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CPH:DOX 2023

Review: Phantom Parrot


- You may never look the same way at passport control in British airports after watching Kate Stonehill’s menacing documentary

Review: Phantom Parrot
Muhammad Rabbani in Phantom Parrot

March 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, one of the key points of the war on terror, started by the George W Bush administration soon after the 9/11 attacks. Now is therefore an apt time to watch Phantom Parrot, directed by Kate Stonehill and premiering in the F:Act competition at CPH:DOX. The title refers to a top-secret surveillance programme that was designed to copy personal data from electronic devices from passengers arriving in the UK. 

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According to schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, anyone can be stopped at the border, detained, searched and questioned. Since the early 2000s, the security of countries and individuals has become a priority for governments, but also an excuse for some clandestine operations violating basic human rights. Phantom Parrot shows the dark side of the “serve and protect” oath that public institutions take. The documentary unfolds like a good reportage – and a thriller, too. As we go deeper into the story, it feels like everyone can be surveilled or persecuted for reasons as clear as they are for K. in Kafka’s The Trial. The new trend of “offline Sundays” just won't be enough to protect us.

Stonehill, who in the end credits thanks Edward Snowden and investigative journalists for their work, interviews the victims of abuse of power or unjust persecution, but also provides broader context to the story. She incorporates archive footage from the 2000 Terrorism Act proceedings in parliament, which happened even though the act was clearly violating civil and human rights.

She talks to a US lawyer who worked on the case of Ali Al-Marri, a man falsely accused of being an “enemy combatant” and detained for 13 years in the USA. She also records a class given by a security specialist, who explains how surveillance can be used on an average electronic device holder. Yet Muhammad Rabbani – the main protagonist of the film – wasn’t exactly an "average” person when he was stopped upon his arrival in the UK, returning from a wedding in Qatar. He was carrying evidence that Al-Marri was illegally detained and tortured. Rabbani was held for six hours, questioned and asked for passwords and PIN codes to his devices – in fact, not exactly asked, since according to schedule 7 every detainee loses all their privacy and is obliged to give access to their phones or laptops to the police (the same schedule allows police to hold anyone for six-hour-long questioning). Since Rabbani refused to abide, he was punished with three months of imprisonment. On top of carrying data from Al-Marri, Rabbani is also an activist and the director of an organisation called Cage, which follows the actions taken by the government and its agencies to influence Muslim communities. Much has been said about fear and discrimination in the post-9/11 world, and Phantom Parrot adds another, distinctive voice to this choir. There are no perfect security systems, but some are more imperfect than others.

Phantom Parrot is a US-UK production staged by Steven Lake. Amanda Lebow at CAA handles sales for the film. 

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