Films based on real incidents usually take one of the two forms: a dramatized fictional exploration or a non-fictional documentary style. The films in the first category are made so as to resemble fiction more with some elements taken from reality, often following a strict structure of the traditional screenplay such that it becomes difficult to gauge the degree of “truth” contained in it. The narrative choices in such films often lead to dilution of the original material, and there is a heavy sense of the maker’s presence in its frames, guiding the plot through their interpretation. This is somewhat true even for documentaries that are made with the least dilution in terms of drama; however, even in these, there are decisions made in terms of what should be in the frame and what not, which then guide the world of the film. Often, it is easier to categorize films that way, as gets clear from the filmmaking style, but Tina Satter’s debut film Reality poses a primary question in terms of the categorization. The opening credits make it clear that the entire film consists of dialogue from the audio transcription of the interrogation that took place between the FBI and Reality Winner in 2017. Starting with the actual audio record, it then transforms into something utterly original and fascinating in recollecting that fateful day in the life of Winner.
Satter never dramatizes the moments in the traditional sense of the term; there are no heightened emotions as regards the music or the visuals that take your hand and lead you somewhere. Rather, Satter creates an atmosphere through her filmmaking for the story to unfold. The filmmaking acts only as a gentle push and never comes in between the audio transcripts. By doing that, Satter creates a new form that resembles fiction but is, in fact, made with the least amount of indoctrination in terms of emotions or logic. It is at the intersection of the forms of fiction and non-fiction that she chooses to base the film, often acting as just a catalyst to take the ideas forward. As a result, by the end of it, you are left with an even deposit of the mood that the film takes you through, carrying within it the ideals for which Reality Winner chose to do what she did.
The story of Reality Winner is of utmost importance in the times we are living in today. In a world where information is controlled by a handful of people sitting in power, anything can be manipulated without the knowledge of the general public. Her own ‘outburst,’ as she goes on to describe in the film, was marked by a series of incidents happening in the United States at that time, including the hacking of elections and Trump’s climb to power. She tells the FBI agent that she is not Snowden or any other whistle-blower; her decision was influenced by the constant banging of the news in her office, which alienated her, pushing her to let out a blazing source of information that would change everything. The film is entirely about this interrogation and never delves into other timelines to let us into the head of Reality Winner; but in fact, it uses just the moment of the interrogation to take us through a closer look at her. With her interactions with the FBI, we are brought somewhat closer to the thoughts that drove her action. Reality comes out as a nervous and timid young person, something one would not expect from someone who leaked secret information about the government. Popular opinion tells us to create an image of a fearless person who stops at nothing to let out the truth. Staying completely away from such preconceived ideas, what we see instead is the blank face of Reality Winner, that is not hawking away in either panic or defense at the sight of the FBI on her door one fine morning. This is a mature step taken that does not project random attitudes onto another person while at the same time, not let it be guided merely by simplistic elements of drama. It then proceeds to become a character study of Winner that is extremely reflective and poignant.
Tina Satter is careful not to let the form influence the way we think. Staying away from notions of already known style, she creates an independent form to support the telling of this story. It is simple yet intensely innovative when she adds a slight sense of nuance to scenes involving the pets of Reality or when certain parts of the recording are to be beeped. It achieves a dreamlike quality at parts that are at once psychological in the manner that it puts us into the head of Winner while at the same time maintaining some distance from her. This is the kind of filmmaking that never latches on to our emotions to make us believe in something and thereby ending up being a lowly meddling affair. There are some jumps in the narrative where we are constantly reminded that the dialogues are nothing but an exact representation of the transcriptions. This seems like a minute addition, but it plays a paramount role in giving the film a specific tone that is maintained throughout. It brings us back to ‘reality’ from the world of the film. Such smaller tints of change are added that finally make the film what it is.
Yet, with all that being said, its biggest achievement lies in the screenplay. It is certainly a thing of finesse to have the screenplay written out of an audio transcription from an interrogation. There are intricate ups and downs in all the scenes that maintain a sense of awkwardness among the FBI officials and how they interact with Winner. Having an entire film structured around some conversations with no specific end goal for the characters and yet managing to keep it full of intrigue is an extraordinary feat. Satter and co-writer James Paul Dallas seem to know the characters by heart to be able to guide the way they interact with each other. Their writing is compulsively engaging with no dull moments, maintaining a rising sense of mystery through the way in which the scenes are crafted. It unfolds like a thriller, spilling out little pieces of information through each dialogue. Satter avoids all the known templates through a conscious approach to filming which brings out the entire plight of new-age politics in America in a quiet way. It is like a paper boat released into a lake, sending ripples of thought by the time it ends.
Sydney Sweeney is a revelation as a young girl taking a drastic step against the mighty power structures of the government. She is vulnerable just through her eyes and the way she speaks, embodying the life and breath of Reality Winner. In the entire film, she is shot in a manner that portrays her fragility against a threatening team of government officials who have come to press charges. Sweeney acts along with the overall rhythm of the film and her meticulous performance always leaves room for more gaps to be filled and for more emotions to be explored. It is as if she is inviting us into her act to give it a sense of completion through our understanding. Doing that, she becomes an important element of the filmmaking, at par with its camerawork and music, which elevate the aesthetics to a new level. It is unimaginable how she was directed to play the way she did, in such a delightfully restrained manner that doesn’t blurt out anything more than is needed. She redefines acting as not merely expressing but choosing what to express. Her eyes and poker face stay with you as the credits roll, and a quote from Reality Winner comes up. It becomes a proper resolution for the entire journey of fewer than 90 minutes, making us wonder about the nature of information and how much of it is unknown to us at large. All in all, Reality is provocative, undidactic, and a genuine piece of art. Seldom does a film become what it wants to say purely through its aesthetics, and Reality stands tall in a new league altogether.