HotDocs14: Silenced

During the Q & A, director James Spione said he originally intended Silenced to be a spotlight, a means to draw public attention to the development of the United States as a surveillance state post-9/11 and the whistleblowers who have spoken out against the process, and suffered for it. Spione’s film was in production well before the name Edward Snowden hit headlines in 2013, but now, in the wake of Snowden’s leaks and the public debate they have generated, Spione’s film is perhaps more of a hot-button piece than an unexpected spotlight.

The documentary does shed light, though, on whistleblowers likely unknown to the viewer. Edward Snowden is not the subject. Instead, the film focuses on Thomas Drake, Jesselyn Radak, and John Kiriakou. Drake is a former executive of the National Security Agency who raised concerns about the NSA’s spying on American citizens. Radak, once an advisor in the Department of Justice, got into trouble questioning the ethics and legality of the interrogation of American citizen turned insurgent John Walker Lindh. He has subsequently become a defender of whistleblowers such as Drake and Kiriakou. Kiriakou was formerly a CIA analyst and case officer. He called public attention to the use of waterboarding as a regular technique for interrogating al-Qaeda prisoners.

The documentary’s approach is both personal and political. Spione wants the viewer to get to know each of the whistleblowers, their backgrounds and motivations as well as the difficulties, trials and intimidations they have endured since speaking out. The film also tells the story of a sea change in US intelligence post-9/11. After the bombing of the Twin Towers, American surveillance systems turned inward, now watching American citizens as well as foreigners. The film asserts that the current regime of secrecy and surveillance is incompatible with constitutional democracy, and that one will give, or already has.

In order to capture both the personal and political narratives, the camera follows Drake, Radak, and Kiriakou through their recent experiences, while the viewer is also shown clips from the news, photographs, and images of redacted files. Drake, Radak, and Kiriakou provide most of the voice-over narration. Another prominent feature is the use of reenactments to visualize the events they recount. The reenactments are in black and white and silent. These black and white glimpses of secret meetings and confrontations recall the intercutting of Oliver Stone’s highly politicized JFK or Nixon. Together with the stirring score, the reenactments add a lot of drama to the commentary and fact listing, making this a very accessible exposure and excoriation of the rise of the US surveillance state.

8 out of 10

Silenced (USA)

Directed by James Spione.