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Piercing, tense and unexpectedly funny docufiction starring Sydney Sweeney portrays controversial whistleblower who leaked US government information to the media in 2017 - on BFI Player on Monday, July 3rd

In the opening scene, the NSA contractor Reality Winner (supremely played by Sydney Sweeney) sits at the desk of an airless office. Reminiscent of a Black Mirror (David Slade, 2018) dystopia, Fox News ominously preaches from two television screens fixed on windowless walls. Her small figure is studied from a wide shot, as if observed through a surveillance camera. But, as we know, this is not a dystopia. Using the original transcript of the FBI’s audio-recording, Reality is a faithful reconstruction of the hour-and-a-half leading up to Winner’s arrest.

Just as Winner parks into her driveway, the camera closes in on her with the advent of two FBI officers, Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis). An anxious score by Nathan Macay and high-strung tension pin the viewer to Winner’s experience with breath-catching immediacy. I caught myself frowning at Garrick’s awkward small-talk and gasping at Taylor’s physical proximity to Winner during questioning, as if I were the suspect. This is cinéma vérité at its finest, where the film re-enacts Winner’s questioning and subsequent arrest with such minutiae precision that the viewer experiences first-hand the oppression of surveillance capitalism.

The FBI officers’ forceful politeness is thrillingly unnerving. Their repeated affirmation that Winner is speaking to them on a “voluntary” basis tactlessly diverts from their omission of key information. While her home is overtaken by male officers twice her size, Winner is not informed of the evidence pinned against her, nor is she stated her right to a lawyer. The sheer ridiculousness of such intercation occasionally evoked short bursts of laughter from the audience. These instances of comic-relief are a welcomed respite from the disquieting effect of the officers’ scrutiny. Without the cleverly timed cuts to the original transcript and to Winner’s Instagram posts, the film’s proximity to reality might be forgotten or even questioned.

There is something violating about the brutal knocks of barged furniture and shots of gloved hands perusing through Winner’s private journals. Her house and possessions are probed and seized before her eyes – a devastating depiction of her vanishing freedom. Her act of the naïve young woman flays as the officers gradually reveal the evidence they have against Winner. But their method of concealing information in order to drag it out of her in the form of a confession feels cruel. Though she is guilty of having leaked secret documents to the news website The Intercept, we empathise with her crushing unravelling. Reality is a raw docufilm, which merges fact with the poetry of the moving image. Winner is neither a hero nor an enemy or a hero. She is human being who chose to act upon her instincts and was severely punished for it.

Reality is in cinemas across the UK on Friday, June 2nd. On BFI Player on Monday, July 3rd.

By Gaelle Biguenet - 26-05-2023

Gaelle is a freelance journalist originally from France, and based in London. She was introduced to film as a thought-provoking artform upon watching Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). Bergman’s dep...

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