“We Offered to Bear Witness”: Sonia Kennebeck on Reality Winner
Reality Winner was a US Air Force vet and NSA employee whose leaking of an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 election to The Intercept, which subsequently handed it over to the FBI in a bungled, source-disclosing attempt to verify it wasn’t a hoax, in turn led to her arrest. The saga has been well-documented, to say the least: Just this year, Tina Satter premiered her Sydney Sweeney-starring HBO film Reality, adapted from the playwright’s IS THIS A ROOM: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription.
Now we have Sonia Kennebeck’s Reality Winner, itself an extension of the 25 New Faces alum’s 2021 doc United States vs. Reality Winner, which is basically an earlier version released specifically to bring attention to the inhumane prison conditions the whistleblower was facing at the time. So, it’s a bit of a surprise to learn that during Winner’s first pre-trial hearing, Kennebeck (no stranger to the whistleblower’s plight, having directed 2016’s National Bird) was one of only a handful of journalists that even bothered to show up. Though she then became the only one the family trusted enough to stick around with a camera for the surreal drama of the next five years.
Just prior to the doc’s NYC debut (October 11th at IFC Center) Filmmaker caught up with Kennebeck to learn all about Reality Winner—and the process of bringing Reality back to a more nuanced reality for the big screen.
Filmmaker: You began working on the film mere weeks after Reality’s arrest. What drew you to the story so quickly?
Kennebeck: When I first read about Reality’s arrest, I was instantly drawn to her story. The first NSA whistleblower the Trump administration arrested was a woman, and she had taken incredible risks to tell the public about Russian election interference? This was a historic case. I knew it immediately, and so did my producing partner Ines Hofmann Kanna. We have a lot of expertise in the area of national security, so we understand how rare and significant these Espionage Act cases are, and how harshly they are prosecuted.
During the production of National Bird, my lead character, drone whistleblower Daniel Hale, was raided by the FBI and investigated for espionage. I helped him get an attorney and followed his case closely for years. It was heartbreaking. I could imagine what Reality and her family were going through and what they were up against—the full force of the United States government.
Filmmaker: How did you go about gaining access to the family? Were they wary of the media? Did they court the press as a tool for obtaining Reality’s release?
Kennebeck: I met Reality’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, at the first pre-trial hearing I attended in Augusta, Georgia. I was surprised how few journalists covered her case. I had expected camera crews and reporters from national media outlets to be at the court. Instead, only a handful of freelance journalists showed up. They did excellent reporting work, but mostly for smaller publications.
Billie was similarly disturbed by the lack of interest in her daughter’s prosecution. She saw how badly Reality was treated in court and jail, but no one was paying attention. That was the reason we decided to step in. We offered to bear witness, and Reality and her family gave us full access to document the events that unfolded.
What helped build trust early on was the unique experience our film team had with espionage cases. Prior to her NSA job, Reality served in the Air Force and worked with military drones, so her family felt a strong connection to National Bird. I’m also deeply invested in source protection and teach workshops for filmmakers, which I believe also mattered for Reality’s family. After all, she was only tracked down so quickly by the FBI because the journalists who received her classified document made some serious source protection mistakes.
The way Reality was treated was unprecedented for the disclosure of one single five-page document. She was held in pre-trial detention for more than a year under inhumane conditions. Her family tried to get media attention to raise awareness, but it was very difficult at the beginning. There was barely any press coverage and most of it was negative. At the minimum, her family wanted fair reporting on her case. Beyond that, Billie just tried to help her daughter survive in jail. She moved to Augusta and lived alone in her daughter’s house until Reality was sentenced. The film also captures Billie’s journey to advocate for her daughter, which she did effectively. But it took years to get to the point where people actually recognized Reality’s name.
Filmmaker: What exactly was the process of obtaining the audio file from the FBI?
Kennebeck: I heard excerpts of the FBI recording of Reality’s interrogation at one of the pretrial hearings. That’s how I knew it existed. I drafted an initial Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that we submitted to the FBI asking for the release of that audio file along with other evidence. Then we had to be patient for many months. The FBI is incredibly slow in responding to any requests for records, the simplest questions can take years. It’s quite outrageous.
Eventually we got our first rejection, for reasons we didn’t agree with, so we filed an appeal with the Department of Justice and succeeded. The DOJ ordered the FBI to release the records to us, but the agency refused to comply. They withheld the records illegally, so eventually we decided to sue the FBI. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press represented our company, Codebreaker Films, pro bono, and with the help of their excellent attorneys we won the court case. The FBI was forced to give us the records, starting with the interrogation file.
Filmmaker: Could you speak a bit about the design and staging of the interviews? In the press notes you describe Reality’s as having “an almost theatrical setting, although outdoors and surrounded by natural sounds,” in sharp contrast to the claustrophobic atmosphere surrounding the whistleblowers, especially Edward Snowden, who is himself much more polished and practiced—i.e., “staged”—in front of the camera than Reality is.
Kennebeck: What I love about cinema is how much you can transport through the medium. It has so many layers—facts and information, scenes, images, testimonies. There is feeling and emotion. There are colors, sounds, music and sceneries you can work with. And everything can carry meaning.
It was important for me to film Reality’s interview outside in nature to contrast it to her time in detention, where she craved the outdoors. I still wanted her to have the same beautiful setup for light and sound to match the quality level of the indoor interviews. The filming was incredibly challenging because we had much less control over the environment. It was over 100 degrees outside; we had cicadas, barking dogs, fighter jets and truck traffic while we were doing a very deep and emotional interview. But in the end it was the right choice, because the sounds and changing light add to the experience of seeing Reality free for the first time.
In comparison, Edward Snowden’s interview is indeed claustrophobic. For me, it symbolizes the situation he is in: He’s still trapped in Russia and cannot return home. He is not free, not even close. We were likely under surveillance during the filming and while we were doing the interview. Our footage had a lot of distortions and technical issues that we had never seen before. It was strange. I think that comes across in the interview. It does feel more polished and practiced, and displays a certain sense of control over the environment and the words that are spoken. The constraints are obvious in the interview, and they should be.
Filmmaker: What restrictions did Reality and her family place on filming? Did they weigh in on rough cuts throughout production?
Kennebeck: My approach to documentary filmmaking is very journalistic. Most of my stories have different sides and perspectives. Interview partners might not agree with each other, and there is often tension in the film. For that reason, it’s impossible for me to give (some) participants editorial control. They don’t watch rough cuts and give feedback. I am very straightforward about my specific directing style when I first speak to people about making a film. I explain in detail how I work and get informed consent. My experience with that has been very positive. I have participants who later say in interviews, “Sonia is a journalist and documented what she witnessed”—that I don’t just portray one side of the story, that what you see in my films is what really happened.