by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent [FilmFestivals.com]
Cui Bono? That’s the famous Latin line that means “who benefits,” and in the realm of conspiracy theories, this blunt tool ranks right up there with “Historian’s Fallacy” as a go-to. The term historian’s fallacy was minted by Brandeis Professor David Hackett Fischer in 1970, who pointed out the bright idea that even when someone is going through a historic event, or having experienced a historic event, said eyewitness may not have a historical perspective because they have no idea what might hit them next. So since 2016 is The Year Nobody Was a Pundit, as far as the US Presidential Election, and while most of Hollywood is still in shock at the shadow conservative vote in their midst, you’ll forgive a meandering but meaningful segue here into the Oscar Documentary Shortlist and why two films, Zero Days and Hooligan Sparrow, had special resonance. But first, Oliver Stone who executive produced a documentary on investigative journalist, I.F. Stone, directed by Fred Peabody. Unlike Zero Days and Sparrow, this is one that didn’t make the Oscar shortlist, but it’s extremely relevant this year.
Titled ALL GOVERNMENTS LIE: TRUTH, DECEPTION, AND THE SPIRIT OF I.F. STONE, it’s based on the book that examines the influential life of investigative journalist, I.F. Stone “whose long one-man crusade against government deception lives on in the work of such contemporary filmmakers and journalists such as Amy Goodman, Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, Cenk Uygur, Jeremy Scahill, David Corn, and Matt Taibbi.”
Amy Goodman, as you may know, is the figurehead of Democracy Now, a radio program and media beacon of the American Left that recently stood by the stand-down at the Dakota Access Pipeline. Goodman was even arrested there, but released with charges dropped. Laura Poitras is the filmmaker who brought us CitizenFour, the real-life encounter with Edward Snowden that brought government security to its knees, if only for a moment, while the American Public had their digital eyes peeled open. Glenn Greenwald is her cohort in this endeavor, formerly of the Guardian UK, now of his own media hotspot known as The Intercept. The other names are important, but Matt Taibbi is one journalist who stood firm in dissent as the Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” waves crashed onto voter beachheads. Taibbi is very respected because he stayed up to his ankles in the quick sand of changing poll numbers that made this American US Presidential Election the most highly rated quasi-fiasco in the history of US politics. Election 2016 is the ticket-seller that even Hollywood couldn’t come up with as a plot line: Hamburger Hillary vs The Donald. Initially this match-up looked, as one award-worthy internet troll put it, as “don’t bring a Cheeto to a knife fight” in favor of Hillary Clinton as far as the debates. But a strange thing happened on the way to the ballot box, a swirl of fake news, government reveals, and general discontent took over.
And this is why, although ALL GOVERNMENTS LIE didn’t make anybody’s shortlist, it’s an important film to watch. I.F. Stone’s legacy is the history of dissent in its modern form that we know it. He made his reputation as a journalist by flipping over the hallowed cobblestones of the American Democracy so we could get a view under the sheen of tradition. In fact, in 2015, I.F. Stone’s son Jeremy Stone was behind the release of a Knight Foundation documentary “The Legacy of I.F. Stone” produced out of Canada. According to Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept, (Greenwald also has a role in this doc) I.F. Stone is known as “The Patron Saint of Bloggers,” and the first known journalist to tap “unofficial sources.”
And here’s where we went collectively, as a voter nation with the rest of the watching-world dragged with us, down a very, very, very long rabbit hole in the 2016 General Election. It was supposed to be a simple contest to determine who would become the next President of the United States, or POTUS in the shorthand. Yet the whole campaign turned into He Said, She Said, fueled by unnamed sources, hacked documents, and purported criminal activity on display.
