Interview with ALEX GIBNEY

by Simon on July 1, 2013 · 0 comments

Even for Academy Award-winning Alex Gibney, it was one of those extraordinary moments as a documentary filmmaker. In the middle of an interview with US General Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, Hayden leaned into camera and confidently said: “Now look, let me be candid, all right. We steal secrets. We steal other nation’s secrets.”

AGIt’s hardly surprising that this incredulous confession gave Gibney the name for his film – WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS – a thoughtful documentary about Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, secrets, lies, power and the poorly understood nature of the internet. A man with a strong mistrust of institutions, Gibney won an Oscar for his 2007 documentary TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, a film about the USA’s policy on interrogation and torture. Other documentaries of his have explored the Enron collapse, sex scandals in New York politics and, earlier this year, the history of child abuse in the Catholic Church. He has a reputation for being thorough and impartial, for shining a light in the dark cupboards of large and powerful organisations.

Which is why he was talking to General Hayden, the man who headed the CIA from 2006 to 2009 after being the chief of military intelligence for the previous five years. Hayden’s term as boss at Langley coincided with the rise of Wikileaks and Bradley Manning’s now infamous passing to Wikileaks of thousands of military files, including the shocking video of a US army helicopter attack in the streets of Baghdad that left innocent journalists and children dead. Hayden comments in his interview with Gibney that, whilst he is not troubled by the sickening footage, he understands why others would be. Hayden is more interested in the big picture, and frames in his response to Gibney, one of the most fascinating issues that is explored in the film: “when I was director of CIA there was some stuff we were doing I wanted all 300 million Americans to know. But I never figured out a way without informing a whole bunch of other people that didn’t have a right to that information who may actually use that image, or that fact or that data or that message, to harm my country.” It’s a candid reflection – one that traps secrets in the Big Brother no-man’s zone between accountability and responsibility. But it was the statement a moment later in the interview that stopped Gibney in his tracks, the moment when Hayden admitted on camera that the US Government steals information. “I was gobsmacked,” says Gibney, “Hayden was saying that the government stole secrets and that we should accept that and leave them alone. It’s tyranny.”

westealIt was the exercise of this kind of power – with its dreadful irony in this case – that drew Gibney to story of Wikileaks. “It was the classic David-and-Goliath story” he says, “one man, armed only with a computer, against the world. By creating a transparency machine, Julian Assange was going to hold governments and corporations to account.”
And whilst there has been a mountain of coverage of Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and more recently Bradley Manning, in the media in the past five years – Gibney provides a calm exploratory voice, picking away at the misinformation and myth-making that has occurred on both sides of the power struggle. In particular, he opens up a refreshing examination of the sexual assault charges Assange has yet to face in Sweden, securing an interview with one of the women involved. The case, and Assange’s handling of it, seems to be a turning point in the story. “Assange was good at being a David,” says Gibney, “but he wanted to be seen as another Golaith. But when you’re playing with Goliath’s it’s not going to end up well for you.” By then a popular figure, Assange carefully avoided making any clear statements about the sex assault allegations, preferring to let others come to the conclusion that he was set up in a honey trap. “Julian loves a mystery,” says Gibney, “and he loves to create a space where he’s the victim. It’s that space that gives him he reason for what he’s doing.”
Gibney spend a great deal of time trying to get an interview with Assange for the film, but to no avail. Assange reportedly asked for a million dollars for a filmed session, along with extensive editorial control. Gibney declined, but wasn’t concerned. “I’ve become very used to people not granting me an interview so I don’t have expectations any more,” he says. “There is always a way to get the information you want and tell the story. Julian Assange wanted me to say to him that I couldn’t make this film without him. That wasn’t the case.” Part of Gibney’s solution was using the extensive footage shot by Australian journalist Mark Davis, who spent a month with Assange at the height of Wikileaks’ rise to popular consciousness. “We did a deal with Davis,” says Gibney “and agreed that his footage would be used – but always in context. Davis did a smart thing going to Stockholm and hanging around with Assange at that time. The footage is excellent.”
Interlaced with the carefully researched facts of the Wikileaks story are more intimate glimpses of the three main characters – Assange himself, Bradley Manning and Adrian Lamo, the hacker-turned-informer who reported Manning’s activities to US authorities. Gibney introduces Lamo and Manning using details of text chats the two shared online. They make for fascinating – and at times – eerily emotional storytelling, Manning confiding his most personal concerns to Lamo, unaware that he was being drawn into a trap. Gibney agrees that the chats are compelling. “Those texts were so embedded in the moment and so raw that there’s a strong sense of the person behind them. It seemed more powerful to just show them as they were rather than do some kind of hokey recreation. It was interesting: I could see and show a character purely through the letters he typed into a computer.”
It’s the focus on these idiosyncratic characters where the film’s heart lies. Gibney believes that – like many whistle blowers – they are “alienated tormented souls whose great value is that they don‘t go along.” But he also believes it’s their curse: “They need affection; they need recognition; they need support. Bradley Manning had a need to share what he was doing and Adrian Lamo turned out to be very seductive on line.”

Then Gibney talks about what is perhaps the big story behind all the details, all the deeply flawed characters and all the dirty power plays. It’s a thought about the nature of the internet itself, a human technology that is pervasively misunderstood: “the internet is a glorious organism, a vast piece of connective tissue that binds us all together. It‘s surprisingly intimate. Yet, it’s is also a place where people imagine that they don‘t have to be held to account in the same way that we are when we talk face to face. And for governments, it’s become a spying machine”

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