Take One Action: Kicking against the radical right
With a wave of right-wing rhetoric bringing Donald Trump to within a hair’s breadth of the US presidency, we look at two films from this year’s Take One Action! Film Festival kicking back against America’s lurch to the right
Has there been an edition of Take One Action – Scotland’s film festival dedicated to the cinema of social action and change – that felt more essential? In the age of accelerated climate change, masses of people displaced by war, terrorism abroad, intolerance at home, with fear, paranoia and scaremongering in the air, we need a festival interested in exploring the most urgent issues of our time more than ever.
Take One Action’s ethos has always been one of a world focus. You’ll find crucial, moving stories within its programme from all over the globe. Perhaps the most urgent films in this year's line-up, however, come from the United States, a nation where the Right is most definitely on the rise.
One of the clearest indicators of this rise to the Right is the US government's scurrilous attitude to the surveillance of its citizens. Overzealous snooping is shown to be much worse than any of us could imagine, however, in A Good American, the most shocking film in the Take One Action programme. Austrian filmmaker Friedrich Moser's cinematically masterful doc tells the story of NSA intelligence officer Bill Binney, a genius cryptanalysis-mathematician turned whistleblower.
Mass surveilance and the Snowden scandal
In the film, Binney explains how his program ThinThread, an encrypted intelligence collection system analysing metadata to predict terror attacks, was perverted into a Bond villain-like international mass technological surveillance system. In short, it was used to build a bulk collection of all our digital footprints, the practice of which was famously confirmed by Edward Snowden's infamous classified documents leak.
Among the film’s horrifying revelations is that America's intelligence agencies ignored information that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks and the true extent of America's mass surveillance of anyone on this planet with a communication device. Without Binney, there would be no Snowden.
Moser initially had a different film in mind, but the project became bigger than he could have ever imagined when the Snowden scandal first rocked the international community in 2013: “I started to get interested in the digital realm right after WikiLeaks hacked Visa, Paypal and Mastercard,” Moser explains. “I was working on a story of a German hacker who was involved in keeping the internet running during the Arab Spring in early 2011, when their governments were shutting it down, so you could have a flow of information in and out of those countries. The hacker, by accident, discovered American surveillance running completely legally. It turned out that it was employed across all dictatorships, across most of the EU countries and then when we were about to get funding for the film, Snowden came out with all this leaked data.
“The amount of surveillance was just magnitudes bigger than what we expected, mass surveillance on citizens. My academic background is not in filmmaking – I studied history, so I was also interested in the historical development of 'How did we get here, from the Cold War, when these agencies were spying on our military enemies, into a situation where we, the citizens have become the enemy?'”
It's an urgent, intriguing question that A Good American answers not through ideological discourse but the historical events that unfolded, told by the people who were there working behind the scenes at the top echelons of America's intelligence agencies. “I thought the best way to tell this was through the personal story of somebody who had worked in this surveillance realm for a long time,” he says, “from the Cold War to the digital age, and Bill Binney was at the top of my list. So I called him. I heard the story of ThinThread and I was completely blown away because it is the counter-narrative to anything the [American] government has been telling us.
“These terrorist bogeymen that they are using to scare us into surveillance are an invention. It's just wrong, they have the tools to find terrorists and they deliberately don't use them. They knowingly sacrifice the lives of innocent people for the sake of making fucking money."
Conservative Christians and US politics
Another consequence of the rise of the American Right has been a tightening of conservative Christian groups' grip on US political policy. Rebecca Parrish's Radical Grace, sure to be an enrapturing highlight of Take One Action, follows a group of kickass nuns pushing back against conservative thinking.
These politically active and outspoken nuns (the phrase ‘social justice warriors’ springs to mind) have ruffled a few feathers. In 2012, the Vatican, under the instruction of Pope Benedict XVI, served a censure on the group, citing suspicions of that most heinous crime: ‘feminist leanings.’ These charming ‘radical’ nuns were both alien and novel to Parrish when she started work on her film. “I'm very interested in how social justice work can be approached as a spiritual practice and I did not know anything about nuns in general or in the United States before this project,” she explains. “I only had stereotypes to go on. A friend of mine introduced me to a group of sisters that she worked with at a school for people who were formerly incarcerated. The nuns were her best buddies and I thought, ‘What?’”
Despite not being religious, Parrish soon realised she had lots in common with these incredible women. They didn't wear traditional habits and were far more concerned with issues of social justice than Catholic convention. She decided to follow not only the regular social outreach work the nuns do but also document their political work.
Radical Grace was filmed from the very eye of the storm, as the nuns really come under attack when they campaigned against male American Catholic and Vatican leadership in favour of Obamacare, choosing to focus on life-saving medical care for the masses over theological issues of contraception and abortion.
"We only ever hear about the conservative side of religious institutions,” notes Parrish. “To see people who are staying in an institution and struggling with that institution was powerful for me because before I started this project and met the sisters my assumption, or my question to them, would be the same as many people would ask: 'Why don't you just leave?' What I learned in this project is it's the same way I couldn't leave America. Even if I don't agree with my government, even if Donald Trump were elected, it doesn't mean I’m not American. This country still has my roots, it's where I’m from and it's the same for the sisters. Their faith is not defined by who's in charge at this particular moment in time... their faith is much deeper and concerned with the welfare of ordinary people."
An especially magical segment of Radical Grace follows the inauguration of the most liberal Pope in history. “It was so amazing,” she recalls. “We never could have guessed that the Pope [Benedict] was going to resign! Being there in St Peter's square with Sister Kris was remarkable. I love that she's kind of a sportscaster at that moment: 'Oh, [Pope Francis]'s just got on a simple white dress.' She's reading all the symbols to try and figure out who he is and her analysis was totally accurate."
Take One Action! Film Festival, various venues in Edinburgh and Glasgow, 14-25 Sep. Aberdeen, 11-13 Nov. Inverness 18-20 Nov
A Good American plus Director and Bill Binney Q&A, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 15 Sep & 16 Sep. Also GFT, Glasgow, 16 Sep
Radical Grace plus Grievance (short) and audience discussion with Justice and Peace Scotland, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 17 Sep