More than a few documentaries that played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival were asking questions about security. How safe are black lives in America? What do you do when extremists make physical threats in the place where you live? What happens when cartel violence lands in a sleepy border town? Are college campuses safe for young women? Is our planet in a period of manmade mass exctinction?
Security wasn’t just a storytelling subject, it was a major topic of discussion among filmmakers. The Ford Foundation hosted a security discussion and workshop “Filmmaking on the Frontlines.” I was lucky enough to give the group a sneak peak of takeaways from our upcoming “Dangerous Documentaries” report on assessing and lower risk for high impact documentaries, scheduled to be released Feb. 19 in tandem with a workshop as part of the 2015 Media That Matters conference.
Risk takes on many forms, and this discussion quickly honed in on digital and personal security issues. Producer Brenda Coughlin (Citizenfour, Dirty Wars) also revealed preliminary takeaways in these areas from a report in collaboration with Trevor Timm of Freedom of the Press Foundation. More news to follow soon.
Resonance and emotion were palpable at “Filmmaking on the Frontlines.” Laura Poitras gave a frank case study on the various security issues of Citizenfour, mistakes and successes. For many in the audience, like longtime filmmaker Pam Yates, it was the first time they didn’t feel alone in facing challenges of safety while following investigative storylines. Filmmakers in the room wanted to know more and soon–the above mentioned reports hope to be the first line of resources that sparks ongoing conversation and organizing on protections for filmmakers, access to legal teams and other forms of support, not the least of which is a sense of community.
Despite great challenges, filmmakers are continuing with the good fight, here are some of the docs from Sundance that didn’t hold back: (Warning: some spoilers!)
Director Marc Silver takes us on the journey that Jordan Davis’s parents faced with the trial of his killer. Jordan’s death made national headlines; he was an unarmed black teenager shot to death over loud music. One of this film’s great challenges and and also triumphs is building emotion and outrage largely through courtroom footage. We don’t get to see many images of Jordan himself until the very end, but then again his parents don’t get to have him anymore either. Can there be justice for black men in America?
The sleepy, rural town of Leith, North Dakota, gets woken up when a notorious white supremacist, Craig Cobb, and entourage move to town, next door to town hall. Cobb’s scare tactics and vitriolic beliefs will leave you terrorized in your seat. A determined mayor and other community leaders use city ordinances to run Cobb out of town. He lands in jail but is released after not too long with no remorse. This film gets up close and personal with Cobb as much as it does with the townspeople. It also begs a timely question, who gets protected under free speech?
Is there any hope for rehabilitation of sex offenders? Florida Justice Transitions believes it’s the only option. It’s a trailer park for sex offenders released from prison and seeking help. Their convictions range from online solicitation to child rape and these crimes are described by the offenders in shocking candidness; they also recount tragic stories of horrific abuse and neglect in their own lives. By looking these offenders in the eye you are forced to look for their humanity, in a way that perhaps only Scandanavian filmmakers would approach.
The director brothers of Tchoupatoulas bring us another visual exploration of place. This time we meet the border towns of Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras. The Eagle Pass mayor is a charismatic cowboy figure who appears beloved on both sides of the border, but stress starts to take its toll when cartel violence shows up close by. There’s no direct message in Western, no direct interviews or much context either, it’s about being there. The filmmakers shot with mini-dvd and used strategic coloring to give a look that reminded me of Texas in 1985. You could call it a portrait of what happens when that 1985 is faced with 2015 violence, seemingly not much, except a shaken sense of security from which there’s no turning back.
Louie Psihoyos is back both in front and behind the camera. In another visually compelling film, Psihoyos (director of The Cove) returns to his passion of earth and wildlife. This time he goes bigger employing the on screen of National Geographic wildlife photographers, cuttind edge projection technology, a race car driver and no less than Elon Musk to tell the story of mass extinction happening now. You’ll be awed by the visual artistry employed, not necessarily of the film itself, but by massive stunning projections of wildlife imagery on UN buildings. If only we could’ve been there in person, but the message that earth is in crisis is loud (and large) and clear.
Kirby Dick wasn’t going to stay quiet on the topic of sexual assault after the success of The Invisible War. The statistics and testimonies of sexual assault on college campuses is staggering and will make you question the tenants of higher education. This topic has made headlines so much in the last year, and Dick made a film that will keep it in the spotlight. If these victims could take the terrifying step of telling their stories then we owe it to them to listen.