Category Archives: SXSW FILM FESTIVAL

‘United States vs. Reality Winner,’2021 SXSW FF Review:

Reality Winner in 'United States vs. Reality Winner,' directed by Sonia Kennebeck, 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of Codebreaker Films)
Reality Winner in ‘United States vs. Reality Winner,’ directed by Sonia Kennebeck, 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of Codebreaker Films)

This chilling documentary directed by Sonia Kennebeck indicates how far government goes to hide damning information. Using video clips of interviews and access to information not released before, the director exposes the facts about Reality Winner’s arrest and incarceration for leaking classified information. Ultimately, Kennebeck elucidates the scurrilous intent of the former Trump Administration to lie and cover-up Russian interference to get Trump elected. In 2017, the 25-year-old Reality Winner took a stand. United States vs. Reality Winner in its World Premiere at 2021 SXSW FF reveals what happened.

Reality Winner leaked the documents shining a spotlight on Trump and the 2016 election. When Trump commented to the contrary about Russia’s help, extensively investigated in the Mueller Report, we can thank Reality Winner’s patriotic, courageous actions. Her whistleblowing led to a high U.S. alert on election security in 2020. However, she still suffers retaliation with the longest prison sentence of its kind under the Espionage Act. Created in the early 20th century, Kennebeck reveals how misapplying the Act in Reality’s case speaks to injustice, punishment and retaliation. Not only did Reality not receive bail, she currently sits in prison today under a plea deal. Her jailing and labeling as a traitor for heroism to alert the public about Putin breaching election security identifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

Kennebeck obtained access to Reality Winner’s interrogation by suing the FBI in a FOIA request a few years ago. Happily, the Biden administration had the tapes released just in time. Acutely editing the audio tapes, Kennebeck intersperses them with audio of a phone call with Reality in prison. To supplement with salient information she uses video clips of interviews with NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake and John Kirakou. Throughout, the director includes interviews with Reality’s parents, family and friends. In a full revelation Reality’s story comes to light.

Reality Winner in 'United States vs. Reality Winner,' directed by Sonia Kennebeck, 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of August Chronicle)
Reality Winner in ‘United States vs. Reality Winner,’ directed by Sonia Kennebeck, 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of Augusta Chronicle)

When we hear the FBI agents questioning her alone outside and inside her house, we empathize. And we especially note her answers with no lawyer present.

Clearly, the documentarian portrays her risks, the danger and her isolation. Additionally, the director, whistleblowers Drake and Kiriakou excoriate the betrayal by the reporters Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito. Winner mailed a copy of the classified document to The Intercept. Unconscionably, to “verify” the document, Cole and Esposito contacted the FBI, as if they didn’t understand it. Coded, encrypted, dated, the FBI knew exactly who had access to it. Of course this led to Winner’s subsequent arrest and being held without bail. That Donald Trump enjoyed election favor by Putin and received his hacking help and interference clarifies in light of this film and Winner’s brave actions.

When agents visited her house, tipped off by The Intercept reporters, their presence shocked her. Believing The Intercept stood by its sources, advertising themselves as a highly credibly online journal, she anonymously sent the document to them. She should have gone to The Washington Post which appears to be one of the soundest, most secure papers for whistleblowers. The Intercept made famous by Edward Snowden, Laura Poitres and others discredited itself by harming Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou. Indeed, the Intercept leaked those NSA whistleblowers to the FBI. During video interviews, Drake and Kiriakou disclose that Matthew Cole’s and Richard Esposito’s integrity as journalists remains questionable. They hint at subterfuge.

The audio tape discloses how the agents calmly, with benign manner questioned her conversationally. Conveniently, they didn’t read her her Miranda Rights. And the questioning lasted for hours. Later, when Kennebeck asked why Winner cooperated, Reality reveals her fear. She feared that they might harm her cat Mina. And she considered that she, herself, might be harmed. In other words, she remained calm, however, alone, she felt she had no recourse but to speak to them. Both Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou, who understand the terror of interrogation, back Reality. Pointedly they and others discuss that the moment the FBI stood on her property, unofficially they cast the net to pressure an arrest. Reality knew that. They had all of the information they needed before they went to her house because of The Intercept.

Reality Winner in 'United States vs. Reality Winner,' 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of Codebreaker Films)
Reality Winner in ‘United States vs. Reality Winner,’ 2021 SXSW FF (courtesy of Codebreaker Films)

After the arrest, Reality’s parents held protests and spoke to the media. Taking a stand for our free elections, punished with a five-year prison sentence, seems harsh and politically motivated under the guise of “endangering national security.” A foreign power endangered national security. Reality blew the whistle and told the public to heighten the alert to national security. Indeed, those like Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn convicted for their criminal service to protecting Trump paved the way for Russian meddling and quid pro quos. Yet, Reality’s service to our democracy and the American people in warning us about breaches in election security deserves jail for being a traitor. The reversal is mind-boggling.

