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Berlinale Blog: Alex Gibney speaks to the Talents

Oscar-winning documentary maker Alex Gibney, whose new movie Zero Days will have you burying canned food and guns in the woods, offered some insights into his technique at the Berlinale Talent campus.

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“I’m Columbo, the rumpled detective, bumbling through, trying to make sense of it all.” The way Alex Gibney tells it, self-deprecation is the key to becoming an Oscar-winning documentary maker. The problem is that in Gibney’s Columbo episodes, the murderer is usually the US government or, more accurately, systems that the US government put in place to maintain national security that “spread like a virus and lead people to experiment with them recklessly to the point that people get killed.”

He was talking about CIA’s torture techniques (the subject of his Oscar-winner Taxi to the Dark Side), but he could also have said it about the cyber warfare in Zero Days, the movie he presented in competition yesterday. The only difference is that the Stuxnet virus that the US developed to try and cripple the Iranian nuclear programme literally is a virus, and really has got into the hands of America’s enemies, including Iran. And while cyber-warfare isn’t known to have killed anyone, Zero Days has taught us that the US government did have something called Nitro Zeus ready for Iran – basically the cyber-warfare version of a nuclear bomb, designed to knock out all of the country’s critical infrastructure. 

Gibney said all these things in his Berlinale Talents talk on Thursday in HAU 1, in which he gave a lot of brilliant insights into his method. It seems his interview technique, for example, keeps up the Columbo comparison. “Sometimes the smartest answers come from the stupidest questions,” he said, not because the content is better, but because the body language they elicit – when powerful people shift and splutter in contempt – is more revealing. “During the interview I see myself as a vehicle for what they say and the way they want to say it,” he said. It’s only later – in the fact-checking and editing – that he exposes the lies. “And I’ve been lied to a lot.”

Gibney did have to take a bit of veiled criticism from his potential proteges in the audience – especially about disguising sources. In Zero Days, he took the old back-lit-silhouette-plus-disguised-voice device to a new dimension by turning the words of several anonymous NSA officials into a composite character, performed by an actor whose face is strained through some Lawnmower-Man CGI. There was a mild ruffle of dissatisfaction among the Talents in the audience when Gibney could only say that in some cases, you can’t get people on the record, and you basically have to trust him. Like the endings of some of the weird, slightly rubbish 1980s episodes of Columbo, you wonder if that would hold up in court.