Sonia Kennebeck on Getting a Complete Picture in “Reality Winner”

About two-thirds of the way through “Reality Winner,” you learn the origins of the whistleblower’s unusual name. Her mother Billie Winner-Davis is happy to explain when asked about the compromise she made with her husband at the time when giving the kids their first names, having gotten her pick for their first child Brittany and ceding the rights to the second to him. Like practically everything else reported after June 2017 when Winner, working for a military subcontractor, was caught leaking a report she came across about Russian interference in the prior U.S. presidential election, there was a more sensational version out there of what happened, but when Winner-Davis explains to a stranger how Reality’s father “wanted a real winner,” it’s a reminder that people make wild decisions all the time and often they’re more reasonable in context than one might initially think.

It’s why it proves bracing to see Winner sit down for an extensive interview with director Sonia Kennebeck, who had completed a version of the film about the Air Force vet who was sentenced to four years in prison for espionage that played the festival circuit in 2021, but revamped it entirely upon her release last fall. After previous films “National Bird” about former members of the military raising alarm about American use of drones in the war in Afghanistan, and “Enemies of the State,” tracking the stage case of Matt DeHart, who fled the U.S. after his service as part of the Air National Guard under a cloud of suspicion of potential sexual impropriety that could have to do with other intel he had, the filmmaker has a rare ability to make stories come alive in spite of limited access to her subjects, who have much to fear when handling sensitive government materials. But now with “Reality Winner,” she has transformed a story outlining a system that fails those who come forward with information critical to the public into a testament into why it’s so important people feel comfortable sharing what they know when Winner speaks so lucidly about why she was disturbed by attacks on U.S. voting systems that may not have altered the course of the 2016 election, but surely had implications for those in the future.

Winner may have become an easy target because of her name and punk predilections – her ideas of zen involves both yoga and AR-15s – and her biting sarcasm could get her into trouble when taken literally by prosecutors, but Kennebeck sets out to show how encouraging assumptions about her has been part of a plan to take attention away from what she has to say and by presenting her directly, amidst the research that the director and her longtime producing partner Ines Hofmann Kanna amassed around her case while she was in prison, “Reality Winner” doesn’t only offer a complete picture of the person at its center for the first time, but a time where truth itself is under assault from a variety of different angles. With the film starting its theatrical run this week, Kennebeck spoke about the process of seeing this story through till the end, no matter what its cost, connecting with Winner face-to-face after knowing her only from afar and being able to inject her personality into the fabric of the film.

This looked very different to me than the first version I saw it out of South by Southwest in 2021. How did this evolve?

It’s an interesting story. When we released “United States vs. Reality Winner” in March 2021, one of our main reasons to do that was we had covered her story for three years already at that point and felt a very strong ethical motivation to shine light on her because she was doing so badly, and I think now that you see “Reality Winner,” the new film where she talks about what she was going through during her time in prison. You can really see how bad she was doing and how much she was suffering during this time, so the films are quite different because [the previous version] is really about her family and the impact [on them] and how she was silenced and the new film now is about Reality and who tells the story and who gets to tell her story, which is in our case herself.

Is it difficult to go back to the drawing board once you have a version that was as finished as what you had previously?

Everything about making an independent documentary is difficult. Some things are a little bit more difficult than others, but we are truly independent. Our films and this film in particular has been grant and donation-funded, so that actually gave Ines [Hofmann Kanna] and I the freedom to really make the choices that we thought were ethical and right at the time and also journalistically sound. Because when we had the opportunity to film Reality’s release – and I filmed her first interview and really connected with her when she was out, it became clear to me that this is a new film. Her story and her motivation is so important to hear from her directly, and I think it’s beautiful that we have been documenting everything that’s happened during the five years that she was going through it because we had all this material that people needed to see, but now this is really the film that I think tells her story in the fullest possible way. I’m not going to say it wasn’t challenging because it certainly is and I wish there was generally more flexibility for doing something like this because documentaries cover life and there are so many twists and turns that you can’t can’t predict. Reality actually called our film a living documentary because it evolved as we were making it. And then the big surprise at the end is that former President Trump was indicted under the exact same laws Reality [was].

It surprised me to hear you say in other interviews that you found yourself as one of the few in court covering the case in its early days when it was so well-publicized later – and usually, you focus on people who avoid attention. Was this different to approach as a narrative?

Yeah, I think it’s important to note that the Reality story for the first few years was not widely covered at all. People who are interested in national security were paying attention to it and there was some coverage of her arrest initially. Then there were some pieces, mostly negative, in conservative media outlets and late night show where people were making fun of her name because her name is so unusual. But beyond that, very few journalists were covering her case at all. And my producing partner Ines Hofmann Kanna had the idea, and she was encouraging me to fly out to Augusta, Georgia, to attend one of the pretrial hearings. I had read the article about her arrest almost immediately when it came out, and Ines and I were wondering if we should cover it because it was such a big case and how historic it is. So when I flew out to Georgia, I expected there would be a lot of media coverage – camera crews and reporters from national news outlets, but that was not the case.