Kennebeck highlights Reality’s background, military service, brilliance with languages and qualifications. Indeed, she deserved her high security clearance. In contrast the former administration handed out security clearances undeservedly to unqualified friends and family like candy. On the one hand Reality leaks a document jeopardizing her clearance for a vital moral imperative. Anonymously, she made public election penetration by a foreign power. That attack by Russia remains an extreme danger for our democracy. However, in a corrupt, criminal political culture, the morally bankrupt and corrupt distort right from wrong. Thus, Reality’s justified, heroic action to preserve our elections, the corrupt in the courts and the Department of Justice (Trump) judged as a crime.

Ironically, Kennebeck interviews Edward Snowden from his perch in Russia, the place of the meddling. His presence as a former whistleblower rings hollow. In contrast Thomas Drake who supports Reality with the true grit of one who has been through suffering and retaliation, who stayed and fought for his nation, deserves a National Medal of Freedom. Of course, this won’t happen. However, an impartial, non partisan eye would consider it and for John Kiriakou also. But above all, Reality Winner indirectly delivered our 2020 election alerting us that Russia meddling occurred and it must not happen again. In helping to preserve our democratic process of free elections, she lost her vote. If that isn’t worthy of a National Medal of Freedom, I don’t know what is.

In United States vs. Reality Winner the director raises vital questions.When does leaking a document serve the public interest? Should exposing corruption be retaliated against? Indeed, the film levels judgment against those corrupt who support Reality’s jail time, despite the law breaking and hypocrisy of the former administration. Kennebeck’s laudatory work is a must see. Look for updates on this website about the next screenings. https://www.codebreakerfilms.com/

2021 SXSW FF Reviews: ‘Here Before,’ & ‘Violet’

Narrative Feature Competition film Here Before and 2020 Spotlight film Violet have women as their central characters. Happily, the women directors Stacey Gregg and Justine Bateman approach their subjects and protagonists with authority and sensitivity. In each film the protagonists must stand up for themselves, take their power and establish their agency. Though Here Before takes place in Northern Ireland and Violet in Hollywood, California, by the conclusion we appreciate how both women overcome their internal crises.

Uniquely, Here Before‘s character Laura (the superb Andrea Riseborough) establishes a solid, wholesome, family unit. Interestingly, she keeps it smoothly running even we learn of the loss of their daughter in a car accident years before. Living with the ache in her heart, she encourages their son in his schoolwork and maintains the balance with her husband. However, when a family moves next door in the duplex with a young daughter Megan (Niamh Dornan) the age of Laura’s daughter, circumstances turn inside out

Initially, Megan appears to be canny in her interest in Laura and the family. Returning the interest and fascinated by her, Laura invites her to dinner. Clearly, Megan’s response at dinner reminds her of her lost child, Josie. Events intensify and the son becomes upset that his mom’s obsession seeing and visiting with Megan can’t be healthy. When the husband echoes the son’s comments and expresses his angst, the director throws the audience into the weeds. However, whether Megan channels her daughter Josie, as Laura appears to believe at one point, or as her son considers she’s gone over the bend, the character remains sympathetic.

Psychologically, the stresses caused by, Megan who the husband accuses of lying threaten to break the family apart. Indeed, when Laura challenged by her husband tells him to leave so she can restore order with her son, Stacey Gregg also the writer, shocks us with Laura’s audacity. Clearly, within she tears herself apart by wanting Megan to be Josie. Yet, by yearning for this fulfillment, she fears and she’s losing her hold on reality.

Substantively, Here Before‘s flirtation with the mystical psychological appeals. However, reality lands with a blow and Laura confronts the truth revealed by Megan who wishes the best for both families. Gregg’s strengths of storytelling lie in her editing and shepherding the actors to deliver stunning performances. As they circle around the paranormal and bridge the heavenly and the earthly, we willingly follow Laura’s journey deep into herself. By the startling climax, we understand her statements of forgiveness and reconciliation to what she can bear.

In Violet (Olivia Munn) the titular character reels in a cataclysm of self-doubt. Bateman who also wrote the film creates Violet’s interior monologue that spools in a constant drone of demeaning comments. Ironically, these come in the hyper-critical voice of Justin Theroux. Brilliantly, his snide, cruelty only abates when Violet chooses some self-effacing decision to bow to a male (i.e. her boss or someone else). Interestingly, the acquiescence ultimately infuriates her, as she suppresses her agency and autonomy for another.