I.F. Stone’s pioneering “unofficial sources” gambit in the Digital Age became a hellride into inter-party Spy vs Spy, a weltering clash of Anonymous vs Anonymous Global, and a final FBI Director James Comey showdown vs the CIA “counter coup.” Comey is the one whose October Surprise was a November game-changer for the Clinton campaign as it hinted at a 33,000 email-deletion related indictment imminent for her. Oh wait, he recanted within days. Next, there was even a former US State Department operative, now a sci-fi writer, named Steve Pieczenik who began to leak YouTube videos about the “FBI soft coup” to stop Hillary Clinton, who apparently they’d been tracking for Clinton Foundation fraud, from becoming POTUS. Finally elusive global-hacktivist entity Anonymous really got into the act by flooding YouTube with “Wake Up America” type calls to action to halt the current questions over alleged “Russian” hacking into the US electoral process… exhausting, isn’t it? It’s like everyone on earth and in the media lost the plot in 2016. Even genius poll predictor Nate Silver, who called elections within percentage points in the past, had Donald Trump losing by a 67% chance even as the vote count began.
Again, 2016 is The Year Nobody Was A Pundit. But “unnamed sources” and unsubstantiated allegations, as well as hit videos ruled the day. Although it’s not what was intended by I. F. Stone (no relation to Oliver), this election year is in many ways the slap in the face that Hollywood needed too. When a real life election is more fascinating than any feature film releases on their slate, the Studios can no longer grind out the same rebooted content, folks. People still went to the movie theaters and downloaded filmed content in 2016, but the US Election was beyond gripping – and not in a good way. We’re supposed to be the nation that sets the stage for the much-touted “fair and free elections.” We’re the country that points out the polling stations cheaters in so-called “banana republics,” restores justice when rogue countries go awry and thumbs our nose at humans rights violators with harsh sanctions.
Those very attributes the United States prides itself on came into question in 2016, even the idea that we could shake a fist at corruption in other countries when we ourselves seemed pretty porous as far as scandals from within.
This political preamble is why, in my humble opinion as a critic, two documentaries – Hooligan Sparrow and Zero Days – really mattered on a world-events scale this year. Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin, the tech couple behind Lynda.com, an online tutorial empire they have since sold, hosted a very crucial screening of Hooligan Sparrow, a documentary about women’s rights in China that becomes a visual essay on the struggle for human rights and freedoms on a visceral level.
Here’s the official description of the film:
“The danger is palpable as intrepid young filmmaker Nanfu Wang follows maverick activist Ye Haiyan (a.k.a Hooligan Sparrow) and her band of colleagues to Hainan Province in southern China to protest the case of six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their principal. Marked as enemies of the state, the activists are under constant government surveillance and face interrogation, harassment, and imprisonment. Sparrow, who gained notoriety with her advocacy work for sex workers’ rights, continues to champion girls’ and women’s rights and arms herself with the power and reach of social media.
Filmmaker Wang risks her own life and becomes a target along with Sparrow, as she faces destroyed cameras and intimidation. Yet she bravely and tenaciously keeps shooting, guerrilla-style, with secret recording devices and hidden-camera glasses, and in the process, she exposes a startling number of undercover security agents on the streets. Eventually, through smuggling footage out of the country, Wang is able tell the story of her journey with the extraordinary revolutionary Sparrow, her fellow activists, and their seemingly impossible battle for human rights.”
In covering it earlier this year, I’d asked Nanfu Wang “What is the history of protests in China? And do you think the West influenced this?” Nanfu takes a short breath, she is remarkably composed for someone who literally had to smuggle her footage out of China. “Protests are taboo in China,” she begins. Then she detailed the barriers for giving a proverbial “voice to the voiceless” in her home country. In a modest floral theme red dress, and Nanfu Wang safe in the West, it’s a disconnect to imagine the gritty street fights she’s had to face, even under the pressure of a second language here. Nanfu Wang is definitely someone to watch for more powerful visual essays on film, with Hooligan Sparrow just a first salvo, hopefully.
