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Phantom Parrot: New Movie Uncovering the Truth About Technology Surveillance

by Tia Janowski

Kate Stonehill’s detailed and creative documentary, Phantom Parrot, skilfully delves into the intricate relationship between racism, technology and state surveillance, catalysed by the arrest of human rights activist Muhammad Rabbani. 

Phantom Parrot explores the ominous implications of Britain’s Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, where refusal to surrender device passwords to airport officials can lead to arrest. 

Muhammad Rabbani's arrest at Heathrow Airport in 2017 for refusing to hand over his passwords served as the centrepiece for Stonehill's captivating exploration of surveillance. This allowed her to put a human story at the forefront, which is rare in technology 


Produced by Steven Lake, Phantom Parrot emerges as an eye-opening and thought-provoking piece that raises important questions about digital privacy and contemporary espionage.  

Muhammad Rabbani, who is the director of CAGE, a human rights organisation that fights against discrimination in the alleged 'war on terror', was asked to surrender his passwords upon returning to the UK from Qatar. 

During his trip, Rabbani met with his client Ali-Al Marri. Due to the sensitive information he was trusted with for work, Rabbani refused to cooperate, resulting in his arrest despite not being suspected or accused of a crime. 

Following Rabbani's prosecution, a journalist uncovered documents proving the existence of a top-secret surveillance programme codenamed Phantom Parrot, that was designed to copy the personal data of individuals at airports and border crossings. While Stonehill predominantly focuses on the surveillance programme and Rabbani’s story, 

Phantom Parrot also delves into related themes, such as Rabbani’s work with Ali-Al Marri and surveillance conventions in the USA. Interviews with key figures, including solicitor Gareth Peirce, who defended Rabbani in court, and Ali Al-Marri’s attorney Andrew Savage, provide diverse perspectives to the documentary. 

Despite its weighty subject matter, the 80-minute documentary skilfully avoids information overload whilst also ensuring it doesn’t rush over important topics. The documentary is paced incredibly well, ensuring a coherent flow between subjects. Although there is an initial challenge in grasping topic transition, the film progressively clarifies its aim and includes cohesive discussions.  

Stonehill’s unique approach distinguishes Phantom Parrot from traditional documentaries, with her artistic vision and serious tone complementing the narrative. The documentary incorporates interviews, footage of Rabbani’s meetings with lawyers and clients, and clips from surveillance conventions. Instead of using text on the screen or a recreation to show Rabbani’s first interrogation at Heathrow, Stonehill decided to show these scenes using architectural design technology and AI. This aligns with the technology topic and conveys Rabbani’s dehumanising experience during these interrogations.

The Personal anecdotes shared by individuals in the feature are handled with care and respect and Nainita Desai’s original score enhances the seriousness of the documentary. Desai introduced electronic tones into the soundtrack to fit the theme of the documentary, whilst also ensuring it wasn’t too overpowering to ensure it doesn’t take away from the serious tone. The incorporation of strings in the final sequence draws in the human element of the documentary whilst avoiding an upbeat tone to highlight that there isn’t yet a happy ending to this story. 

Stonehill’s Phantom Parrot stands out as an engaging documentary, making a specific and complex topic accessible even to those uninterested in technology. The real-life case study adds a captivating layer, and the film’s educational value is apparent, shedding light on covert racism within surveillance laws. Phantom Parrot sparks hope for meaningful change by exposing these issues to a wider audience.

Edited by Emily Duff

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