Transcribed below from an old-fashioned audiocassette, presumably without the knowledge of Vice President Dick Cheney (though one can never be sure these days), my recent marathon phone chat with Robb Moss—Boston-based co-director of Secrecy, screening four times at the Walker as part of the “Cinema of Urgency” series–began, in the interests of narrowing an almost infinitely expansive topic, with my reading to him from a piece I wrote for Cinema Scope just after his collaborative effort with Peter Galison (who’ll be present for the Walker screenings) had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival:
[Sundance] jury member Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) got choked up when announcing the big prize to Trouble the Water. News flash: Intellectuals have hearts! A much better example than an egghead’s awards-night tears (or, uh, this article) is the aptly dizzying and mournful Secrecy, in which Harvard film department legend Robb Moss and co-director Peter Galison begin their interrogation of U.S. executive privilege from the Manhattan Project to Gitmo with Errolesque shots of classified files stacked floor to ceiling, but return repeatedly to the story of sad old widows who’ll probably never know why their government scientist husbands went down in the “Reynolds crash” of 1949.
Beautifully paradoxical in its own withholding of answers (this in an era when you can Google-search for nuclear bomb-making tips), Secrecy asks: To what degree is government secrecy necessary even as the force by which it’s kept puts a chokehold on investigative journalism, the U.S. constitution, personal freedom, et cetera? And how is this ever-increasing force related to the widening gap between haves and have-nots? Among almost countless other things, Secrecy is about the erosion of the middle, about how the powerful are left to their darkened inner sanctums (or screening rooms) while the rest of us are stranded, restricted, out in the open. Money is power, yes, but what the secretive have more than money or power per se is the formerly free commodity it buys them: the right to privacy.
Rob Nelson: So yeah, that’s what I wrote, Robb. In relation to your sense of the film you made through years of research and shooting and editing, what do those two little paragraphs make you think?
Robb Moss: They make me think you have an interesting take. I hadn’t quite thought of things in that way. Certainly the relationship of secrecy to privacy is an inverse one–the more secrecy, the less privacy. Secrecy doesn’t take this on directly for the reason that we just couldn’t go in every direction that the film would want us to take. The film does suggest that direction, though, and so you’re right to point it out. And if the cliché is true that information is power, then it’s also true that the powerful have more information. And if the powerful are those in the executive branch, then they just get to do whatever they want, with no oversight. And when they’re acting in the name of national security, the executive branch gets to behave in a way that the constitution was expressly designed to restrain. It’s also true that the executive branch needs a certain amount of secrecy in order to perform its function of protecting the nation; the film wants to take that duty seriously and not just dismiss it.
Nelson: How did you go about that?
Moss: Well, one of the things that [Peter and I] struggled with was how to present a strong point of view at the same time that we would give voice to this other myriad of positions. Our basic thought was: If we’re going to express a belief about secrecy, we have to do it by moving through difficult ideas rather than starting with a conclusion–with, for example, Secrecy is bad or Secrecy erodes democracy. The film doesn’t adopt that style of advocacy: It doesn’t start with its conclusion already mapped out. We wanted to go through the kind of dizzying and difficult thinking that people inside the system of secrecy have to do, and that we had to do as filmmakers.
Nelson: It’s rare for a film, even a documentary film, to favor the range of ideas over the single perspective, don’t you think?
Moss: I suppose, yes. One of the things about our film that presented a real challenge to us as filmmakers is that we were dealing with one of the worst film ideas on earth: the idea of government secrecy, which is just completely inert, visually speaking. There’s nothing to film! So it has to start as a poor film idea, even if it’s a consequential idea on paper or in your head. One of the ways we hoped to work with that as a problem was to film people who had experience within the system—people inside the NSA or the CIA, people who’ve had experience in the secrecy system as civilians, people who have spent their lives trying to get secrets from the government—rather than experts holding forth about the issues. We waned to get some patina of the personal. Which seemed right because secrecy is always personal—even at the highest levels of executive power. As human beings, we’re constructed from out of myriad secrets.
Nelson: So many possible directions to go from here–I guess I have to choose, huh?
Moss: Go ahead [laughs]. We did!
Nelson: Right [laughs]. Oh, the agony of art: all the things that won’t happen because of one little choice or another.
Moss: It’s like growing up. You marry this person and not that person, you get this job and not that job…
Nelson: Oh, God, yeah… Okay, so here we go! The people you chose—ahem—for the film are ones who could bring an experiential perspective to the film. That’s also to say that they have a kind of passion, a hunger to express themselves, which is not always easy to get within a talking heads documentary situation. Are there things you and Peter did before filming to make the subjects want to be so forthcoming and articulate? Or did most of that energy come as a result of your careful selection of subjects?