The connector to the next hugely impactful documentary, Zero Days, is that ripple effect, when an issue for someone like Sparrow’s activist Ye Haiyan ignites a global reaction. In Zero Days, a few watchers on the wall of technology saw something odd, shared it amongst themselves, and didn’t realize they’d discovered the tail of international espionage-made virus that could literally crash the world.
Zero Days is my personal pic for Best Documentary because it reveals the inner workings and internecine fighting going on within the highly insulated and highly secure secret world of CyberSec, including cybersecurity operatives and the divisions between “three letter agencies” which later becomes writ large in the so-called “soft coup” shoot-out between the FBI and the CIA firing back with hacking allegations even you read this. It’s a very dangerous game of Spy Agency vs Spy Agency that has shaken some truly home-grown crazy out of the American woodwork. YouTube is replete with claims and counter-claims of hacking, spying, even purporting to reveal a laundry list of conspiracy theories. Some of these “theories” – from Clinton unspeakable evil-doing to Trump’s Jesus-like magic – make David Aaronvitch’s book “Voodoo Histories, The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History” look tame. Aaronvitch makes compelling arguments that conspiracy theories actually serve a purpose in the pattern of history as it unfolds… but the 2016 Presidential Election crazy, especially where high-level official discussions and briefings included the possibility of “foreign actors” (read: Russia) hacking Democractic emails, the Election, and the polling machines, well it just went beyond rational human understanding.
Which makes Alex Gibney’s documentary on the events leading to the detection of a computer virus designed to destroy Iran’s nuclear centrifuges in order to sabotage their entire nuclear program, that much more important as an object lesson.
Zero Days stars a range of officials and high-level tech players who unravel the Stuxnet story. Starring Colonel Gary D. Brown, Eric Chien, Richard A. Clarke, General Michael Hayden, Olli Heinonen, Chris Inglis, Vitaly Kamluk, Eugene Kaspersky, Gibney’s “ZERO DAYS is a documentary thriller about the world of cyberwar.”
Here’s the official description: “For the first time, the film tells the complete story of Stuxnet, a piece of self-replicating computer malware (known as a “worm” for its ability to burrow from computer to computer on its own) that the U.S. and Israel unleashed to destroy a key part of an Iranian nuclear facility, and which ultimately spread beyond its intended target. ZERO DAYS is the most comprehensive accounting to date of how a clandestine mission hatched by two allies with clashing agendas opened forever the Pandora’s Box of cyber warfare. Beyond the technical aspects of the story, ZERO DAYS reveals a web of intrigue involving the CIA, the US Military’s new cyber command, Israel’s Mossad and Operations that include both espionage and covert assassinations but also a new generation of cyber weapons whose destructive power is matched only by Nuclear War.”
Some of this is a recap from my earlier coverage and interview with Eric Chien this year, but there’s a lot of implied geopolitics embedded here, and again, along with the hacking component, really cements it as my Best Doc pic for 2016. Before seeing ZERO DAYS, it’s critical to understand the US’s former relationship to the Shah of Iran. Before he was deposed, the Shah of Iran received a key first piece of their nuclear program from the US. It was supposed to be used for energy generation, power plants. The Christian Science Monitor did a round-up once that put dates on the whole mess. “In 1967, under the ‘Atoms for Peace’ program launched by President Eisenhower, the US sold the Shah of Iran’s government a 5-megawatt, light-water type reactor… the foundation of Iran’s nuclear power program.” The Shah reigned from Sept. 16, 1941 until Feb. 11, 1979, when he was toppled by the Iranian Revolution. However questionable the Shah’s regime was, it’s axiomatic that something would go wrong once the largely secular world of his rule fell into theological hands as the 1980’s began.
Next things go from theological to zealot by US estimations. And then there’s 9/11. Allegations are Iran is inching its way toward the “bomb,” because it’s not a huge stretch from power-reactor fuel to weapons grade material. You can see why the US government would consider cyber war in the wake of 9/11, especially since the hardware and software for their nuclear program comes mostly from the West (read: a way in via upgrades to the tech). Plus, would anyone ever find out? Someone high up likely gambled on the wrong side of “No.” So malware was secretly engineered, somewhere, to attack the centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz facility.
