'Digital Dissidents' (Digitale Dissidenten): Montreal Review

Courtesy of Montreal Film Festival


A well-intentioned but clumsy introduction to those who took a stand.

Daniel Ellsberg's spiritual descendents and the price of having a conscience.

Some of the most urgent issues in contemporary democracy feel almost stale in Digital Dissidents, Cyril Tuschi's look at today's most famous (or notorious, take your pick) whistleblowers and the risk-takers who inspired them. From Edward Snowden back to Daniel Ellsberg with some less-known leakers in between, we look at the motivations for risking jobs (and maybe lives) to thrust classified documents into the public domain, and chart the consequences of these acts. Unfortunately, other docs and news reports have done a more effective job covering this ground, leaving this picture a fest-circuit placeholder until the next real bombshell comes along.

Tuschi doesn't get to sit down with Snowden, even via Skype, and instead must make do with remarks he made remotely to a Hope X hacker conference. He does, however, get face time with a somewhat grizzled Julian Assange, whose rhetoric is a bit tamer than it can sometimes be, and spends lots of time with two former NSA employees, Thomas Drake and William Binney, who exposed the agency's overreach in the wake of 9/11. Annette Muff's editing isn't especially kind to these two men, whose understandable pain and anger over harassment play badly in some scenes, but the doc does an adequate job of showing how straight-arrow public servants could wind up the targets of law enforcement.

The film is on its surest footing with Ellsberg, whose story has been told many times before. Given his stated focus on computer-age scandals, it's odd that Tuschi spends so much time on Ellsberg's Nixon-era exploits. But Ellsberg does have the perspective to make a point very relevant to the Snowden case: Blowing a whistle based on your eyewitness experience may be praiseworthy, but "documents make all the difference" when trying to get the world's attention.

The doc appears to have its facts straight and is sure of its pro-muckraker agenda, but its aesthetics aren't as solid. Tuschi overuses generic footage of empty computer rooms and the like, as if he doesn't want to look at his interviewees for too long while they're talking; and he relies on some crudely drawn portraits of his subjects in ways that, once or twice, may provoke embarrassed laughter in the viewer. These amateurish touches will do the film no favors in convincing any viewer who doesn't already believe that, for the most part, its subjects should be celebrated rather than persecuted.

Production company: Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion

Director: Cyril Tuschi

Screenwriters: Georg Tschurtschenthaler, Cyril Tuschi

Executive producer: Christian Beetz

Director of photography: Peter Dörfler

Editor: Annette Muff

Music: Stein Berge Svendsen

No rating, 88 minutes