Moss: It’s hard to know. But let me say this: For the first interviews that we shot, we went to the subjects’ environments–filming them in their offices, at home, et cetera. We worked very hard to make the settings as ordinary as possible, but there were always elements in the frame–a bookshelf, a desk, whatever–that seemed to distract the subjects and the film itself from this profoundly powerful, invisible, all but darkened space that secrecy occupies in our imaginations and in the U.S. government. So at that point we said, Well, maybe we should see whether our subjects could come to us. We could fly them to us [in Boston], we would shoot on a soundstage so that the environment is completely theatrical in a way, and very dark. It’s like the moviegoing experience: You’re in a darkened room, you’re looking at this beam of light, focusing your attention. That’s what we wanted: We wanted to focus the subjects’ attention fully, and the camera’s. And by choosing people from within the [secrecy] system–practitioners rather than pundits–and by not choosing famous people like former heads of the CIA and so on, we didn’t have people arguing their own failed policies and answering questions that weren’t being asked. And you didn’t bring the glare of celebrity into the room. These are people who wanted to tell us what they thought about things they felt were terribly underrepresented within the political discourse. We gave them the time to develop ideas. Hopefully we don’t have sound bites in the film, but paragraphs.
Nelson: The film is about secrecy, but it’s more a work of philosophy than investigation per se–it’s about the uncovering of ideas, not of facts, a meditation rather than an expose. It’s a humble film, in a way–which it could only be, really, in the face of these gigantic forces that even people with executive power can’t always have a full handle on. You get a sense of all of these people playing a three-dimensional tug of war, a sense that on some level they’re all patriots, fighting one another to realize their version of patriotism. You agree?
Moss: Yes. I think this idea of patriotism–of not shying away from patriotism as a thing to claim–is one of the things that sets up the film. If you’re in the intelligence community, you know things: You’re thinking very dark thoughts, you know things about the world that are frightening, and you’re doing your best to try to make the world safer–at least safer for Americans, if you’re in the U.S. intelligence community. In the film, we spend a fair amount of time showing the relationship between secrecy and the nuclear threat. Because that’s the scariest element, and it’s the thing that [secrecy officials] know better than anybody. We want that fear to leak into the movie, because that’s what you’re really addressing at some deep and fundamental level: Policy gets driven by the fear of some kind of nuclear calamity.
Nelson: Watching the film, you catch yourself thinking, You know, the need for government secrecy kind of makes sense. It’s not something that can be dismissed immediately. And it’s surprising to recognize that feeling.
Moss: I agree with that. I’m glad you think that from seeing the film.
Nelson: It prepares you for an overall experience in the film that, as we’ve said, is dizzying rather than stabilizing. The conclusion of the film isn’t a conclusion, really, but a continued feeling of irresolution. The biggest secrets simply can’t be uncovered.
Moss: I suspect that if we had made more of an expose film–an angry film–it would have gotten more attention in the press, a higher level of play. But that’s never the kind of film we wanted to make, not ever. There were friends of ours who were pissed off at us for not making a more angry film.
Nelson: That’s interesting. I don’t want to exaggerate by suggesting that anger is passé right now, but, in August of 2008, there is a natural sense of a long chapter being closed, a sense of looking ahead to a period that hopefully will be not so enraging as the last eight years have been. And since a lot has happened in the last nine months since Sundance, maybe those friends of yours who were pissed–for not being angry enough, funny as it sounds–would feel something different now that we’re seemingly on the verge of Hope with a capital H?
Moss: It’s hard to know. And also, in three or six months from now, the landscape will be different yet again. I know we wanted to make a film that was completely responsive to current events but not beholden to them, not tethered so tightly to them. I think the seductions of secrecy are present in every executive. Lyndon Johnson was one of the greatest abusers of secrecy and he was a Democrat. Issues of war often transcend issues of political party affiliation. While this [current] administration has been particularly and willfully bent on increasing executive power by every means necessary, including the abuse of secrecy, the problems are not going to go away if there’s a Democratic president next year. They’re not. And if there’s another [terrorist] attack on the horizon–and it’s hard to think there isn’t–then these issues of the problems of secrecy in a democracy will be raised again. I hope the film will have a life that evolves, that the film can be read in different ways in different political environments. We’d want the film to be open enough that it can be useful to people in thinking about these key problems.
Nelson: One of the interviewed subjects is a Washington Post reporter who says that his job is precisely to disrupt the government’s privilege of secrecy, to get new information to the readership, to the public. But newspapers, to put it mildly, have had a tough year. Does the film play differently than it did at Sundance [in January] as a result of the hits that print journalism has taken as a business?
