Filmmakers behind an independent documentary on NSA whistleblower Reality Winner have spent the past year struggling to secure distribution. They turned to Kickstarter in November to help them finish the film, and in a couple of weeks, they achieved their first fundraising goal.
Now, director Sonia Kennebeck and producer Ines Hoffmann Kanna have increased their goal from $60,000 to $90,000 to help them organize in-person screenings at independent theatres, hire a publicist, and pay for Reality and her family’s travel expenses so they can be present for a premiere of “Reality Winner— The Documentary” in New York.
I spoke with Sonia and Ines of Codebreaker Films about the project, their crowdfunding campaign, and independent documentary filmmaking, as well as how the filmmakers covered Reality from very early in her case—before she had the kind of mainstream support and interest from establishment news media and Hollywood executive producers that her story enjoys today.
“We went to one of the pretrial hearings and realized how little coverage there was of her case by mainstream national journalists and media,” Sonia recalled. “I had expected—considering how election security was such a big topic at the time—that there would be tons of TV crews. But that wasn’t the case. That’s why we decided to independently cover Reality’s case.”
The film premiered at a few festivals in 2021, including South by Southwest (SXSW), and received favorable reviews under the title “United States Vs. Reality Winner.” However, with Reality’s release from prison, the filmmakers had an opportunity to reimagine the film and fully incorporate Reality’s perspective into the documentary.
Below is video of the interview with filmmakers Sonia Kennebeck and Ines Hoffmann Kanna.
According to the filmmakers, “This will be the one and only documentary film that shows the full and true story of Reality Winner told through the voices of Reality and her family, while covering a historic period in our lives.”
Funds raised cover the basic costs of editing footage from Reality’s interview for the production, licensing music and news footage, sound mixing, and color grading. It also makes it possible for the filmmakers to develop a trailer and film poster.
Each of the additional stretch goals make it possible to ensure the widest audience possible sees the film, a crucial document of a prosecution which ended in the harshest punishment ever for someone accused of an unauthorized disclosure of information to the press.
The filmmaking team behind this documentary, including director of photography Torsten Lapp, editor Maxine Goedicke, and composer Insa Rudolph, all worked on "National Bird," which told the stories of US drone whistleblowers, and "Enemies of the State," which documented the intriguing and puzzling case of Matt Dehart.
Of "Reality Winner—The Documentary," Ines said the filmmakers want to showcase how the Espionage Act was wielded against Reality. “We really do want to explain to people what the Espionage Act is. We have other whistleblowers in the film. [NSA whistleblower] Edward Snowden gave an amazing interview. We have [NSA whistleblower] Thomas Drake. We have [CIA whistleblower] John Kiriakou.”
“We have really the who’s who, who had to deal with this law. And we really want to explain to people what it means and what has been happening to those people,” Ines added.
The project initially centered on Billie Winner-Davis, Reality’s mother, because Reality was in pretrial detention, and then federal prison after she was sentenced. The filmmakers had to rely on Billie to tell Reality’s story because the only access they had to Reality involved the phone in prison. (Still, she had to be careful about what she said.)
According to Ines, the film still shows Billie and how she became an activist fighting for her daughter, which not many parents do. But now with Reality at the center they can address several topics, and they also have an opportunity to highlight President Donald Trump, who took classified documents to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
The documentary includes audio of FBI agents interrogating Reality, when they raided her home in Augusta, Georgia. The filmmakers filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the audio, and pro bono lawyers at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) helped them force the FBI to release the recordings to them.
“The audience will hear how these agents operate, how they communicate, what they say, and how they say it, and it’s incredible,” Ines declared. She called it a “journalistic coup” to obtain the recording.
Sonia described how they did a lot of research and preparation ahead of launching the Kickstarter campaign. What the campaign has positively done is involve people in the “artistic process,” and the “process of filmmaking and journalism.”
“What I think is so important about independent journalism and independent documentary is we often cover original stories and stories that otherwise would not be widely known,” Sonia contended.
“You talked about the interviews that [Reality] has been giving that now are coming out after she was released. But the difference between our work, and also your work, is that we were there when it happened. We were there when we didn't know the outcome.”
Sonia continued, “We didn’t know that she would detained for her entire pretrial period, which was over a year. We didn’t know that she would get the longest sentence a whistleblower ever received in federal court. This is is a high risk to cover a story like that, but the importance of it is that it is documented now.”
“You can actually see what happened when it happened, and if we weren’t there with a camera, it wouldn't exist.”
Support the “Reality Winner—The Documentary” campaign by going to Kickstarter.