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Filmmakers discuss FOIA lawsuit behind ‘Reality Winner’ documentary

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  1. Freedom of Information
RCFP attorneys helped Codebreaker Films obtain audio recordings of FBI agents interrogating Reality Winner.
Reality Winner pictured in still shot from documentary "Reality Winner"
Reality Winner tells her story in "Reality Winner," a documentary by Codebreaker Films. (Photo by E.J. Enríquez)

Last month, Amazon and Apple TV began streaming “Reality Winner,” a documentary about the National Security Agency whistleblower who spent more than four years in prison for exposing Russian interference in U.S. elections.

The film, directed and produced by Sonia Kennebeck and Ines Hofmann Kanna of Codebreaker Films, examines Winner’s case through the former intelligence contractor’s own words, spoken before, during, and after her time behind bars. It’s an especially timely story, one that juxtaposes Winner’s prosecution under the Espionage Act with former President Donald Trump’s recent prosecution under the same law.

Viewers of the documentary will notice that it prominently features exclusive audio recordings, including some of Winner’s jail phone calls and FBI agents’ interrogation of Winner after they showed up at her Augusta, Georgia, home on June 3, 2017. The filmmakers obtained those recordings with free legal support from Reporters Committee attorneys, including Deputy Executive Director and Legal Director Katie Townsend, Senior Staff Attorney Adam Marshall, and Staff Attorney Gunita Singh.

On behalf of Codebreaker Films, Reporters Committee attorneys filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the FBI and the Department of Justice in 2020 after the FBI failed to turn over the audio files in response to the filmmakers’ FOIA request. The government eventually agreed to prioritize three audio files from the interrogation, though it projected that it could take as long as 10 months to process the files for release — and another 13 years for the remaining audio recordings the filmmakers requested.

After Reporters Committee attorneys asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to order the FBI to speed up the process, Judge Tanya S. Chutkan called the government’s delay “ridiculous” and ordered the FBI in February 2021 to release the three audio files by the end of the month. Reporters Committee attorneys successfully obtained the files and delivered them to the filmmakers just days before an earlier version of their documentary — then called “United States vs. Reality Winner” — premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival in March 2021.

Now that the latest version of the film is available on streaming platforms, we spoke with Kennebeck and Hofmann Kanna about why they chose to tell Winner’s story from her perspective, what they hope the public takes away from the film, and why the Reporters Committee’s free legal support was so crucial to telling this story. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Why were you so interested in telling Winner’s story?

Kennebeck: National security whistleblowers are very rare, so when her arrest was first announced, Ines and I spoke immediately. We have a very specific focus on national security whistleblower stories, and we knew just how big this is. The risk is so high for these whistleblowers to speak out that not many people take this risk. And then, of course, this was about election security and election interference at a time when there was all this discussion about it. Ines is the one who really encouraged me to fly out to Georgia and attend one of Reality’s early pre-trial hearings. I expected camera crews and journalists and just a lot of media coverage. And at that time, it didn’t exist. It’s so mind blowing to me now. So many people now know about Reality, but everyone seems to have forgotten that in 2017, 2018, 2019, her case was really not widely covered. And that was the reason we decided, as independent filmmakers with very limited resources, to document this basically out of the responsibility to bear witness to what was happening.

Hofmann Kanna: It’s unbelievable that there are so few national security whistleblowers, really just a handful — and they are all in the film — and that no one was reporting on that. You may have noticed that all of the proceedings happened in Georgia. They never moved the trial up to Washington, D.C., at all. We still think that was on purpose.

What did you hope to accomplish through telling Winner’s story in her own words?

Kennebeck: She was effectively silenced. For us it was kind of the natural conclusion to this story to give her an opportunity to comment herself because everyone was talking about her, and this film was a way to present her perspective in a first-person narrative.

What are you hearing from people who have watched the film?

Hofmann Kanna: People really see the difference between how Winner was treated versus how Trump is being treated. People really love that we are making that full-circle [connection]. That’s one part of the feedback we are getting. People are also learning a lot about FOIA. During film screenings, we always bring up the FOIA requests. That’s how we got the FBI audio recordings, and they are really rare. So people still don’t really know that that material is our material. When we make FOIA requests, we are requesting things that belong to us as citizens and residents of this country. I think we’re bringing that home a little bit. And then we’re bringing up the point that we had to work with the Reporters Committee because to do these FOIA requests and a FOIA lawsuit, it takes resources that we don’t have as independent filmmakers. So people are like, “How as an individual can we even do this?” So we point to the Reporters Committee and tell people that if you are a documentary filmmaker or journalist, you need someone like the Reporters Committee to help you, because we couldn’t have done this … without that support.

Kennebeck: I think what’s really great is when you show the film to an audience in a theater, you actually get their unfiltered response in the moment. A big part of it is the archival footage of former President Trump talking about how he wants to go after leakers. And now, of course, with the knowledge of Trump being indicted under the same Espionage Act as Reality Winner, all of these soundbites, you see it under a completely different lens. And he’s actually talking about himself. We never could have anticipated it. This ironic twist all of the sudden makes this film so timely and so relevant for his case right now. It’s unexpected for the audience. They think they are watching a film about Reality, but they’re actually watching a film about this whole time frame — 2017 to basically today, involving election interference, how classified documents are being treated …

Hofmann Kanna: And the Espionage Act. It’s a film about the Espionage Act.

Kennebeck: It’s so strange. When we started, most people didn’t know about the Espionage Act and what it means to classify documents, and all of the sudden the knowledge has changed so drastically because of what’s been happening. And we think this film really helps to educate the wider public. And one of the responses, too, is from journalists, fellow reporters. This film is so important for young journalists to see because it also deals with source protection. Reality was arrested immediately because The Intercept didn’t manage to protect her as a source before the article was published. There were source-protection mistakes, and we truly hope that with this film being out that a lot of journalists and filmmakers watch it because it is a teaching tool.

Why did you decide to use the audio recordings of Winner’s interrogation as a kind of narrative arc throughout the film?

Kennebeck: I think that the recordings are so special because they show the tactics of the FBI agents. And it’s rare to have these interrogations recorded. And in Reality’s case, not only was the entire interrogation recorded but the FBI was forced to give it to us. What you can hear in it is the power dynamics. This very young woman — 25 years old at the time — speaking to these male agents. I think it’s important for people to understand this kind of push and pull, how Reality was getting increasingly quiet — you can hear it in her voice — and more afraid. The agents are increasing the pressure, and all of that you can hear on the actual audio recording, which explains a lot about what compelled her to eventually confess.

Hofmann Kanna: It’s such crucial evidence. People need to know how these kinds of things work and how they go down.

What was it like working with Reporters Committee attorneys to fight the government for access to those audio recordings?

Kennebeck: It’s extraordinary. As you can tell, we’re big fans of the Reporters Committee. We are sharing this resource with many independent filmmakers because without the support of your attorneys, I think it would be pretty much impossible for independent filmmakers and journalists to pursue these types of records and this type of public information because of the prohibitive costs of attorneys in this country and the difficulty of fundraising for independent, original journalism. Without a Reporters Committee, we would have not been able, as a small company of two people, to file a lawsuit against the FBI and get this crucial information.

“Reality Winner” is now streaming on Amazon and Apple TV. “Enemies of the State,” another Codebreaker Films documentary, is available for streaming on Hulu. Reporting for “Enemies of the State” also benefited from Reporters Committee attorneys’ free legal support.

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