Moss: It’s a good question. In a way, the ground is still moving under us, isn’t it? Speaking of current events, [Salim] Hamdan has just today been convicted by the military tribunal. We can’t really account for that in the film, obviously. And whenever you put explanatory titles at the end of a documentary, you’re basically shouting to the audience that you’re lost in time, scrambling to catch up.
Nelson: What do you want to say about Hamdan? How does the news strike you?
Moss: I think it’s horrific. This is a guy who was convicted of driving weapons from one place to another place in Afghanistan, in the service of al Qaeda—just a salaried guy who was hired by bin Laden to be his driver. Hitler’s driver, by the way, was never charged with war crimes, and actually made a lot of money from his position by writing books—his memoirs of life with Hitler. So of all the people out there who are enemy combatants, the one to prosecute is a courier making deliveries? A non-ideological guy, a poor guy from Yemen? This is the guy they convict on these grounds, for the first time since WWII? It’s basically a way to instantiate the military tribunals, which are a travesty–a means to undermine the entire legal framework of the United States. I’m afraid this signals that [the U.S.] will go forward with prosecuting other people, and that at a certain point we’ll just accept these tribunals as a reasonable way to deal with terror. I think it will further undermine our moral stature as living under the rule of law.
Nelson: When you look into your crystal ball, drawing from the things you discovered in making Secrecy, what do you see for the futures of Rummy and Rove, Cheney, Dubya. Once their administration has officially passed, will they be forced to face the music?
Moss: I think that’s very unlikely. There’s going to be no stomach to go after elected officials for these kinds of crimes. The Democrats will feel that if they do, there’ll be pushback from the Right. My guess is they’ll hold their noses and not indict. But I don’t know.
Nelson: Is that another way of saying that anger is yesterday’s news?
Moss: Hmmm. That’s very interesting. I don’t know. I do have the feeling from being on the [film] festival circuit and talking to filmmakers and seeing what’s up on the screen that people are a bit exhausted right now by all the polarization and vitriol, and they’re trying to find ways to maintain beliefs without expressing them in ways that polarize us ever more. Maybe that’ll be to the Left’s detriment. But I do think there’s some feeling out there now that anger is a dead end.
Nelson: You can measure that feeling purely in the realm of left-wing documentary, in the grosses that have, for the most part, been dwindling. People—audiences—are exhausted, as you say. The documentary wave certainly seems to have crested.
Moss: I know what you mean. All the Iraq War films tanked last year except for No End in Sight-–which was a very angry film, and terrific, too, I thought. It’s hard to know. In some ways, you see that people are going to documentaries not so much to get their own beliefs reinforced—Michael Moore and his audience are an exception to this—but to be destabilized a bit. They like seeing other people’s points of view. And there’s something fascinating about that as a way of adjudicating the real. How do we know what the world is like? How do we know how to vote? How do we know what’s happening in the war, in the cities? How do we understand any issue, politics in general, the media? Actors are politicians, politicians become actors—the whole thing is very confusing. Even in academia, we don’t really know what to teach. What do we think an educated person should know? This is something that has been argued endlessly in liberal arts colleges for the last 10 or 20 years. It used to be that people kind of had an idea of what an educated person should know. Now we don’t.
Nelson: Many would say the mass media is in charge of these questions.
Moss: Well, if you work in documentary films, you’re at the frontline of the reality business. How do you make sense of the world? Religion used to do that: People went to church, to the synagogue, people spoke from the pulpit and talked about core values, about what kinds of stories made sense, how can we learn from those stories, what the world is really like. Documentary films are edging into that territory–not spiritually speaking, not exactly that, but in the ways of helping us understand what the world is like. I felt this way when I used to come out of movies in the 60s. I couldn’t wait to see what Antonioni or Godard or Bergman thought of this or that. It helped all of us. Leaving the theater, we wouldn’t even get to the sidewalk before we were talking about the movie. Another hour would go by before we made it to the café to talk some more. Because the world was being revealed to us in some way that was worth talking about. And I think people are having that kind of experience with documentary films. They want to talk about them.
Nelson: Which doesn’t necessarily lend to box-office grosses, you know? Maybe part of the reason why grosses are down is that the films are not easily digestible, that the genre is evolving.
Moss: I think that could be right. Certainly some line was crossed when people started being willing to go out–to pay $12 for tickets, pay for parking, pay for a babysitter–to see a documentary on the screen. Ten years ago that was not common. And now it is rather common that you have the opportunity to see these things. I think it’s partly driven by people’s discomfort with how we know the world, how we get our information about things that aren’t in our purview.