Cinema Femme caught up with Kate Stonehill, an award-winning director and DoP whose body of work explores power, identity and citizenship in the digital age. In her first documentary feature, titled “Phantom Parrot,” she unravels a secret British government surveillance program, and follows human rights activist Muhammad Rabbani as he is prosecuted under terror laws for refusing to hand over the passwords to his electronic devices, unveiling unsettling questions about the rule of law, modern espionage and digital privacy. 

“Phantom Parrot” was world-premiered at this year’s CPH:DOX (March 15-26) and recently celebrated its British premiere at Sheffield Docfest (June 14-19). During our chat, we asked Stonehill a few questions about the making of her documentary, the important issues it raises and how she organized her work while handling such a complex subject.

Kate Stonehill

When and how did you start working on “Phantom Parrot”?

Even though the final film has multiple elements, my entry point into it was through the main contributor, Muhammad Rabbani. I had made a short film, titled “Unspeakable,” combining verbatim performance techniques and intersecting interviews to tell the stories of three men publicly labeled as non-violent extremists by the UK government. The film explores the legality of the processes by which they were named and the responsibility of the media in their representation. I kept in touch with one of the contributors, who was fighting a legal case against the government in response to his naming in the press release. At the time we were in touch, he shared with me that he knew someone who had been charged with a terrorism offense for refusing to disclose his password. That was all I knew at the time, but I felt like it was surely going to be a big digital privacy test case, so I met Rabbani, and asked him if I could follow his story and the case. I felt it was a story that had wider implications about who has the right to our data and the methods that can be used to obtain it.

Muhammad Rabbani

How long have you been working on the project? How did you organize your work while exploring such a complex subject?

The different elements you see in the film emerged organically over a five-year process. Since my starting point was Rabbani’s story, there were a number of events that I followed as they unfolded in real time, like Rabbani’s court case, and his team’s work to disclose allegations of US government torture. Further down the line, I realized that having 360-degree access to the world of phone extraction could elevate the film in a really powerful way. At that point, my producer Steven Lake and I started the long process of trying to gain access to a digital forensics conference.

From the beginning, I knew that if I wanted to bring to life the airport stop, I would need an approach to reconstruction. One of the things I always found extraordinary was that when you are questioned under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, passing through UK borders, you have no right to remain silent. I wanted to find a way to highlight that in the film. Initially, I thought it would be a live-action reconstruction, but as the process developed, I felt there was power in bringing in an aesthetic that evoked a wider system, by existing as a computerized program, rather than bringing into focus specific individuals. In terms of structuring the actual film – I’m incredibly proud of the work that both of my amazing editors [Vera Simmonds and Emiliano Battista] did to thread together the disparate elements. There are a few sequences that we shot during the edit, and they were wonderful collaborators in identifying additional material we would need to build a structure where the different aspects of the film fit together.

What were the main human and technical challenges you had to deal with during your research phase and while filming?

A major creative challenge was: how do I find a cohesive visual language to bring to life this world? Much of the film occurs in meeting rooms and the style is very focused and still. We made a decision to shoot with two cameras as much as we could, in order to have flexibility for editing together the vérité material. With this story, there is so much that you can’t film – the stop, the court case, [for example]… So, I was constantly trying to think of ways to make the story both accessible and interesting to an audience. It was a challenge that I found exciting, though. I think it pushed me to be intentional about the way I was shooting the film, since what to film wasn’t necessarily obvious.

How did the making of this film affect your perception of both the UK and US governments and police forces?

Coming out of my work on the film, one of the areas that I find most concerning when it comes to the intersection of policing and new technologies is the question of consent. It’s very common for people who come into contact with the police to be asked for their passwords – and many people consent to this. Do people who consent to a search of their phone understand what they are consenting to? I personally found it both fascinating and terrifying to gain a window into the level of detail that someone can access through a phone. There are organizations like Upturn and STOP (Surveillance Technology Oversight Project) who have done really important work in this area.

It seems like the British law on citizens’ surveillance has not evolved since Rabbani’s case. Is that correct? Do you think this is ever going to change?

That is correct; it has actually expanded. Last year, the government amended the law so that it now applies to refugees and migrants arriving in boats, meaning that it is very easy for their phone data to be extracted upon arrival. There was also another high-profile case that hit the headlines this year. A French publisher, Ernest Moret, was arrested under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act after being questioned by UK police about participating in anti-government protests in France. Like Rabbani, he was arrested simply because he refused to hand over his passwords. It was good to see the outcry in response to his stop, and I can only hope that we as citizens continue to put pressure on our institutions for transparency, because in the absence of greater accountability, I don’t believe anything will change.

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