AFI DOCS 2019: Interview with Directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim of “The Great Hack”

Christopher Llewellyn Reed with THE GREAT HACK directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer at AFI DOCS 2019

On Sunday, June 23, at the 2019 AFI DOCS, I interviewed directors (and married partners) Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim (The Square) to discuss their new documentary The Great Hack. The movie explores the political machinations of the now-defunct British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, and how our personal data, gleaned from social media, opens us up to ideological manipulation. Following a cast of characters who were at the heart of the 2016 Brexit and Trump campaigns, the film reveals how easily modern humans can be swayed to vote for candidates based on simple tweaks to shadowy algorithms. Scared? You should be. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. When I began the interview, Jehane Noujaim was not yet in the room; she joined us halfway through.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed: What made you and your partner, Jehane, decide to make this film about Cambridge Analytica at this particular time?

Karim Amer: Well, that’s a good question and a complicated one because we didn’t seek to make a film about Cambridge Analytica. We initially were interested in making a film about the effects of technology on the Democratic process and the world of hacking and how that was kind of becoming a new place for warfare. And particularly what was attractive was when the Sony hack happened, it was really interesting for us because we saw that information warfare, the reputational damage that was caused to Sony was quite extensive. And that’s where we realized that in this new playing field, information war was going to be the place of the future. So we began looking in that space and that’s what we had initially agreed with Netflix to do.

CLR: Can you remind me when the Sony hack took place? 2014, something like that?

KA: 2014 of November, I believe it was.

CLR: And that was with the movie The Interview.

KA: Exactly.

CLR: With North Korea hacking Sony. So you were then talking about this already two years before the 2016 presidential election!

KA: Yeah, exactly. So, we got commissioned from Netflix after that. And that’s where the movie began, trying to make a film about the impacts of the Sony hack on information warfare. And what was interesting is at the time somebody, I think from The Hollywood Reporter, wrote about it, without us telling anyone about it, that we were making this film and it was picked up by three completely different sites. So you had Politico, The Hill, all these kinds of DC political news places writing about this announcement, then you had all these entertainment-industry people writing about it, and then at the same time you had the technology sector. And when we saw that these three completely different kinds of sectors were all writing about the same thing, it kind of made us even more encouraged that there was something interesting in this space. 

So that’s where we began. And as with many documentaries, things change as you start to get into it, especially when your style of filmmaking is more of a vérité kind of perspective, where you follow someone on a journey. And it became very difficult to find … it was very difficult to be in rooms where you could actually get access to film something that was happening, as opposed to filming something that had already happened. We found, initially, that entire arena of digital warfare really changed quite quickly from having some impact on the physical space, with servers and things of that nature being hacked, to being completely about information war. And that became very self-evident with the rise of 2016 and the election.That’s how it came together. And I think if you look back now, you can draw a direct line from the Sony hack all the way to the stuff that Cambridge Analytica was doing.

CLR: That’s fascinating, because if I didn’t know that the Sony hack was the origin, it isn’t part of your film at all.

KA: No.

THE GREAT HACK (2019), Brittany Kaiser (Former Director of Business Development for Cambridge Analytica), Paul Hilder (Writer/Political Technologist) ©Netflix

CLR: You just start as if you were always making a film about Cambridge Analytica and the bulk of your movie happens after the 2016 election. You talk about gaining access to things as they happen, and you negotiated access with one of the primary players at Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser, and we watch as she is getting ready to testify, which I found remarkable. To be there with her and with Paul Hilder, the writer who’s following her, that aspect to your film is really what makes it special. So how did you negotiate that access?

KA: Well, I had actually met Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist from The Guardian, shortly after she had written an article called “The Great Brexit Robbery.” And it was an interesting article because it wasn’t the first article about Cambridge Analytica, but it was the first one that really started connecting the dots between Brexit and Trump, and showing in a well-written and funny narrative that in order to understand what was happening with Brexit, you needed to also understand Trump and vice versa. And when you started to look at both of them and realized that the same companies, the same funders, the same tacticians were operating in both and moving beyond then we realized that we had entered into a new era. And that was an important thing to understand. And at that time I also met Chris Wylie. This was a year before he had come out publicly.

