Some of the most exciting documentaries on display at Tribeca Film Festival depended on extensive journalistic research, combined with deeply thoughtful aesthetic choices. And these new examples of public media—media designed for public engagement with important issues—were sometimes supported by public broadcasting.
As the Center for Media & Social Impact’s recent report, Dangerous Documentaries: Reducing Risk while Telling Truth to Power discusses, journalistic docs are made stronger when strong journalistic standards and skills are matched with the powerful storytelling that documentarians historically excel at. These films differently offer productive examples.
Book to Film.
In two cases, leading journalists entrusted the translation of major book projects to filmmakers. Eric Schlosser spent nine years researching the dangers of our nuclear weapons for his 2014 book Command and Control. In the documentary of the same title, Robert Kenner (who also made the immensely successful Food, Inc. from one of Schlosser’s books) recounts a terrifying missile-meltdown accident that could have taken out all of St. Louis and much more. Many such opportunities for disaster litter the landscape worldwide. Kenner artfully re-enacts the incident, supplemented by interviews, in out-of-focus video that mimics surveillance, super-8 and amateur video. A TV version will appear on PBS’ American Experience.
In Shadow World, Johan Grimonprez takes 15 years of research to the screen. Andrew Feinstein’s book of the same name was triggered when he watched the new government of South Africa, where he was an ANC member of the parliament, buy $10 billion of unnecessary arms, with bribes lavishly distributed. His interest eventually led him to uncover world-wide patterns in the arms trade, putting arms traders in the driver’s seat for geopolitical decisions. Grimonprez, a Belgian multimedia artist and intellectual, brings his background of concern with the intertwining of media and power to the screen. Framing his story within Eduardo Galeano’s reminder that we make sense of our world through stories, he calculatedly uses archival footage to comment not only on past events but media complicity in the obscuring of arms traders’ role in them. He finds the sound bites that puncture comforting mythology. Shadow World proposes a global conspiracy not only of arms trading as geopolitics, but of silence about the phenomenon. The film received support from public TV’s Independent Television Service, as well as European public broadcasters.
Investigative journalist Sonia Kennebeck started with the research, then decided to make the movie. The U.S. drone program drew her attention, not only because of civilian casualties but also suicides in the military working on it. The result is the urgently topical National Bird, which was executive produced by both Wim Wenders and Errol Morris, and will be in theaters before showing on public TV’s Independent Lens. It sees the U.S. drone program from the inside—the people who have to identify the targets and track the destruction rained down on the ground. With an intimacy that bespeaks both good journalism and great mutual trust, the filmmaker profiles two sets of victims: those on the ground, too often mis-identified by trigger-happy local commanders, and those at desks and consoles far away, watching body parts scatter on a monitor. The stories of the drone program workers’ coming to awareness, and their different approaches to coming to terms with what they now see as participation in a program that both harms many and also makes the military situation worse makes for a powerful emotional drama.
Deborah Esquenazi was a reporter and editor long before she became interested in the story of four lesbians who were falsely accused of Satanic rituals and imprisoned for 20 years. In making the compellingly-told Southwest of Salem , she was able to get an actual recanting of testimony from one of the supposed victims. She didn’t wait for the film to be done, but shared the confession with authorities; the confession, seen in the film, resulted in release of all the women. Esquenazi throughout treats historical video as evidence as much as storytelling, in a story that denounces “junk” science, gender discrimination, and careless judicial proceedings.
Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega have both reported on criminal justice issues for more than a decade. In The Return, they take an issue they had written about in newspapers and magazines: the Three Strikes Law, and its recent repeal in California. They follow public defenders working to get some of the many people now slated for release out of prison. Of course, return is only the beginning of their new problems, as disenfranchised citizens. They make it clear: As a society, we owe these people a lot, and they’re getting nothing as they desperately forge a new life. Look for a TV version on public TV’s POV.
Untouchable, about our counter-productive sexual offender laws, evolved from years of legal work. First-time director David Feige worked for years as a public defender in the Bronx before he decided to make a documentary about what he had learned. He introduces us to compelling characters: a powerful Florida lobbyist who becomes a fanatic in pursuit of ever-stricter sex-offender laws after his daughter is assaulted; an Oklahoma mother of three who can’t go to her kids’ playground or leave the state on vacation because at 18 she had sex with a 14 year old at a party; a pedophile who controls his urges with regular therapy. The film makes a strong case that sexual offender legislation demonizes a wide range of sexual behavior, creates draconian punishments, and fails to make us safer. If you’re not appalled at the situation after watching Untouchable, you weren’t watching. The film won an award at Tribeca.
Finally, Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist, the top documentary award winner at Tribeca, meticulously and devastatingly documents the militarization of police forces in small towns and cities across the U.S. Atkinson, a veteran filmmaker, spent two years researching and working on the film, which maps a disturbing trend and shows individual examples of devastating consequences. Most disturbingly, it shows a profound disconnect between public policy and those consequences. Only informed citizen action will change that.