Going Against the King By Angelika Kettelhack

in 12th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Angelika Kettelhack

It happens quite often that Greek filmmakers refer to ancient Greek tragedies as, for example, Antigone by Sophocles. And so does Stelios Kouloglou, a well-known Greek TV-director, in his film Whistleblowers , which was shown at the 7th Documentary Film Festival of Thessaloniki.

Stelios Kouloglou gives us seven examples of very courageous people in Denmark, the United Kingdom, USA and Israel. All of them have to make the toughest decision of their lives: They face a dilemma comparable to Antigone’s fate, when she had to decide if she will be disobedient to the law given by her father, the King Creon, or to follow her own conscience in relying on higher moral values.

In this TV-documentary there are four women and three men, who each took a very lonely decision to do the latter, being disobedient to their “Kings”. By their professions they knew facts that were classified as “Top Secret”. These facts concerned the possibilities of making peace on earth. But these facts were denied by powerful conservative politicians like the USA-presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon in the sixties and like Bush today. They had the possibility of avoiding long-lasting unnecessary wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and even in Israel.

In this investigative film, one of the “Whistleblowers” is Daniel Ellsberg who, while inside the Pentagon, copied about 7000 papers which were classified as “top-secret” documents. “I was watching from the Pentagon as an official of the Defence Department when the country was being led into the war of 1964.” After having been in the Vietnam War himself he was sure: “I became aware that the talk of progress, of winning the war in Vietnam, was as invented as it is today in Iraq”. So in October 1969 when over 30 000 people had died, he gave these copies to a Congress-Deputy Fullbright, hoping they would be published. But these later so-called “Pentagon Papers” vanished.

That’s why Ellsberg copied them again in a normal copy shop cutting off the headline “top-secret” and then giving them to the New York Times . And soon “Newspaper after newspaper printed what I offered them.” Ellsberg knew that this would mean 115 years of imprisonment for him. And in fact after being discovered as the “Whistleblower”, Daniel Ellsberg has been imprisoned 60 times since the Sixties. For his first time in prison he gave the statement: ‘They were after us for days. It was the biggest manhunt in the country’s history.’

Another man full of courage is Mordechai Vanunu, who had worked in a secret nuclear factory in Israel. “I was producing nuclear material for atomic bombs.” In 1986 he did not want to keep his secret any longer because he feared that nuclear weapons would be used in the next war against Iraq, Syria or other Middle East countries. So he took many pictures from inside the factory and left Israel as quickly as possible. In London he gave the undeveloped films to the Times and they printed them. But a bit later in Rome, Mordechai Vanunu was drugged and brought back to Israel by boat. During the shooting of the documentary, Stelios Kouloglou was not able to show more than an animated photo of the Israelian because he was in prison.

Or there is the young attorney Jesselyn Radack, mother of three children, working at the US Justice Department, who knows that she, when she speaks, can save the life of the American student John Walker Lynch, who studied Islam in Pakistan and therefore came into contact with some of the 20 people later responsible for the 9/11 attack. So he was the first person prosecuted for the bombing the New York’s Trade Center. He was held as a prisoner and he was tortured because he was blamed for being an Alquaida terrorist.

With Sibel Edmonds and Coleen Rowley, the director Stelios Kouloglou found two more “Whistleblowers”, both working for the FBI, who long before the 9/11 attack knew that it could happen. Sibel, a Turkish translator, a specialist in “top secret clearance” discovered “that airplanes would be used in terrorist attacks and that four or five cities in the USA would be the targets.” And she even knew the name of the 20th highjacker: Zacàrias Moussaoui. And Coleen Rowley could endorse what Sibel Edmonds said: “They could have saved so many people if they had taken measures to prevent 9 /11 by giving more security to the airports.”

Stelios Kouloglou’s topics are not only the strong characters of the protagonists but he also lets them speak about their fear of being sent to prison, about their doubts if they really have done the right thing, about their loneliness because they do not want to have any member of their family or of their friends as witnesses, who also would be punished for telling the truth. And some of them still look very pale and weak because of the lack of sleep over months.

The director does not tell every story of his protagonists one after the other but he connects their experiences thematically / concerning different topics like: How did they discover the secret ? How did they spread the secret? What did they expect and fear if they would be discovered as “Whistleblowers”? After the discovery were they suspended from their jobs or fired directly? Which kind of humiliation did they have to endure concerning their private lives?

To associate them with their “White-Collar-Crime”, Stelios Kouloglou does the interviews with his seven “Whistleblowers” always in front of a white background: a white brick-wall, a white curtain, a white Venetian blind etc. Purists of documentary features might blame the filmmaker for choosing footage from other occasions which are not directly concerning with the experiences of his protagonists but which can remind the spectator of what prisons are like, how torture can be perceived or how being hunted by the police can be felt. These pictures are in our collective memory. We know that they are not happening at that very moment, when the witness is speaking. They are already history in those moments when the “Whistleblowers” remember them. But it is a moving experience that is given to us by the director though it is not purely documentary.