Among the treasure trove of damning government documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 that exposed the NSA’s vast surveillance activities was one that detailed a secret U.K. program known as Phantom Parrot. It allows authorities to stop people entering the country in order to download their personal data from their phones and other electronic devices, even without their knowledge.
It’s also the title of Kate Stonehill’s debut feature documentary, which premieres in the Zurich Film Festival’s Border Lines sidebar. “Phantom Parrot” traces the case of U.K. human rights activist Muhammad Rabbani, who was found guilty in 2017 of a terror-related crime for refusing to provide his passwords to police at London’s Heathrow Airport under Britain’s Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
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Rabbani is the international director of advocacy group CAGE, which assists individuals who have been affected by state policies related to the so-called “war on terror.” Rabbani was stopped upon his return from Qatar, where he was meeting with a client, Ali Al-Marri, who claimed to have been unjustly detained and tortured in the U.S. for being a suspected terrorist.
“Even though the final film has multiple elements, my entry point into it was the story of Rabbani,” Stonehill explains.
She learned about Rabbani’s case from one of the protagonists of a short film she made about six individuals who were labeled by the U.K. government as non-violent extremists.
“That was all I knew at the time. I didn’t know the back story and I hadn’t really mapped out the other areas the film was going to go into in the end, but from the off, I was just really interested in this question of who has the right to our data and also what are the methods that can be used to obtain it.”
For Stonehill, whose work largely focuses on the digital age, power structures and the relationship between the citizen and the state, meeting Rabbani provided an ideal “opportunity to also place a human at the heart of a tech story, and that’s sort of rare.”
“I thought, we’ve got a person who’s going through a case that’s going to shed light on this question.”
The film also offers a broader look at the alarming use of intrusive technologies – “digital strip-searches,” as Rabbani describes them – and the public’s seeming acceptance of them.
“From the beginning I was really interested in those bigger questions,” Stonehill says.
“Phantom Parrot” features and discusses a number of high-profile figures who were closely involved with and also covered the Snowden leaks and NSA revelations, including journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher. The film recounts the 2013 detainment of Greenwald’s late husband David Miranda at Heathrow under Schedule 7. Miranda, who went on to become a Brazilian congressman, was in transit from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro while carrying encrypted files, including thousands of highly classified U.K. intelligence documents.
“This was really a show of force by the British government to sort of try and intimidate reporters who were revealing controversial information about the British government’s and the American government’s massive surveillance programs that the general public had no idea were even operating,” Gallagher notes in the film.
Gallagher reported on both the Phantom Parrot program as well as the Rabbani case for The Intercept and he was also part of the team working on the Snowden archive, “so it was really important to me to bring those two elements into the conversation,” says Stonehill.
“There was a whole story behind how that reporting actually took place,” she adds, pointing out that Miranda was stopped under Schedule 7 while transporting the very documents that revealed the secret Schedule 7 policy that her film is about.
“I wanted to pay tribute to the fact that a lot of what we know about state surveillance is rooted in those leaks and they have a value. … A lot of people know the story of Snowden but I felt like this film was an opportunity to engage with one of the actual revelations itself.”
Also appearing in the film are renowned solicitor and human rights activist Gareth Peirce, who defended Rabbani in court, and Andrew Savage, Al-Marri’s U.S. attorney.
“Gareth Peirce is just amazing. We were thrilled that she appeared in the film because she really is an iconic lawyer who has fought some incredible fights in her long career.”
“Phantom Parrot” is sold by Java Films and CAA, with the latter handling North America.
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