Alex Gibney’s take on it is, “I started out making a small film investigating ‘Stuxnet…’ What I discovered was a massive clandestine operation involving the CIA, the NSA, the US military and Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad to build and launch secret cyber ‘bombs’ that could plunge the world into a devastating series of… attacks on critical infrastructure, shutting down electricity… this science fiction scenario…”
That’s Alex Gibney for you, outing the whole gamut of international players from “three-letter agencies” to nation states. But then you talk to someone like Eric Chien, Technical Director of Symantec’s Security Technology and Response division, who was among the first handful to discover and name the Stuxnet virus, and it becomes clear that the message of ZERO DAYS is not rehashing old news about the perils of technology. (As in the current alleged Russian election hacking fracas, and the role of governments in controlling infighting among agencies tasked with cyber security.)
Although it is public record that Belorussian engineer Sergey Ulasen was the first responder to the then-unnamed Stuxnet virus as a BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) reboot over there in the Iranian nuke-related nest of computers; the message of this film is really about the knowledge gap between policy makers and digital purveyors, who, at the speed of technology, will reshape the world for us if we don’t watch out.
In person, Eric Chien is incredibly personable, a youthful exemplar of next-generation digital professionals. “We make Norton Anti-Virus,” he begins, to kind of define Symantec. He also apologies that colleague Liam O’Murchu couldn’t make it. “He had his hands on it first,” Chien adds, meaning Stuxnet. “Normally what we do, day-to-day, is we look at the latest (cyber) attacks. About one million a day. A lot of it is handled through automation, which automatically create fixes for them.”
“When we come across some big attacks, we share (with stakeholders)” pieces of the code for others to monitor or give feedback on. “Recently someone tried to transfer $1 BN from the Bank of Bangladesh,” he said, and this discovery brought back some similarities to the adrenaline of the Stuxnet discovery.
Chien mentions the possible government or shadowy players that he’s encountered in untangling the virus. “When you have black motorcycles, wearing all black following you, behind you, you start to wonder.”
On why Stuxnet wasn’t part of the Snowden leak, he casually mentions, “Edward Snowden didn’t leak this because those files are stored on a different server.” Then, ironically, Chien says he is not under an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), because “we don’t have a two-tiered system. We share this information with our clients… we would never work for hostile nations.” Chien reveals that ‘zero-day’ is a term that basically means the virus is discovered at the same time the vulnerability is revealed that makes the exploit even possible. (Think of it as a hole-in-one golf shot, but nobody knew there was a hole there until the ball hit. Now you’ve got two problems.)
“Stuxnet had not one, but four zero-days in it,” he emphasizes, “even one zero day is rare, but four?” This is how “we knew nation states must be involved.” But breaking the code, finding out what this virus was supposed to do “was the needle in the haystack. I mean it had a (kill) date in it, but it was not easy to figure out.” Tying into the election theme, Stuxnet’s “kill date” mysteriously coincided with the 2012 election.
With all the current election brouhaha, the focus on Russia, Chien made a shocking remark that puts Moscow’s capabilities in perspective. “There’s something to be said for obsolesce,” he revealed. “Because when Russia tried to shut down (the gird) in the Ukraine, their technology was so old, they could actually go to each site and crank it back on by hand.” That’s not in Zero Days, but insider terms like Nitro Zeus are, and maybe what’s most important about this film is that it details the bones of contention, the lines of power, and the factions opposed to one another behind the scenes in our government agencies.
And this comes full circle to the opening focus on the current contested election results… agencies are infighting and all we can do is find our own way back up the rabbit hole, back into the reasonable margin of error that Democracy lives by.
A complete list of the Academy’s Best Documentary shortlist for the 89th Academy Award Presentation to be held February 26, 2017, can be found on www.oscars.org.
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