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Directors Reveal Truth About 'Secrecy'

After Harvard professors Peter L. Galison ’77 and Robb Moss screened the first act of their new documentary “Secrecy” to students, one raised his hand and asked, “What are the secrets?” While “Secrecy” focuses less on actual secrets than the structure of government censorship, it reveals the dark and hidden realities of democracy.

In June 2004, Galison and Moss began shooting their film “Secrecy,” with the intent of exploring the architecture of the secrecy system in the U.S. government, which employs over two million Americans and consumes 7.5 billion dollars of the Federal budget. The co-directors will be screening their film in person at the Harvard Film Archive tonight.

Moss teaches filmmaking at Harvard and has served on multiple documentary juries at festivals including Sundance. His documentary, “The Same River Twice,” which revisits the lives of five friends who served as subjects for an earlier film (“River Dogs”) in which they journeyed to the Grand Canyon, premiered at Sundance in 2003. Galison is a professor in the History of Science department at Harvard and focuses in modern physics. His documentary “The Ultimate Weapon: The H-Bomb Dilemma” premiered on the History Channel in 2000.

Galison’s research on the H-bomb, which was built clandestinely, sparked his general interest in governmental secrecy. “I began to wonder, when people censor documents and things they’ve said, what do they understand as being necessary to stop the movement of knowledge around the world?” he says.

Galison and Moss met at Harvard, where they began teaching a class together, History of Science 152: “Filming Science,” in which students create short films on scientific and technological processes.

“It turns out sharing a classroom is not a bad diagnostic for sharing a film,” Moss says. From this collaboration stemmed a shared aesthetic and fascination with secrecy, which ultimately led to their artistic alliance.

“The central insight of the film is the way secrecy imbues power to those who keep secrets,” Moss says. In order to approach this world of shredded documents and locked file cabinets, the co-directors interviewed individuals whose jobs are to keep the government’s secrets. Some of the film’s subjects include Tom Blanton, Director of the National Security Archives; Mike Levin, National Security Agency retiree; and former CIA agent Melissa Mahle who worked in covert operations in the Middle East.

Blanton and Levin accompanied the directors to the Sundance Film Festival, where “Secrecy” was among the less-than 2% of documentary submissions chosen for screening. Audiences reacted enthusiastically, engaging in discussions on both the film’s aesthetic and political content.

The greatest challenge of the project, according to both directors, was the fact that the subject of the film is essentially invisible. This obstacle, however, proved to be the greatest source of intrigue and motivation in creating the film.

“The fact that it’s such a terrible idea to film because there’s nothing to film challenged us to find ways to represent these ideas,” Moss says. “I enjoyed rolling up my sleeves and figuring that out.”

“One of our starting points was how we shot the interviews,” he continues. “One of our first interviews was shot inside somebody’s home. There was light streaming in, his wife coming and asking if we wanted lunch, and bookcases in the back. It just seemed all wrong, ordinary, unlike this rather imaginary world you can’t see. It seemed we ought to construct a talking space, some imaginative quality, a visual way to situate people in an artificial environment, but somehow reflective of the world they were in.”

Galison agrees. “The world of secrecy was diminished in a world that had no secrecy about it,” he says.

The solution was to film the interviews on a sound stage, using projected images in the background and narrowly focused, chiaroscuro lighting, creating an artistic effect Galison describes as “highly seductive.”

According to Moss, this aesthetic premise of incorporating art installations and projections seemed an appropriate juxtaposition for the film’s subject. “Art is the opposite of secrecy,” he says. “It’s unearthing things, thinking thoughts you shouldn’t have.”

The directors also represent their elusive subject through animation. “We used animation as a way of accessing the imaginary,” Galison says. They worked intensively with Ruth Lingford, an animation professor at Harvard, to create a contrast between imaginary and literal realms of the secrecy system.

“The search for weapons of mass destruction is completely real,” Galison says, in reference to a scene in “Secrecy” where archival footage of soldiers searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is intertwined with animation. “But people’s expectations of what they were going to find was completely imaginary. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”

Ultimately, “Secrecy” is about more than secrets. “You could make a film about secrecy and there’d be no secrets revealed,” Moss says. “If you reveal a secret, it is no longer a secret… They’re not just like pieces of candy labeled secrecy and you can pick them off the shelf and taste them.”

Galison agrees. “It’s not an encyclopedia of secrets,” he says. “Its grounded in our presence, yet reaches back fifty years or so to try to understand why we are where we are.”
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