Cleverly, Bateman chooses to reveal Violet’s interior rage by fading the screen into a muted red. Ironically, Theroux’s cryptic statement follows, “There! Don’t you feel better?” Of course the antithesis is true. The suppressed rage intimates self-betrayal, accepting someone else’s ideas and abuse. Indeed, Violet retains the power and intelligence to gain agency over herself to respond to them appropriately, but she listens to “the voice. Finally, she discusses “the committee” with a friend and receives help.

Through a number of instances, we note that Violet’s brilliance as a film development executive at a creditable boutique agency places her in forward momentum. Interestingly, the boffos in the agency mistreat her; her boss demeans her with backhanded compliments. Though she ignores their behavior, she takes notice when a black executive who has it together identifies her power and talent and their lame uselessness.

This moment establishes a turning point. And gradually we note that friends like Lila (Erica Ash) abound to her account. The adorable Red (Luke Bracey) provides his caring guidance and support. Incisively, his and other’s love assists, so that she can turn off the “committee” of despots (Theroux’s nasty insults) in her mind. Most probably this committee hails from past negative encounters with her mother, aunt and brother. All it takes for us to understand how misaligned they feel with her includes a few phone conversations and their sardonic facial expressions. Obviously, not close to her brother who resents her, she finally decides to separate, choosing her mother’s funeral to cut the hangman’s noose.

Clearly, Bateman wants the audience to feel and understand the hellishness of Violet’s careening upheaval within, under the duress of her own internalized Nazi. Can she rescue herself from herself? When distinguished looking guys from another outfit approach Violet and offer her a plum position, we hope she takes it. Instead, loyalty to her miserable boss Tom Gaines wins out. Then occurs a superb moment in the film. Helped by Red’s growing love she asserts herself. She explodes the myths Gaines uses to embarrass her for the last time. I imagine this marvelous scene in a theater without the pandemic yielding a chorus of cheers and loud applause.

On her first directing venture Bateman shepherds the rest of the cast to provide a satisfying conclusion after Violet kicks the horrific Nazi to the curb. However, until that occurs, one moves from one nail-biting encounter to the next, happy when loving friends show up to soothe.

For updates on film screenings, go to the website: https://www.violetthefilm.com/

2021 SXSW Film Festival Review ‘Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil’ in its World Premiere

Demi Lovato in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi Lovato in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner, World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

What takes Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil beyond the interest of pop music fandom is its unabashed honesty without pandering to sensationalism. Directed and cobbled together with interviews of friends and family, Ratner creates a film which succeeds as an intense biopic of Lovato’s addiction crisis. With input from icons like Elton John, Christina Aguilera, and work colleagues like Will Farrell, Ratner shows a women in revolution and evolution. Assuredly, covering all bases the filmmaker grills her creative team, rehab coach, trainers, new manager Scooter Braun. Then Ratner blows up the celebrity image and brand to shatter the Lovato myths. If teens follow her as a role model and advocate for mental health, eating disorders and sobriety, Lovato’s revelations take her mission to a new level of relevance.

Demi Lovato in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi Lovato in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

The film hits it out of the park by showing Lovato’s pathos in picaresque. Ratner divides the action in four, non-linear, acutely edited segments. And in a heightened alert, he begins with the months in 2018 when it all went wrong. Of course during the course of the film the full poignancy is that Lovato affirms it had gone wrong for a long time. However, she, her friends, family and team had bought into the “devil’s dance” that obsessive control answered her internal problems. Thus, her determination and teamwork convinced her that as long as she stayed slender and sober, she remained healthy. Sadly, she fooled everyone, especially herself. Her choices belied her ability to handle deep-rooted emotional and psychological issues. Past trauma whether conscious or unconscious bled into the present and tortured her.

Demi Lovato in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi Lovato in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

Distress intensified to overwhelm Lovato with misery and the need to self-medicate. As these internal pressures pushed her to open the floodgates, Lovato suffered a drug relapse. Each of Ratner’s segments touch upon her addictive OCD personality. The documentary’s overarching themes about the fatal flaws that come with celebrity deification crash into the human factor. Inevitably, Lovato believed her own BS. Vulnerable, her unresolved life and death problems infiltrated her daily struggles.

