Double Exposure 2020: Investigative Documentary Investigated
At Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival, come for the recent festival winners that share a common DNA: investigative journalism. And stay for the conversations about how to do it right. This elegantly curated (by Co-creator/Co-director Sky Sitney) and expertly organized (by Founder/Co-director and former New York Times journalist Diana Schemo) is a rare and much-needed site to discuss journalistic documentary and see its latest exemplars.
The Stuff of Nightmares
There were nightmare-inducing films, with actionable political revelations here in the US. Erika Cohn’s Belly of the Beast should galvanize a movement against the continuing sterilization of women of color in the California (and who knows where else?) penal system. Cohn, who has spent a decade doing legal work on this issue, focuses on one woman sterilized without her knowledge, but the genocidal practice is widespread. Chillingly, as the film shows, forced sterilization has some public support from those who see it through the lens of eugenics—and that framing is disturbingly common. Missing in Brooks County, by Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bemiss, takes us on a search for a lost brother/son in the Texas desert, where he disappeared while taking a dangerous route from Mexico. In the process, we learn that uncounted thousands have died in that desert, with animals dispatching their corpses within hours or days, since the US government in the late 20th century began closing down safer crossings. Everyone expected deaths to rise. No one has been responsible for counting them. And some, including ranchers followed in the film, are fine with that. Both stories have as an ominous undercurrent: the endemic, pervasive racism that organizes American society. Both were co-produced with ITVS.
Maya Zinshtein’s ’Til Kingdom Come confronts viewers already terrorized by election-month fears with news of urgently relevant, strange-bedfellow alliances. Impoverished evangelical parishioners in Appalachia believe the end times will presage Jesus’ reign, and see hope that they are arriving in the Middle East conflict. Israeli settlers, who invaded Palestinian land in the occupied territories, accept their financial support, drawn from the collection plate. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu welcomes the support of the settlers, and President Trump counts Rapture-bound evangelicals among his base. The relationships work for them all. Zinshtein has gotten inside of both the churches and the settler communities, and shown us the psychological and political sense all the stakeholders are making of fomenting chaos. Yikes.
There were cinema vérité works that revealed lived realities not often seen. Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Anonymous filmed inside Chinese hospitals during the first three months of the COVID pandemic there, for 76 Days. The film tells a universal reality: Hospital personnel, short on time and sleep, desperately work to save lives, comfort survivors, and deal with the exasperating and irrational. One old man, who out of stubbornness and possibly dementia keeps trying to leave, testing the viewer’s patience more than, seemingly, that of the hospital staff. Loira Limbal’s Through the Night moves inside a 24-hour daycare center, a crucial service for financially-strapped, overworked families.
And there were history films. Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI recounts the long, ugly record of the FBI’s spying on (among others) Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., digging up personal dirt in an attempt to stop his mobilizing for social justice. The film reminds a new generation of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with Communism, his racism, his strategic use of spying to intimidate his superiors as well as anyone trying to hold America to its promises. It comes out less than a decade before the FBI files kept on King’s personal affairs will be open to the general public. Ryan White and Jessica Hargraves, in Assassins, chronicle the sad and alarming story of the two young women duped into killing Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother and potential rival of Kim Jong-un. The tick-tock features the women’s prosecution, in the process exploring an entire subgenre of semi-amateur pranking videos throughout southeast Asia.
One film explored the process of investigation itself: Enemies of the State, by Sonia Kennebeck. The film challenges the viewer to assess whether a young man adept at hacking is a heroic whistleblower, a child pornographer, a spy, or some combination of all three. It pits narrative against narrative (desperate parents, implacable prosecutors), and shows how the same facts can fit very different stories. It demonstrates, among other things, the effect on trust of a pattern of bad-faith policing and prosecution at both the local and federal level in such cases.
The issue of social media and democracy is turning out to be a tough one for documentary journalism. Richard Poplak and Diana Neille’s Influence profiles a British public relations entrepreneur, Lord Timothy Bell, who moved into the big leagues of political lobbying and influence-peddling, in the process leveraging social media. He’s a wild character, but it’s not clear what we’re to learn. His record was spotty, the film shows; he lost as much as he won, apparently. His South African campaign created unmanageable blowback, and his career imploded moments before he expired of some combination of old age and bad living. In fact, though this is not discussed, his was one of hundreds of such firms, most of which have not imploded, which work worldwide, and which benefit from deep-pocketed political interests (as shown in the excellent documentary Dark Money and in fiction such as Our Brand Is Crisis).
Other documentary approaches to the question of social media in democracy have been frustrating as well. Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s The Great Hack made Cambridge Analytica a similar villain, largely ignoring the fact that, while data-mining for profiling is routine, the company never actually did the psychological profiling it claimed it would, while Americans sabotaged their own political process mostly on their own. Jeff Orlowski’s The Social Dilemma explains our current predicament as a problem with technology, although the problems we face in democracy today clearly have to do with an interaction between broken political and economic systems, with technology drilling down into the social cracks.
One Double Exposure film that showed carefully how that works in practice was A Thousand Cuts, in which director Ramona Diaz and her star, the Filipina journalist Maria Ressa (now facing eight politically-motivated criminal charges), drew the connections between social media, Duterte’s political rise, and the weakening and attacks on mainstream media.
