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In 2013, Edward Snowden’s leak of damning government documents exposed the extensive surveillance activities of the NSA, including a secret U.K. program known as Phantom Parrot. This program allowed authorities to intercept individuals entering the country and download personal data from their electronic devices, all without their knowledge or consent. The implications of such surveillance and data collection form the core of Kate Stonehill’s debut feature documentary, also titled “Phantom Parrot,” which is making its premiere at the Zurich Film Festival’s Border Lines sidebar.
The documentary primarily revolves around the case of Muhammad Rabbani, a U.K. human rights activist who, in 2017, was found guilty of a terror-related crime for refusing to provide his passwords to police at London’s Heathrow Airport, under the powers granted by Britain’s Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Rabbani serves as the international director of the advocacy group CAGE, which aids individuals affected by state policies related to the so-called “war on terror.” His encounter with law enforcement occurred upon returning from Qatar, where he had been meeting with a client, Ali Al-Marri, who claimed to have been unjustly detained and tortured in the U.S. as a suspected terrorist.
Kate Stonehill’s entry into this documentary project was initially centered around Rabbani’s story. She had learned about his case through one of the protagonists of a short film she had previously made about individuals labeled as non-violent extremists by the U.K. government. At the time, Stonehill had limited knowledge of the backstory and the various dimensions her film would eventually explore. However, from the outset, she was deeply intrigued by the questions surrounding data ownership and the methods employed to access it.
As a filmmaker with a primary focus on the digital age, power structures, and the complex relationship between citizens and the state, Stonehill recognized that Rabbani’s case presented an ideal opportunity to humanize a tech-related narrative—a rather rare occurrence.
Stonehill remarks, “We’ve got a person who’s going through a case that’s going to shed light on this question.”
Beyond the individual case, “Phantom Parrot” delves into the broader issues of intrusive technologies, which Rabbani aptly terms “digital strip-searches,” and the troubling acceptance of such practices by the public.
Stonehill emphasizes, “From the beginning, I was really interested in those bigger questions.”
The documentary also features and engages in discussions with prominent figures closely associated with the Snowden leaks and the revelations about NSA surveillance, including journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher. The film revisits the 2013 detainment of Greenwald’s late husband, David Miranda, at Heathrow Airport under Schedule 7. At the time, Miranda was in transit from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro while carrying encrypted files, including a cache of highly classified U.K. intelligence documents.
Ryan Gallagher, who reported extensively on the Phantom Parrot program and the Rabbani case for The Intercept, and who was part of the team working on the Snowden archive, played a pivotal role in connecting these elements within the documentary.
Stonehill remarks, “There was a whole story behind how that reporting actually took place.” She underscores the irony that Miranda was detained under Schedule 7 while transporting documents that revealed the very secret policy that her film investigates.
The documentary also features appearances by renowned solicitor and human rights activist Gareth Peirce, who defended Rabbani in court, and Andrew Savage, Al-Marri’s U.S. attorney. Stonehill expresses her admiration for Peirce, describing her as “amazing” and highlighting her extensive career fighting for justice.
“Phantom Parrot” is being represented by Java Films and CAA, with CAA handling distribution in North America. Through its exploration of a crucial case and its connections to broader themes of surveillance, privacy, and civil liberties, the documentary promises to shed light on the intricate and contentious relationship between the state and its citizens in the digital age.