Documentaries Telling Truth to Power

by Angelica Das

Many of the issues most important to understand and discuss are also those that powerful people or institutions don’t want made public. How do independent makers of documentaries that tell truth to power cope with this reality? A just-released reportby the Center for Media & Social Impact discusses the risks, and how they can be mitigated to encourage more and better expression on the important issues of the day.

The report, built on interviews with 53 people including makers, lawyers, insurers, funders and programmers, was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It was released at the Center’s annual Media That Matters conference. It will be showcased at major conferences and festivals in the coming year. First up is the annual conference Based on a True Story, on journalism and documentary, at the University of Missouri. The conference is associated with the True/False Film Festival. Next is a discussion at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

Freedom of expression.

“Documentaries that tell truth to power are important in a media ecology that can sustain and nurture democratic discourse,” said Prof. Patricia Aufderheide, Principal Investigator of the report. “Understanding the current environment for production is crucial to understanding what makers need and can do to lower risk.”

The report finds that although serious legal trouble is rare, risks are real and can create a chilling effect on works exploring important social issues. The most common areas of concern include personal security, data security, publicity attacks (smear campaigns), insurance issues, and litigation.

The report notes that makers who identify either as journalists or filmmakers face the same problems, but often do not share the same body of information or networks—and should. “It is so important to highlight the lack of a true, centralized resource and training hub for documentary filmmakers in the US. There is much to be done outside of advocacy and exhibition,” said Deirdre Haj, Executive Director of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

Journalists and filmmakers

”Dangerous Documentaries’ lays out the challenges and risks that journalists and documentary filmmakers encounter every day, even though their missions differ,” said American University Professor of Journalism Lynne Perri, managing editor of Investigative Reporting Workshop. “The study also provides a wealth of resources that will aid those new to the field, and reminds those who routinely take on the powerful that many organizations are able to lend guidance and support.”

One area that the report notes is particularly weak in resources is safety and security, both of makers and their subjects. “This is an important work on filmmaker security issues that fills a void in the field,” said Director/Producer Katy Chevigny of Big Mouth Productions. Her most recent work, The E-Team, sent production personnel into conflict situations as they followed first-responders in the human rights community; they faced serious problems with insurance as well as practical problems of personal safety and security of data.


The report was built on 53 interviews of makers of non-fiction films and TV programs, programmers, funders, lawyers, and insurers, as well as a wide search of literature and participation in public events. The report synthesizes suggestions from the interviewees to improve the environment. These include: reduce cultural differences and share resources between journalism and filmmaking; make more and better training and resources available; increase organizational support for such work; and centralize knowledge in community forums and best practices.

The report highlights the importance of membership organizations in supporting filmmakers and journalists who do this sometimes-dangerous work. International Documentary Association Board President Marjan Safinia said, “This report is packed full of information, and gives lots of food for thought for how organizations like IDA can meet the need in the field.”

The report was previewed at the IDA conference “Getting Real,” where journalists and filmmakers held a working group to discuss its interim results. The preview version was also discussed on a Sundance Film Festival panel.


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