CLR: He’s the other whistleblower besides Brittany.

KA: Yes. So we had gotten access to the story before a lot of people in the world knew the details of it, because we had become familiar with things and then started navigating with other journalists and people who were looking at the story. What was so interesting about that space was that you had people like David Carroll, our other character and other people like him who I felt kind of represented a digital-justice league that had never met each other in person, but were all working together on Twitter to shine attention on different issues happening in the space and to investigate these rabbit holes and answer each other’s questions.And so as we kept going into that, eventually I met Paul Hilder and Paul said, “Well you seem to know quite a lot about this and there’s something that I’ve been working on and I think that you’re the right person to help me bring it to life.” And that’s when he introduced me to Brittany.

THE GREAT HACK (2019), pictured: David Carroll ©Netflix

CLR: Did you ever have to renegotiate the access? Because things change, her story changes, it becomes potentially more damning to her. But she just keeps going and the camera’s right there. Were there any times where you couldn’t film something that you wanted to, or you had to renegotiate access to?

KA: That’s a good question. I think that the relationship between a character and a filmmaker is so complex, right? Especially in a vérité setting when someone is going through an immense moment in their life, where there are really high stakes and they’re jumping off a cliff in confidence with you. With Brittany, she took a major leap of faith in us and decided to allow us access. She understood that we would be there to serve the story and not to serve any one character’s interests. And as Paul said to her in the film, “You need to take a look deep inside and you have an opportunity to do something, but you have to look at this, warts and all. You need to really be willing to go there.”And I think she was. I think it was a process. I think the film, in a way, is kind of asking questions about what it is to be a whistleblower.

I think we have this very romantic view of who whistleblowers are. Just like we have a very romantic view of how change happens, which we explored in The Square. I think oftentimes to be a whistleblower, you need to be in a place that’s quite complex to blow the whistle to begin with. Right? Like even Snowden, he wasn’t in the Peace Corps, right? He was a defense contractor. None of the people that we look up to as whistleblowers were working in  … they weren’t working at the Ford Foundation, let’s put it that way. So I think it’s important to understand that. I think that it’s difficult for some people to wrap their head around complex characters like Brittany, because too often they hit too close to home. Here’s somebody who had the uniform of being a Democratic, a progressive person who ended up working at Cambridge Analytica and being one of the key people there. In an era where we’re so polarized as a country, we don’t really have space for that. You can’t switch sides in this country right now from blue to red.

CLR: And I think that that is perhaps the most enduring mystery that remains by the end of your film, is how that all happened in her own head. The switch that she makes from being a progressive activist to working for the devil, in a way, is quite amazing. But I agree with you. I don’t think people are all one thing or the other.

KA: Exactly. I think it’s a Faustian deal.

[Jehane Noujaim arrives.]

CLR:  Since you’re here now, Jehane, let me ask you this question. I’ve been a film critic for a while and I’m also a filmmaker and I’ve been involved in cinema for many, many years – multiple decades – and I noticed that you tend to see greater collaboration between filmmakers in the documentary world, in terms of co-directing, than in the narrative world. So, first, how does your collaboration with Karim work and then, second, why you think that is, that we see that kind of greater level of collaboration between two directors in doc versus narrative? 

