Wednesday, April 30, 2008

TFF Day Five: Secrecy

My apologies for all the late Tribeca posts, but as soon as I was done seeing movies, I had to face a pile of work. So, here goes....
After the first weekend of the festival was over, the next movie I saw was a documentary called Secrecy. It covered the issue of secrecy in the Bush administration. Given the number of films now out about the crimes of the Bush adminsistration, many of which deal with the issue of secrecy as a key problem, as well as the books, articles,and radio programs covering the issue of Bush and secrecy, a documentary on this topichas to be excellent to stand out. This one wasn't and didn't. I wanted to like this film, but I didn't find it revelatory and I didn't think it was the best way to introduce the issue to a less-informed audience such as students.
The film-makers were focused on the difficulty of representing secrecy visually, and did a number of clever things: showed documents floating into a black hole, used animation to illustrate concepts, placed their interview subjects in front of abstract backgrounds. They did choose interesting people to interview: someone from the National Security Archive, a woman from the CIA's Israel office, a creepy guy from the National Security Administration, the lawyers from the Hamdan case - except not Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights. That's too bad, since Ratner's been writing some of the best stuff published on this issue.
The film's real problem was not a lack of visual interest, but the lack of a coherent organization. The film-makers chose to emphasize two legal cases: Hamdan and the 1953 Reynolds case that established the precedent for government secrecy. I didn't know the background of Reynolds, but the way that the film presented the case didn't make sense to me in a documentary context. In order to create suspense, they returned to the narrative of the case throughout the film, interspersing it with other discussions about secrecy and Guantanamo as the film went along but didn't explain its significance until nearly the end of the film. They had me wondering, "why am I suddenly hearing about this plane crash? What does it have ot do with anything?" I don't think that there's a place for that kind of viewer experience in documentary film-making, which works better if it follows the structure of an academic article, where you should never be wondering, "what is the point of this story?"
I think these film-makers could have learned from the technique of Alex Gibney, whose use of thematic "chapters" has made more abstract subjects intelligible and framed talking-head interviews successfully. These film-makers instead tried to create suspense, which in a documentary, doesn't often work. After all, an informed audience will know "what happened" because it's public information covered in the news, and people don't conceal that kind of information as a "spoiler" to keep your film's "surprise" from being ruined when you make a documentary.
So, sorry, I didn't like Secrecy, though some of the interviews were interesting. I am still looking forward to The Power of Nightmares, a BBC documentary which will come out in the US in June.

No comments: