A different version of this report was posted on Documentary.org.
Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival (DX), now in its third year and a project of an investigative nonprofit, 100Reporters, puts a spotlight on investigative documentaries. CMSI was proud to participate and we were delighted that our report, Dangerous Docs: How to Lower Risk while Telling Truth to Power, had inspired some of the activities.
Sky Sitney, the festival’s co-director (with journalist Diana Jean Schemo, one of 100 Reporters’ founders) said, “We want to call attention to the exciting, burgeoning relationship between film and journalism. These films—examples of the best of the form–show how journalists work in the visual realm, and filmmakers incorporate the tenets of journalism.”
Its accompanying symposium is a rare chance for journalists and filmmakers to learn from each other and share resources. It also attracts funders and programmers. New features this year included a pro bono legal clinic that connects some of the nation’s leading attorneys with filmmakers and journalists seeking legal counsel, and a networking initiative, called DX Access–one-on-one meetings between makers, funders, distributors, editors and filmmakers.
Journalism on film
Several films experimented creatively with the form, while exploring profoundly serious topics. Nancy Buirski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor and Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? made a fascinating pairing. Both films are aesthetically ambitious, and use archival footage in creative and sometimes unexpected ways.
Recy Taylor recalls to history a buried 1944 crime, the all-too-common one of rape of African-American women by entitled white men. It uses not only documentary archival footage but also “race films,” which were the only entertainment medium to represent the reality of African-American women’s vulnerability. Mrs. Taylor, despite terrifying intimidation, pressed charges against her rapists—several young white men she knew–with the NAACP’s help (investigator Rosa Parks was both knocked down and jailed for her efforts). Eventually the NAACP had to abandon the case, though. “I did this to honor Mrs. Taylor’s memory, and the stories of so many other women whose voices could not be heard,” Buirski said in discussion.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is an intense meditation on whiteness by the great grandchild of an openly racist, secretly pedophilic and incestuous white man. Direct address, haunting dusky landscapes of Alabama back roads, family photos and family graves help communicate the struggle of coming to terms with whiteness, in America and in one’s own family. This film continues Wilkerson’s filmography, a fiercely personal and reflexive inquiry into American history and social justice.
The Other Side of Everything’s subject is the filmmaker’s mother Srbijanka Turajlic, a formidable engineering professor with a lifelong pro-democracy stance that has been thwarted routinely. Should the daughter try to follow in her mother’s footsteps? How does Mila Turajlic’s mother look at the current bleak political landscape, in which she is once again blacklisted? And…what does her mother expect from her? The questions both mother and daughter ask are disturbingly apt for today’s political environment in many countries, including in the U.S.
“None of the political rallies or protests that my mother participated in were covered by the media—rather they were suppressed. So I found images on old VHS tapes in people’s basements,” said Turajlic. The record of those events in the film thus uniquely rescues a buried history. Turajlic is an archival devotee; her earlier Cinema Komunisto recalls and analyzes the images of Yugoslavia captured in the films Tito sponsored and loved.
Two days of panels drew a rich mix of participants, in overflowing rooms. The roll-up-our-sleeves and frank-talk atmosphere reflected the eagerness of participants to address topics of urgent importance to their craft. Big names dotted the lineup. Leading investigative journalists Chuck Lewis and Janet Malcolm addressed fake news. FRONTLINE executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath addressed accuracy in a hectic news cycle. Major funders of both journalism and filmmaking not only sponsored but sent representatives.
CMSI director Caty Borum Chattoo spoke about field-focused research at the Center, in a panel that I moderated. On it, MIT Open Doc Lab’s Kat Cizek announced new foci of interactive projects, including Racial Justice, Future of Work, and artificial intelligence.
When is it ethical to go undercover? Ghanaian journalist Anas argues that it’s about whether your work will save lives. Mexican filmmaker Everardo Gonzalez says it can be essential to saving your own life. Suki Kim (whose memoir Without You, There Is No Us recounts a year inside North Korea) knows it was the only way.
How to create rapid response filmic journalism in the age of Trump? The Fledgling Fund’s Sheila Levy points to the Fund’s special fund for “rapid story deployment,” mainly short films. Several filmmakers talked about the importance of daily journalism sites that showcase and craft video, including the New York Times, The Atlantic and The Guardian. Clare Chambers from ITVS explained its ambitious program to partner with journalism organizations to make the most of research for its co-produced documentaries.
A final day was crammed with hands-on workshops. Among them was one showcasing the Safe + Secure set of resources created by Doc Society (formerly BritDocs). These resources were spurred, Doc Society leader Jess Search said, by Dangerous Docs: How to Lower Risk while Telling Truth to Power. A legal workshop included Katie Townsend, Esq., from the Reporters’ Committee on Freedom of the Press (RCFP). RCFP was inspired by the CMSI report to extend its services to investigative filmmakers.
Finally, the International Documentary Association’s Carrie Lozano, who heads the IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund, announced the fund’s first recipients, and she as well tipped a hat to CMSI’s report, for getting the ball rolling. Grantees’ projects include online harassment, trafficking in underage agricultural workers, police violence, wrongful conviction, and FBI surveillance.
“This conference hosted critical conversations at a critical juncture,” said Lozano. “Documentary filmmakers are taking their place at a moment when media’s trust and credibility are essential for democracy.”