Film poster: “Startup.com”

Jehane Noujaim: My first collaboration, which was an incredible experience, was with  D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus: I co-directed a film with Chris Hegedus, which was my first feature, called Startup.com, with Pennebaker producing. And really, watching the collaboration of Hegedus and Pennebaker was a great inspiration for actually having a collaborator, partner, husband, father of kids that ended up happening for me, luckily, later on. I think in documentary, especially when making vérité film, you basically decide that you’re going to live another person’s life for a period of time. And that can be … it’s something you commit to. You’re committing to sort of jump off the cliff with that person so that they trust you. And so it involves spending a lot of hours, a lot of time, and doing that with a partner and taking that adventure or that journey with somebody else makes it a lot more fun. And it also takes a little bit of the burden of leaving your own life, because you can sort of trade off a little bit or you can do this completely together.

So with Chris and me, the collaboration worked wonderfully because she was such an experienced filmmaker. She had made so many films and I was actually roommates with the person that we were following at the time, so I was able to be filming him all the time. And then she really led the edit and we worked together closely and I learned so much. And then later on, I guess 2011, when the Egyptian revolution happened, Karim and I met in the square and I actually told him about Nick Broomfield’s films and how Nick Broomfield did a lot of the interviewing and took sound and I was still somebody who was very much behind the camera.And so when we partnered on The Square, initially he was a character in the film because he was very outspoken and somebody that was …

CLR: Karim was initially in the film?

Film poster: “The Square”

JN: Yes, he was a character in the film. And then at a certain point he said, “You know, I think you need a producer and I’d rather be your producer than a character.” And we also talked about him doing the sound and asking questions. And so that’s really how our collaboration worked on The Square. And then we got married, had three kids and have continued to work together. And then on this film, I think it’s been … Karim has been able to sort of jump on planes much more because I’ve been … I was in Egypt; I had just had twins. I wasn’t able, having just had kids, to really run around in the same way. It’s taken me sort of a couple of years to get back into things.

And so now we’re working on another project together where we shoot together and then in the edit, we work with fantastic editors. It’s a very collaborative process. Decision-making is often difficult with these projects, but it’s a lot easier actually when you’re shooting because you’re really running to capture things, making sure that you get what you need. It’s often a kind of a race to capture the story.And then in the edit you sit back and that’s, I think where more of the struggles happen, where you sit back and you say, “OK, what is the story that we’re really telling here?” And so, going back to Chris and Pennebaker, Chris usually says, we get divorced in every edit and then we get back together again. So we’ll see what happens with us. (laughs)

CLR: Yes, well, especially in the documentary world where you have so much footage and you haven’t been able to control the capturing of it as opposed to narrative where ideally you have a plan, it really is shaped in the editing. 

JN: We also work with great collaborators. I mean we worked with Pedro Kos and Erin Barnett on The Great Hack. 

KA: And Judy Korin, who is amazing. And with Pedro, this is the second film we’ve made together. He worked with us, he edited The Square and he’s a writer and producer on The Great Hack. And similarly to The Square, we took the film to Sundance, but events happened right before Sundance that really made the whole film change. And we knew going into Sundance that we would have to take time after Sundance to reintegrate these new pieces of the story, which we only got in December.

CLR: So what we’re seeing here at AFI DOCS and what will be on Netflix is different than that cut.

KA: Completely different. It is a completely different film.

CLR: I’m glad I didn’t see it at Sundance, then! Actually … maybe it would have been fascinating to see it at Sundance and now see it again.

KA: You know, we were almost actually going to tell Sundance that maybe we shouldn’t show the film because so much is changing in this landscape. But I think this comes with the territory of these types of stories, right? The Square was about a revolution in progress and the ups and downs of a people’s movement using a public square and using technology, as well, to galvanize a campaign of hope. The Great Hack is about, in many ways, the inverse of that, where you have the technology forces that were once seen as democratizing forces now being used to spread misinformation, sow discontent and polarize the country even further than it already is. And so I think it was a very complicated backdrop to find an ending for.

CLR: Well, congratulations to both of you on the film. I really enjoyed it.

JN: Thank you very much for having us.

KA: Thank you so much.

Exterior of the Kimpton Hotel Monaco DC during AFI DOCS, where I conducted this interview

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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