Talking It Out
The symposium addressed a wide range of issues for investigative documentarians. Workshops dealt with fact-checking, impact strategies and legal issues. UCLA Documentary Film Legal Clinic’s lawyers walked the audience authoritatively through myths and truths about fair use. One workshop explored the use of data technologies in visual journalism. The New York Times’ Malachy Browne showed the forensic, data-heavy research behind using grassroots content to recreate, verify and trace events including a shooting of a Palestinian medic. One panel showcased the New York Times’ expansion into long-form documentary production, with Time (on Amazon), Father Soldier Son (on Netflix), and Some Kind of Heaven (a Magnolia release) as three of its upcoming ten projects.
Who can and should be telling the story? A panel on accountable documentary storytelling (full disclosure: I was on it), led by Sonya Childress and Natalie Bullock Brown, argued that filmmakers, particularly those in a position of social dominance, need to work with communities they chronicle, to avoid ingraining the narratives that justify injustice. A working group has launched a values-statement-in-progress. On another panel, Loira Limbal talked about building a rapport with the 24-hour daycare provider, Nunu, with whom she shared a cultural background, in making Through the Night. Many of the families were single-parent. “People ask, ‘Where are the fathers?’ I don’t explain that. That’s a judgment. I’m a single mother, too, and I don’t judge these people.” Instead, she said, she shared their reality. In an interview, Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bemiss, neither of whom are Latinx or from the Southwest, said that they used several ways of overcoming the cultural distance between themselves and their subjects in making Missing in Brooks County: They made some 15 visits to the area; they spent extensive time with their subjects; and crucially, they worked with consultants in the area to prescreen work, to double-check their own narrative choices.
I missed an opportunity to raise these questions, in a panel that I moderated as a last-minute fill-in. On the panel was filmmaker David France (Welcome to Chechnya), whose previous work The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, about a trans Black woman activist has generated controversy, as I later learned. France is a cisgender gay man. Trans Black filmmaker Reina Gossett (now Tourmaline) has charged, with Sasha Wortzel, that France learned of her work-in-progress while visiting a potential funder, pre-empted the idea, used archival footage she had found, and hired away staff. He has argued that he had begun research far earlier, and had a working understanding with Gossett that she would proceed with a fiction film while he would do a documentary. Apparently and unbeknownst to me, there was a shift in the panel because of this issue. Underneath the specific charges and countercharges is an unsettled, indeed barely expressed, debate about who has a priority claim on storytelling about a particular person or community, and what that relationship should be. Having the field discuss these deeper issues openly is the work ahead for the Values, Ethics and Accountability project.
Two outstanding keynotes marked the conference. Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose New York Times project 1619 became a meme and a T-shirt (I have one), shared her surprise at the growth of the significance of the project. It is spinning into multiple forms, including both a documentary and a fiction film. She has also been viciously and continuously attacked since the project launched, not least by the US President. “I take that as a sign that the project really matters,” she said calmly, in a conversation with Soledad O’Brien. The project of putting slavery at the center of American history and America’s story is a complete narrative restructuring, she noted, because of systemic miseducation.
Filipina journalist Maria Ressa talked passionately about the need for an all-hands-on-deck approach to the current political crisis in both the Philippines and the US. “I think people are going to find that democracy becomes a personal thing,” she said. Her news site, Rappler, was founded with a commitment to giving citizens actionable, accurate knowledge. She was aware then, and has been proven right, that good journalism is the enemy of authoritarianism. Duterte has used social media to mobilize his base, she noted, but it also helped Rappler achieve its current success. Ultimately, she believes, this is a political fight for a participatory society, with journalism as a key tool.
The question of finding the boundary between advocacy and independent journalism ran through the conference, not just Ressa’s keynote. In discussing Belly of the Beast, Erika Cohn—who also has advocated against forced sterilization—said that she confronted that line “every single day.” She was helped in part by the fact that her legal advocacy was grounded in extensive documentation, and by the investigative work on the issue by Center for Investigative Reporting. Talking about Welcome to Chechnya, which reveals genocidal practices against LGBTQ+ Chechnya citizens, veteran investigative journalist and filmmaker David France noted that his previous practice guided him. He also noted that the film takes a strong human rights stand, while going to extraordinary lengths (including using AI to substitute facial features) to hide their informants’ identities. FRONTLINE’s Raney Aronson-Rath recalled asking Ramona Diaz if she was ready for a full vetting and fact-checking process for A Thousand Cuts; Diaz welcomed the process. Aronson-Rath also remarked that by working with point-of-view journalists, FRONTLINE could get access to important stories from an experiential, emotionally rich perspective; For Sama and Inside Italy’s COVID War were examples.
No one at this event was close to suffering from a reverence for objectivity—what journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “the view from nowhere” and others call “the journalist from Mars” stance. Rather, investigative documentarians evoked the spirit of Maria Ressa’s call to make journalism for action, and what Alex Gibney, in a closing session, called the challenge of representing “a multiplicity of meanings.”
Patricia Aufderheide is University Professor in the School of Communication at American University, and serves on the board of the Independent Television Service.