Three New Movies: We Steal Secrets, Hannah Arendt, and Fill the Void

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
Written and directed by Alex Gibney
(Focus World, 2013)

Hannah Arendt
Directed by Margarethe von Trotta
Zeitgeist Films, 2013

Fill the Void
Written and directed by Rama Burshtein
Sony Pictures Classics, 2012

Hollywood hasn’t been igniting many intellectual sparks lately, but imports and indies are stepping in to fill the void, if I can borrow the title of a current movie. They vary in quality but share an urge to get audiences thinking and discussing.

At a time when serious journalism is in crisis, some observers see documentary film as the best hope for putting crucial information and unpopular points of view before the public eye. Although television is the main outlet for nonfiction movies, some have enough timely facts and visual clout to reach theaters as well. Several films by Alex Gibney have crossed over successfully, including his latest, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, a documentary about documents, document dumps, and Julian Assange’s crusade to shine a spotlight on material deemed by authorities to be unfit for eyes less privileged than their own.

The arrival of We Steal Secrets was so well timed that fresh news about leaks – and about leakers – was breaking at the very moment the film went into wide release. One can see the movie, think about it on the way home, and then unwind by perusing headlines about secret internet and telephone surveillance by the US government, and about Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who blew the whistle by channeling information to The Guardian, an indisputably reputable London news outlet.

Snowden clearly knows that his conscience-driven act may have ruined his life beyond repair, which places him into the same category as Bradley Manning, the computer nerd, army private, and intelligence analyst who passed classified information to WikiLeaks about the Iraq War and related matters. Manning’s story is a subplot of We Steal Secrets, which chronicles his arrest in May 2010 – for “aiding the enemy” and other offenses – and describes his imprisonment in conditions that amounted to torture. Like many another victim of the criminal-justice system, Manning was considered guilty until proven innocent.

As its subtitle indicates, We Steal Secrets focuses on the WikiLeaks organization founded by Assange, the Australian hacker whose exploits include dramatic revelations about Iceland’s banking collapse in 2008, tax evasion by wealthy US interests via offshore financial accounts, and extremely dubious aspects of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, detailed in a cascade of official papers, diplomatic memos, and video recordings. Wikileaks has executed some of its disclosures in cahoots with such mainstream institutions as The New York Times and The Guardian, which complicates the case for those who regard Assange as a mere desperado or information terrorist deserving “enemy combatant” status, as one politician has declared.

The case for his supporters, meanwhile, is complicated by charges of sexual coercion (or rape, or molestation – the terminology keeps shifting) brought against him by two Swedish women. Assange’s defenders call this a politically motivated frame-up, but at the end of the movie (and at this writing) he is living in a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he was granted asylum in June 2012. If and when he leaves the embassy, England will surely extradite him to Sweden for prosecution on the sex charges, and Sweden would surely extradite him to the United States for prosecution on charges of disseminating secret military and diplomatic information.

This is fascinating stuff, so it’s surprising that We Steal Secrets isn’t fascinating too. It gives a reasonably informative, occasionally skeptical overview of Assange, who grew so infuriated by leaks about Wikileaks that he imposed loyalty rules worthy of the governments he scorns. Also valuable is its description of Manning’s turbulent psychology and fractured emotional life, which deserves close attention from anyone following his court-martial (now in progress) for downloading and disclosing secrets. These threads aside, We Steal Secrets is more earnest than exciting.

Gibney remains an important player in public-affairs documentary, however, and his most trenchant pictures are well worth seeing. These include Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012), Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010), Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), and especially Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), his invaluable examination of detention and torture by American-led forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Hannah Arendt is not a documentary but a biopic, directed by the gifted German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta from a screenplay she wrote with Pam Katz, an American novelist and screenwriter who has worked before with von Trotta and with Barbara Sukowa, the great German actress who plays the eponymous heroine. As countless readers know, Arendt was an influential German-Jewish-American political thinker and journalist whose most famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, was published in 1963 and again in 1968 with added material.

Most of the book’s content first appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker, drawing great praise and heated debate. Controversy arose in part because Arendt accused some Jewish leaders of failing to resist Nazi crimes against European Jewry, especially in the earlier stages, and because she contended that evil – which she defined as an inability or unwillingness to think – is by nature shallow and banal rather than deep and radical, even when the case in hand is as woeful a miscreant as Adolf Eichmann, a logistics master for the Holocaust.

Arendt wrote, lectured, and taught on many political and philosophical subjects, but von Trotta’s film devotes most of its time and energy to the early 1960s, when Arendt attended Eichmann’s trial, formulated her ideas about the defendant and his judges, wrote her New Yorker dispatches, and coped with the varied reactions that followed their publication. Such literary colleagues as New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicolas Woodeson) and author Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) play minor roles in the drama, and Arendt’s love affair with philosopher Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) gets a handful of brief scenes.

Although the movie etches a rather thin portrait of Arendt, it succeeds in humanizing her as a person, contextualizing her as a theorist, and evoking the courage she showed in airing convictions that often went against the scholarly tenor of her time. Sukowa’s exemplary performance is all the more interesting in light of her previous collaboration with von Trotta – the 2009 biopic Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen, a biopic about the twelfth-century Roman Catholic nun who earned renown as an abbess, theologian, composer, and mystic. Sukowa and von Trotta are strong women bringing strong women to the screen.

Fill the Void is a fiction film about a very real milieu. The setting is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Tel Aviv, and the protagonist is eighteen-year-old Shira (Hadas Yaron), who’s looking forward eagerly to the marriage that’s been arranged for her. But her sister suddenly dies in childbirth, bringing pressure on her to marry her widowed brother-in-law, Yochay (Yiftach Klein), if only to prevent him from accepting a match in another country and depriving the family of his presence and that of the newborn baby. A third key character is Shira’s mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg), whose strong-willed personality affects the course of the story in more ways than one.

The film’s director, Rama Burshtein, learned filmmaking in Jerusalem and then became a member of the Hasidic community in Tel Aviv, starting her directorial career by making movies intended for Hasidic women. What makes Fill the Void unique is its status as an insider’s look at a religious, social, and cultural environment that has never been so persuasively depicted in a general-audience movie. Burshtein elicits vigorous performances from a sizeable cast and unfolds the story at an unhurried pace that allows the viewer not just to see the story but to absorb its ideas about the place of traditional gender and family roles in a quickly changing modern world. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a humane and touching one.

Tikkun film critic David Sterritt is a film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art and guest editor of Film Quarterly. His most recent book is Spike Lee’s America, published this year by Polity.
 
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