Raindance film review: Digital Dissidents Print
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 27 September 2015 10:19

Director: Cyril Tuschi
Cast: Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, Daniel Ellsberg
Showtimes: 14.15, 26th / 12.10, 27th

There aren't many people who haven't heard of Edward Snowden or Julian Assange. Are they heroes fighting for liberty and transparency? Villains of the state? Cyril Tuschi's documentary puts aside those questions to ask another: is it worth exposing such secrets to then live life as a fugitive?

It's a provocative subject matter for what proves to be an unsettling, relevant film. Tuschi traces his "traitors" all the way back to the daddy of them all: Daniel Ellsberg, who blew the whistle on the Pentagon's plans for Vietnam. Cutting together contributions from him, Assange, Snowden and Thomas Drake, Tuschi finds intriguing parallels between his protestors - and some differences too, especially when it comes to Drake and his decision to stay working for the government (unlike his colleagues) and trying to fight things from the inside.

From the opening frame to the final shot, Tuschi also lines up revelation after revelation about just how much data about us is given over to authorities, voluntarily, as we live in an increasingly online age. Your phone? GPS. Your Google history? Logged. Your Facebook account? A treasure trove of information that once would have taken weeks for the secret service to collect.

But in trying to raise so many big issues, Digital Dissidents ends up muddled, losing sight of its initial question halfway through and never really finding its focus again. An ex-British spy doesn't get enough screen time to offer full insight, while footage of a former Stasi prison balances precariously between heavy-handed and hugely powerful.

Tuschi spent years researching his material for another project, before being hired to assemble this for German TV and, unfortunately, it shows: occasional mistakes in subtitles and establishing shots that linger for too long make the mixed pacing more noticeable, while footage of Snowden talking at a hacker conference is almost undermined by the distracting sight of Ellsberg fiddling with broken headphones. While the polish is lacking, though, there is some gloss to the presentation, as Tuschi links together his segments with effective, flickering animations and (best of all) drone shots of Berlin and London - a decision that lends a chilling immediacy to the whole movie. The result is uneven, but undeniably important. Snowden re-appears near the end to suggest it's not about sharing their viewpoint, but about finding your own principles to believe in. It's a great message, but it's different to the one the film promised to deliver.