October 25, 2017

Double Exposure: Filmmakers Tell Truth to Power

FRONTLINE Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath. Photo: (c) 2017 Carolina Kroon.

Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival (DX), now in its third year, puts a spotlight on journalistic documentaries. The newbie DC festival is a project of an investigative nonprofit, 100Reporters, which publishes and offers to other publishers investigative journalism about government corruption.

"We want to call attention to the exciting, burgeoning relationship between film and journalism," says Sky Sitney, the festival's co-director (with journalist Diana Jean Schemo, one of 100 Reporters' founders). "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, which instigates one-on-one meetings between makers, funders, distributors, editors and filmmakers.

Journalism on Film

DX films were all new to DC audiences (except for Devil's Freedom, a heartbreaking look inside the psychic cost of violence on perp and victim alike in Mexico). Two films, TrustWHO and End of Truth, were world premieres, and The Other Side of Everything was a US premiere.

But the real opportunities that the film screenings offered were less about their novelty and more about being able to explore the power of journalistic storytelling in 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. The film 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, though, the NAACP had to abandon the case. "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.

Mila Turajlic's 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 her 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 the US.

"None of the political rallies or protests that my mother participated in were covered by the media; rather, they were suppressed," Turajlic recalled. "So I found images on old VHS tapes in people's basements." 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.

Symposium

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. MIT Open Doc Lab's Kat Cizek announced new foci of interactive projects, including Racial Justice, Future of Work and artificial intelligence. Major funders of both journalism and filmmaking not only sponsored the festival but sent representatives to it.

When is it ethical to go undercover? Ghanaian journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas argued that it's about whether your work will save lives. Mexican filmmaker Everardo Gonzalez said 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) maintained that it was the only way.

How to create rapid-response, filmic journalism in the age of Trump? The Fledgling Fund's Sheila Leddy pointed to the Fund's special fund for "rapid story deployment," which mainly supports 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 the issues featured in the 2015 CSMI report, 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, which was also 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. Grantees' projects include online harassment, trafficking in underage agricultural workers, police violence, wrongful conviction and FBI surveillance. (In discussing the awards, Lozano was kind enough to single out the CMSI report in putting in motion this new resource for journalistic filmmakers.)

"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."

Patricia Aufderheide is a professor at the American University School of Communication and founder of the Center for Media & Social Impact.

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