The odyssey of United States National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden is practically begging to become a book, which would typically later be transferred to celluloid. But in this case, four amateur Hong Kong-based filmmakers have beaten writers to the task. The fruit of their labors: Verax, a five-minute film that can be seen on YouTube here.
The filmmakers have no shortage of threads to weave into a compelling tale.
Since tearing off the lid on the NSA’s mass surveillance programs last month, Snowden left a cushy job in Hawaii, where he worked as an IT technician for the NSA, to undertake a global voyage, fleeing the U.S. government and its Leviathan intelligence agency. The narrative is tailor-made for an archetypal spy flick: one man vs. the system in the fashion of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne.
Many have called Snowden a hero. Some have called him tragic. His father Lon Snowden is a retired NSA man with ambivalent feelings about his son’s actions. He has pleaded with the Justice Department for his son’s rights to be honored should he give himself up to the government that remains steadfast in its insistence that he has committed treason.
Meanwhile, Edward Snowden has fled Hong Kong for Moscow where he has been apparently holed up since June 23, during which time he has applied for asylum in 15 countries, including Russia and Ecuador. The plan: to fly another 11,000 miles from Moscow to Ecuador with a stop in Cuba.
WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange has helped along the way, along with Hollywood figures like Oliver Stone, John Cusack, Danny Glover and others who have signed a petition to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to grant Snowden the asylum he has requested. Not to mention peace activists Tom Hayden and Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971); ex-CIA agent Valerie Plame; and MIT linguist, political activist and critic Noam Chomsky.
While anything can happen, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian tweeted today: “Snowden's leak is basically done. It's newspapers – not Snowden – deciding what gets disclosed and in what sequence.”
Seeing all of this unfold in the early days of Snowden’s journey in Hong Kong, local freelance filmmaker and Irish expat Edwin Lee saw an ideal project. Lee became the film’s instigator who enlisted three expat friends, Jeff Floro, Shawn Tse and Marcus Tsui, to co-produce and direct the film. “We were so intrigued as to why Snowden came to Hong Kong,” Lee said. “All of us love Hong Kong to death; we all call Hong Kong home.”
Unsurprisingly, Lee credited the Bourne series as inspiration for the film, which features all of the tricks we have come to associate with the spy genre: panoramas of Hong Kong’s stunning cityscape, scenes filmed in the handheld “shaky cam” style, and time-lapse footage of gray clouds passing above the city’s skyscrapers – set to bass/synth-heavy electronic music. The actors may be amateurs, but the film’s production values are high.
Considering the restraints of time and budget, the short film is gripping. At the time of writing it has received more than 89,000 views. The production moved at breakneck speed, being shot in less than a week’s time on a shoestring budget of $540. “This is a spy movie that's developing,” Lee added. “It was a lot of adrenaline…it was all very guerilla filmmaking style.”
Verax (Latin for “truth teller”, the codename Snowden used for himself) is shot on-location, including Snowden’s hideout, the Mira Hotel, where he dropped his bombshell on The Guardian. It also incorporates props, such as a Rubik’s Cube, which was the object Snowden used to identify himself to a journalist from the British newspaper.
The story moves from a Hong Kong CIA meeting room to a local newspaper room, then onto scenes of the actor playing Snowden – American school teacher Andrew Cromeek, who after cutting his shaggy locks looks uncannily similar – bored and alone in his hotel room. After an interlude at the Hong Kong police department, we finally see a reenactment of Snowden’s on-camera revelations to The Guardian, complete with voice-over from the actual recordings.
While the movie depicts the lead-up to Snowden’s earth shattering revelations, it is meant to pay homage to Hong Kong as much as anything.
“We made this for fun and for the love of filmmaking,” the filmmakers stated in a message below the video on YouTube. “We had no commercial or political motives.”
“We tried to give Hong Kong the limelight we think it deserves,” Tse added.
While these ambitious young Hong Kong filmmakers may have been first, wheels in Hollywood are already turning. Philip Noyce, who directed Salt and The Quiet American is already eyeing Australian actor Liam Hemsworth to play Snowden in a feature length thriller.
The saga continues.