SXSW 2021: United States Vs Reality Winner (2021)

Courtesy of Torsten Lapp/SXSW

To many, history is just one damned thing after another to some. To Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, ‘it’s a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.’ At the moment, it feels like a tape that’s being fast forwarded on a loop. So much so that I’ll admit when I saw the title for Sonia Kennebeck’s new film, I really had to think hard about who Reality Winner was, mixing her up with Chelsea Manning. The information overload, the 24 hour news cycle and just the sheer mass of stuff that seems to have happened over the last five years threatens to crush you. 

And for this United States Vs Reality Winner is a very necessary and worthwhile film. Just to be clear, Reality Winner was a 25 year old outside contractor for the NSA. She was arrested for leaking a classified report to the Intercept which detailed Russian interference in the 2016 election. In the media, the scandal of the interference and the attack on American democracy was quickly overtaken by the jokes about her name and then the smear campaign against her character. Painted as a radical who hated America, jottings from her journal and messages to her sister were selectively used to reinforce this image. Despite this, the now public report had a series of consequences, not least of which was ensuring that the 2020 election was safeguarded from interference.

Using tapes of the FBIs initial conversation with Winner as well as access to her family and experts in the field, Kennebeck’s film is a forcefully constructed argument and a reclaiming of a character from the public space. Reality comes across as an exceptionally intelligent and committed individual who did the right thing. It also succeeds in condemning a society that brands whistleblowing as criminal and especially when it uses a law as draconian as the Espionage Act to handle internal dissent. What is the most disturbing aspect is the way The Intercept apparently facilitated Winner’s arrest by handing over the document and the envelope it came in to the authorities ‘for verification’. The breezy way editor Betsy Reed claims that she would’ve been caught anyway doesn’t exactly instil confidence in an outlet which actively encourages whistleblowing. 

Despite the stalwart work of Winner’s mother, sister and step father, Reality remains in prison – though she is due for release later this year. Once more the pandemic proves to be a stick in the spokes of all things good. This film deserves to be in cinemas with Q&As and an activists campaign to accompany it. That said there’s nothing particularly innovative about the film. The reconstruction of her arrest is particularly unconvincing with the real audio accompanying blurry shakycam film. Winner’s own legal inability to participate in the film also means that her voice is largely missing except for indirect quotes read by an actress. Even here though we can appreciate Reality’s sly humour. Her description of prison: ‘Worse summer camp ever. No bears.’ Hopefully, we shall soon be able to hear her voice and the voices of those who appreciate the sacrifice she made for the good of her country. 

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 94′
Year: 2021
Director/producer: Sonia Kennebeck
Producer: Ines Hofmann Kanna
Cinematographer: Torsten Lapp
Editor: Maxine Goedicke
Composer: Insa Rudolph
Sound Recordist: Richard Adams, Aisha Hallgren, Maren Poitras
Re-recording Mixer/ Sound Editor: Gisela Fulla-Silvestre
Visual Effects: Kadi Diallo
Aerial Photography: Tortsen Lapp
Additional Cinematography: Alejandro Mejia, Maren Poitras