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United States vs. Reality Winner ★★★



Director: Sonia Kennebeck

Released: SXSW 2021

How essential is the truth? In a world where alternative facts, fake news and bald-faced lies have become social currency, what would you risk to combat the tide? Sonia Kennebeck’s compelling documentary, United States vs. Reality Winner, confronts this question and many more with the story of a whistleblower whose decision to leak documents of Russian election interference drew the wrath of the Trump administration. 

It’s still tough watching footage of Trump’s election victory; a nightmare that may have ended in January, but with echoes that will last throughout time. Yet we cast ourselves back to 2016 as Trump’s presidency has been called, but news of election fraud by the Russians is spreading. 25-year-old NSA contractor Reality Winner comes across a secret NSA report about a Russian military cyberattack on a US voting software company that took place just a few days before the election and leaks the documents to a news outlet. She is then questioned by the FBI before being arrested, denied bail and imprisoned.  

Kennebeck expertly weaves two distinct narrative strands; one built by an assortment of whistleblowers, another by Reality’s family and friends. Lead by one of the most famous informers of recent times, Edward Snowden, we get a history of whistleblowing, from Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers in 1971 to the tracing of its resurgence as a ‘new wave of resistance’ to the US government response to 9/11. In the wake of the largest terrorist attack on American soil, the character of the government shifted; doggedly determined to smoke out enemies, not just internationally, but from within. This set in motion a climate where torture and mass surveillance is seen as a fair price to pay for the notion of ‘safety’. The Espionage Act Reality is charged under, is unpicked and gives insight into the impossibility of defence. The sovereignty of the state is placed above the sovereignty of the individual, so those who dare to stand up to the state cannot by law be granted a fair trial of their peers.  

This skilled contextualisation is juxtaposed with Reality’s family as they recall the events following her imprisonment. Like many, Reality used social media to vent against Trump, as well as having private Facebook Messenger conversations with her sister where she, again, like many, spoke disparaging of her country. These posts, as well as journal entries and telephone calls, were then used to paint her as a potential homegrown terrorist who was dangerous to America. This forces us to consider our own social outputs. What could possibly be assumed about us? Or worse still, provide ammunition to be turned against us? In following the fight for Reality’s freedom, Kennebeck allows her family to reclaim the portrayal of their daughter and share who she really is; an air-force veteran with a self-deprecating sense of humour and quirky name.

The strength of United States vs. Reality Winner is not just in how it demands we look at the morality of the law, but in how it also challenges us to be truly introspective in what we think courage and duty mean. This is a thoughtful, well-constructed study that balances crisp critical analysis with much-needed humanity. Sentenced to 63 months in prison, Reality’s story is one of both conviction and caution, perhaps best illustrated as Snowden asks: If wrongdoing is always someone else’s problem, who’s problem is it then? 

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