Director:Cyril Tuschi | Writers:Georg Tschurtschenthaler
Cyril Tuschi | Contributors: Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, Daniel Ellsberg.
Whistleblower: a noun synonymous today with the likes Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and more recently, Jeremy Hammond. Activists, journalists, risk-takers – people like you and I, with genuine convictions to expose the underhand tactics of the organisations that, we’re told, are set up to protect our human rights, our privacy. Hijacked and spun continuously through media sensationalism, to explain away the altogether much sinister, complex and in a lot of cases incomprehensible violations, the whistleblower is no longer a faceless prerequisite to bringing about a cause, it’s a way of securing a fate as public enemy number one, on a global scale.
Digital Dissidents is just one of many recent efforts to draw attention to history’s more recent whistleblowers and arguably most notorious; the films theme: why do these men and women decide to flip the switch when they do? And what is the subsequent sacrifice doing it?
Unfortunately for Director, Cyril Tuschi, the weight of pulling together such extensive and detailed documentation, from well-known contributors, is perhaps too much of a task. The result is a payoff that is in engaging, however, not quite as illuminating as it may think it is. What are we learning that many people didn’t already know, or that hasn’t been told better?
The films most attractive quality also gives way to its perturbing limitations. Tuschi has some enviable access to some of the corporate, tech and political world’s most formidable whistleblower experts.We’re talking some of the most interesting people in living memory: The Godfather and lauded activist, Daniel Ellsberg right down to modern-day robin hood-esque ‘hack-tivist’ Edward Snowden.
Julian Assange, who makes a satisfactory and lengthy contribution from the confines of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and Snowden are two names certainly committed to a permanent space on the 21st century, pop cultural wall of fame. Unfortunately only one of them (Assange) has direct commentary with the filmmaker whilst the other is only ever viewed in a tertiary context: we watch on a screen, what only the director sees, on a screen – during a hackers conference.
Legendary anarchists such as Daniel Ellsberg – the man who helped set off the chain of events that would bring down the Nixon administration; Thomas Drake and William “Bill” Binney – the duo who worked both from within and on the frontlines, to exploit the increasingly breach of privacy from the NSA post 9/11- can only do so much to steer this repetitive lost ship. Drake’s talking heads are spread thin across a film and it’s jarring to watch two separate interviews so obviously cut and edited together. Sure, we may empathise with Binney’s stories of him and his family being targeted by the FBI in their own home, or Drake’s tearful admonitions about character assassinations and subsequently only being able to get a job as a manager in an apple store – but there is no anger communicated, and that’s the glaringly fundamental ingredient to why each of the contributors whistleblow.
It’s only fair to point out, that Tuschi had intended to make a feature film on Assange, before that other Assange film with a bigger budget, studio backing and star came along; needless to say Tuschi’s fictional feature fell apart, but and after three years of research and the encouragement of a German production company – Digital Dissidents, the documentary, was born. The five months in which he did have to pull the film together, may explain things like the often too long animated cut aways, and stock-footage of computer rooms and, my personal favourite – a living room from a late 80s complete with a box of a computer.
What Tuschi lacks in documenting the positives and reasons behind the digital pirates like Assange, Snowden and a completely absent Hammond (save for a sketchy animation and throwaway mention) as the title may suggest, he makes up for with the likes of Ellsberg and his incredible insight and words of caution to all that have come after him. This really could have been a great film about Ellsberg, rather than a tepid film about the others.