It actually was really disturbing considering that Reality disclosed information about Russian election interference that was so important for U.S. democracy and the fact that so few reporters were covering it was one of the main reasons that we decided to take it on as independent filmmakers because we thought we needed to bear witness to this. Independent documentaries take a while to make and release, especially if in this case, and Reality got this long sentence – she was in prison for over four years, and she’s still under supervised release – so by the time we were ready to release it, the media coverage had just gotten bigger and bigger, and Tina Satter’s theatre play got a lot of wonderful coverage, and then the movie was made out of it. All of this I think is really great because it shines light on Reality’s story from all different creative angles and what we have now is the full story. We have for people who’ve heard about Reality now, who have written articles, who’ve seen a movie, and with this documentary, the story beginning to end as it unfolded. We have her giving us insight into her motivation, her thinking during the interrogation, and everything that unfolded beginning to end.

You obviously had won the trust of the family, and you’ve got access to all this correspondence where you get a feel for who Reality is, but was it interesting to sit down with her for a proper interview?

We were in contact [while she was in prison], but it was always actively monitored and there were so many restrictions or constraints. Both of us wanted to be extremely cautious and careful because she was already under so much pressure and treated so inhumanely in prison that we did not want to add to that in any way. That’s why I really did refrain from asking her the real questions that I wanted to ask her and I really could only do it once she was out and we had this moment alone together. And during the interview, she really trusted me and gave an interview that I think is very special. I don’t think she has given another interview like this where she is just so candid and vulnerable, and I think she decided to show me a side of her that she does not show many people. When you see her on social media and so on, she has a fantastic sense of humor and she still is funny in our interview, but she also showed another side that’s really deep and thoughtful and reflective of everything that she has been through in the last five years.

Usually your films are quite solemn, but when you’ve got this subject that has this self-deprecating sense of humor, was that interesting to acknowledge?

It was very, very important for us to include Reality’s personality in the film, especially because she was absent for such a long time during production, but we never wanted to lose the sense of her. Other people in her prison were known to have given interviews, but she was not allowed to do that and I made official requests to get access to her in prison, but she was really locked away and effectively silent, so we were going against that by including her humor and her art in the film and Maxine Goedicke, who’s just a fantastic storyteller and editor, and I went through Reality’s social media entries and her diaries that the family had shared with us where you can really get her persona and her humor and the collage work that she’s been doing. We included that in the film because we really felt that would capture who she is and it’s fun too, right? I make very dark films, and I wouldn’t say this is an entirely light film – it’s about a serious subject matter – but it puts you in the center of it and you can get a sense of who Reality is because of how she takes her humor. And I do think that people will laugh along with her when she makes her jokes.

You mention her art and I understand the end credits song actually came from one of her poems. How did happen?

Yeah, Reality is an artist. She draws, she paints, she writes poetry and she is a great writer and speaker as well, so from her mom, we had gotten this poem that Reality wrote that is really meaningful about her situation in prison, and we shared it with our composer, Inza Rudolph, who felt very inspired by the poem, so we asked for permission to incorporate it. The title song is really inspired by Reality’s work and artistry.

It must’ve been wild to finally sit down with her. I’ve heard you had to wait in 100-degree days in Georgia just to get the few fleeting shots that you had in the original version, which still can be seen in this one to reflect her time in prison.

Yeah, it was just mind-blowing to me, covering her story for so, so many years and being in a situation where we couldn’t get to her. They were really trying to avoid any contact with the media for her, so we had to be very far away and had a huge lens from our equipment sponsor because you can’t be standing next to a prison. We had to film her from so far away to get that little glimpse of her doing a workout in what basically amounted to a cage outside the jail where she was locked in for more than a year that is not made for long-term detentions, just to get even a few shots of her. And then there’s a moment in the film that really stuck in my head is when she’s put into a van with dark windows and our director of photography Torsten Lapp ran up to the van to get right up to the window to film her and you can actually see her through these dark windows. I’m actually doing the sound recording as well, so she catches a glimpse of me and could see that I had the full sound equipment on. You can see very clearly that she recognizes a person in the film [during that moment] and she nods and that’s me on the other side and I remember us catching and looking at each other, [with] her knowing that we were there and documenting her story.

“Reality Winner” opens on October 11th at the IFC Center in New York and on October 18th in Los Angeles with a special screening at the Laemmle Royal with a Q & A moderated by Alex Winter and October 19th with a special screening at the Laemmle NoHo with a Q & A moderated by Rosie O’Donnell and a subsequent weeklong run at the Laemmle Glendale. It will also play in Oakland on October 24th at the New Parkway and October 26th in Washington DC at Cafritz Hall.

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