Friend Sir Elton John in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Friend Sir Elton John in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

Ratner selects various clips of Lovato commentary. In the more salient ones she discusses how she lived on the edge seeking destruction in secret silence, despite being surrounded by loving individuals. Examples abound. Lovato’s discusses regrets about her father’s ignoble drug death alone, his body found decomposing. And she relates that she never worked through sexual traumas (a rape by a co-celebrity, etc.). Though the “me” aspect of the documentary sometimes slogs from “reveal” to “reveal” without variation, Ratner keeps Lovato’s story uplifting. In the final analysis Lovato moves to summarize what she’s learned. And we find comfort in empathizing with her journey into a hell of her own making to emerge into healing.

Friend Sir Elton John in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Friend Sir Elton John in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

Ratner nearly completed an earlier a documentary on Lovato in 2018. Filmmakers employ the footage of the earlier film to compare Lovato’s state of mind. As highlights of her Tell Me That You Love Me World Tour shine the shimmering Lovato, current footage reveals the truth of her condition during that time. Especially after her overdose, the filmmaker contrasts her promises and affirmations against her current truthful revelations. Even in this age of lying her statements shock. So many of her statements resound as obfuscations as she points out her hidden misery, pain and anger. Amidst this backdrop of illusions about being well when actually heading forward on a collusion course, her voice sounds incredible. Ratner includes a sound clip of her mother Dianna De La Gaza in June 2018, one month before Demi’s overdose. De La Gaza tells Demi, her voice is “the best ever.” At the height of her talents, death comes knocking and nearly takes her.

Demi Lovato's new syle in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi Lovato in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi Lovato in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi Lovato in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

During the tour Lovato fronted all the positives to maintain the good girl sobriety image. She fooled those closest to her. But the tour documentary of 2018 never got off the ground with the exception of salvage clips. Instead Ratner and Lovato split open her guts and set the record straight bravely and boldly in Dancing With The Devil. Lovato confesses she did drugs unbeknownst to her friends and team. After celebrating her choreographer Dani Vitale’s birthday, Demi called a drug dealer. Early morning, when none of her friends or team were around, Lovato sabotaged herself, her life, her career, her self-love and her agency. She overdosed on a mega combination of crack cocaine, heroin and OxyContin laced with Fentanyl. These she chased with alcohol. Meanwhile, she remembered later that the drug dealer had non consensual sex with her and abandoned her. Ten more minutes from discovery, she would have died.

A room in Demi Lovato's new digs in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
A room in Demi Lovato’s new digs in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

In this first part of the four part series, we understand how driven and obsessed Lovato pushed her beyond her limit for wellness. Ironically, her abstemiousness actually fueled her desire to jump off the merry-go-round of sobriety. Ratner even includes the physician who saved her life. And he discusses just how miraculous her recovery was, but not without costs. Lovato’s overdose caused brain damage: she had a heart attack and three strokes. And the twenty-four hour period after she was found by an assistant was touch and go with her fans, family and friends praying for her.

Sobriety friend Sirah in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Sobriety friend Sirah in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

Now, she is able to laugh with friends. But the film is also revelation to fans that Dani Vitale who fans blamed for Demi’s overdose was wrongfully blamed. Vitale received death threats and lost her career, teaching jobs and everything that was meaningful to her because of the rumors she had given Lovato the drugs. A lie. So in setting the record straight, those who worked for Lovato and her new manager like Scooter Braun also go on record to do right by her after this incident.

Christina Aguilera in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

However, from her sisters Madison and Dallas, her mother Dianna and her step father as well as her friends, all agree Demi has to want to be sober and drug free. It is up to her. And appointing monitors to make sure she didn’t eat any cake or cookies and didn’t do alcohol was not a balance she could live with. Indeed, it sent her in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, friends Matthew Scott Montgomery and Sirah have been through Demi’s hell with her, suffering their devastation wondering if she would make it to the next day. Now they joke that at least she is 28; she made it past the curse of the twenty-seven year olds of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and, Jim Morrison, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Amy Winehouse.

Demi's parents, the De La Garzas in 'Dancing With The Devil,' directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)
Demi’s parents, the De La Garzas in ‘Dancing With The Devil,’ directed by Michael D. Ratner in its World Premiere at SXSW FF (courtesy of the film)

The documentary is a cautionary tale for all those who start out in beauty pageants. If they as child stars possess the talent to parlay their success to accomplish world wide tours at twenty-five, the exposure can be treacherous. The overriding question becomes emotionally and psychically can they withstand all that the music industry siphons out of its celebrities? Lovato is back on course with her career. However, she considers her unconscious flirtation with suicide. Importantly, she recognizes she must confront herself during the journey of reclamation and accept herself as her own best friend.

Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil airs on YouTube from 23 March.

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