezes on stage and can’t remember the notes in her performance, her fellow students nonetheless rise to give her a standing ovation in support.

If I had to pick one must-see moment in the film, however, it would be the violin master class taught by Charles Yang where he plays Lady Gaga for the kids.  He tells the story of how his friends used to want him to jam, and he would say “will you have music for me,” because that’s what he knew how to do.  But if you look at his face as he plays, you can see that he has moved far past that, to the point that he found his voice and now speaks through the violin.  It’s a tremendously inspirational moment and you can see the faces of the kids come alive as they start to understand exactly what it is they could achieve:

The film itself primarily focuses on the lives of the children in the MAP program.  The filmmakers provided copious amounts of material online throughout the filmmaking process, however, both on Youtube and as regular Kickstarter updates.  And I found that the sample reel actually explores a very critical point about musical education programs implicit in the film.  Many of the people working in the MAP program were also the beneficiaries of such programs, and they readily admit their lives might not have unfolded so well without them.  Like it or not, familiarity with classical music — and the ability to play it — can be a passport to the upper middle class for inner city kids.  To deny them such opportunities just makes their lives, and any chance at upward class mobility, that much harder.

It’s a lovely and enjoyable film, although I will nitpick a bit and say I found the ending where they intercut the “where are they now” updates with the film’s credits to be a bit maddening.  Right as all of the kids are auditioning to go on to the much more difficult third year of the program, the film ends, and the bios of some of the kids (particularly Ami) are left a bit dangling.  It’s a small quibble, however.  There is a lot of magic in the film, and with all the focus on the demand for science and math education (so we can churn out more minions to serve the techno empire or something), it’s also a sad measure of what we’re losing.  And what we’ve lost.

Some Kind of Spark premieres Sunday, November 16 at the DocNYC Film Festival


14: Dred Scott, Wong Kim Ark & Vanessa Lopez

By: Monday October 27, 2014 3:11 pm

14: Dred Scott, Wong Kim Ark & Vanessa Lopez is a film about the 14th Amendment, exploring the history of how citizenship came to be granted to all children born on U. S. soil, and the attacks that are currently being waged against that right. The first section of the film is devoted to the [...]

FDL Movie Night: It’s Better to Jump

By: Monday October 20, 2014 4:15 pm

Please welcome Co-Director and Co-Producer Gina Angelone in the comments It’s Better to Jump tells the story of the Palestinian city of Akka (literally “acre”) which is part of historic Palestine, and now sits on the coast of northern Israel.  In 1750 the Ottoman Empire ruler Daher el-Omar built a wall on the ocean side of [...]

FDL Movie Night – Forward 13: Waking Up The American Dream

By: Monday October 13, 2014 2:48 pm

Forward 13: Waking Up the American Dream starts off as the very personal story of how filmmaker Patrick Lovell and his family bought their first home and then lost it as a result of predatory lending practices. It’s ironic, because Lovell himself was producer for the nationally syndicated show HomeTeam during this time, which helped families purchase and renovate new homes who otherwise could not afford it.

FDL Movie Night: AYA: Awakenings

By: Monday October 6, 2014 4:55 pm

AYA: Awakenings begins as independent journalist Rak Razam sets out for South America to explore the burgeoning business of shamanistic tourism, replete with a Shaman convention. The film quickly detours, however, and documents Razam’s own experience with ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew made out of the jungle vine Banisteriopsis caapi, which contains an MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor).

FDL Movie Night: A Survey of Open Space

By: Monday September 22, 2014 4:55 pm

It takes a while to settle into watching A Survey of Open Space, the documentary by Austin visual artist Peat Duggins. Anyone looking for the filmmaker to impose dramatic narrative devices on this film about a cross-country bike trek will be sorely disappointed. There is no pumped up character conflict, no artificial suspense or second act reversals. Those [...]

Late Night: The Endless Gothic Summer

By: Tuesday August 26, 2014 7:54 pm

In Southern California, it feels as if summer is a sun-proof vampire, immortal, a never-ending gothic summer of drought and car chases, punctuated by shootings, stabbings and beatings, heartbreak and horror.  In his blog The Westsider, author, journalist and Los Angeles native Rodrigo Ribera D’Ebre recalls: People would hear more gun shots at night and [...]

Late Night: Chris Kluwe Scores Win for LGBT!

By: Tuesday August 19, 2014 7:54 pm

I don’t know a whole lot about football. In a pinch I will root for the Ravens because they are named for the quintessential Edgar Allen Poe poem (though one hopes their Super Bowl win will not live up to the poem’s refrain). Up until a couple years ago I thought the Vikings were cool, [...]

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