Arts & Culture

Exploring the shadows

5 min read

Scholars’ documentary on government secrecy goes to Sundance

“If you wouldn’t tell Stalin, don’t tell anyone else!”

In the early years of the Cold War, a billboard near an atomic bomb testing site in New Mexico urged passersby to keep research developments close to the vest. Secrecy was of the utmost importance in that era — and not just in scientific circles — as Americans nervously watched the Soviet Union expand its influence throughout the East.

Although the Cold War has ended, government secrecy remains an integral but also highly controversial component of political life in America. As the war in Iraq wears on, reports of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison, elusive weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the implementation of the Patriot Act have only fueled the debate over what information should be accessible to the American public, and what might compromise national security.

Peter Galison, Pellegrino University Professor in the Department of the History of Science and the Department of Physics, and Robb Moss, Rudolf Arnheim Lecturer on Filmmaking in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, explore the shadowy world of concealment, classification, and cover-ups at the highest levels of American government in their new film, titled “Secrecy.” The film was accepted in the feature documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival in late January, and it will be shown at the Harvard Film Archive on Friday (Feb. 29).

“There is no doubt that secrecy is one of the central issues of our time,” said Galison. “It raises important questions about how democratic institutions function when things aren’t known. When is government secrecy necessary? What are its problems? What does secrecy do to those who are close to it?”

These questions drive the 85-minute documentary. Galison and Moss interviewed a variety of figures connected to secret operations, including a former senior executive officer at the CIA, a former director of the Los Alamos National Lab, a lieutenant commander of the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General, and the director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Together, the interviews weave a complicated and dramatic tale of the role that secrecy has played in government activity from the Cold War era through Sept. 11, 2001, and beyond. The film considers everything from Supreme Court cases about prisoners’ rights to the history of the atom bomb.

“There are between 2 and 4 million Americans who are secrecy workers, people who work under the secret conditions of the classified universe,” Moss said. “It is an enormous and invisible world.”

Enormous, and deeply political. Rather than taking a specific stand, however, Galison and Moss include multiple (and often opposing) viewpoints on the value of government secrecy.

“Our film is ‘political,’ not ‘partisan,’” Galison said. “The topic is not organized around party battles. We want the film to participate in and encourage a broader discussion about secrecy and democracy.”

According to Moss and Galison, the most difficult aspect of production was not finding subjects willing to talk — nearly everyone was — but rather finding a way to present a subject that, by its very nature, defies exposition.

“Secrecy is darkness and silence,” Moss said. “How do you film that? It is an interesting problem.”

They solved it by incorporating artwork, photos, and moving images, as well as animation by Ruth Lingford, professor of the practice of animation in Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies.

“We filmed the interviews in front of a screen with rear-projected images,” said Galison. “That created a personal, intimate and abstracted talking space, where the background was suggestive of a hermetically sealed world. We evoked secrecy in an associative way.”

The artwork also prevented the documentary from appearing too much like a “white-paper government report,” said Moss. “We didn’t want it to be a lecture, so there is no narrator. The material found a way to wrap around itself.”

Moss and Galison also kept certain elements of surprise and mystery, to further the connection with a world of cloaked information.

“The film exists in the transitions, in the knowing and not knowing. You can’t make a film about secrecy if you know everything,” Moss said.

The pair spent nearly four years filming and editing the project, discussing and reworking each frame before submitting the final version to the Sundance competition.

“We spent days just worrying about a couple of lines, making sure juxtapositions worked fluently, wondering if the animation and music matched,” Galison said.

All the worrying paid off. In November 2007, Galison and Moss learned that their submission had been chosen as one of 16 films for the feature documentary competition. More than 950 entries were received this year. At the festival, the film was screened seven separate times for a variety of audiences.

For Moss, the initial showing was nerve-racking.

“You work for years in a darkened room, dealing with fractions of a second and wondering if you need to take out an ‘um’ here or there. It’s an intense, close, environment. Then, all of a sudden — you’re at Sundance! The posters go up, the lights go down, and it becomes a completely unprivate world. The transition seems to take place so quickly,” he said.

Despite the initial shock, Moss said, the overall experience was very positive.

“It was so pleasurable to see our finished ideas up there on the screen,” he said. “We were surprised and gratified by the way audiences dug in and stayed with the piece, and it was exciting to hear our film being discussed in the streets and in the press.”

Galison agreed.

“Sundance was exhilarating,” he said. “I truly enjoyed meeting other filmmakers and the opportunity to engage in serious discussions about film.”

And what about the less cerebral, more Hollywood side of the festival: the A-listers and the parties and the swag?

“Well, I have a 13-year-old daughter,” Galison said. “I can’t say she was ever interested in anything I’ve done with particle physics, but boy, was she thrilled to go to Sundance and meet one of the Olsen twins.”