Launch Symposium: Documentary at Risk
The following transcript is from a panel discussion on documentary risks at the Center for Media at Risk launch symposium in April 2018 at the University of Pennsylvania. Moderated by John Jackson, panelists include John Caldwell, Sam Gregory, Simon Kilmurry and Bryce Renninger.
John Jackson: Good afternoon. We’re about to begin. I want to make sure you have a chance to take your seats before we start. My name is John Jackson, I’m Dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice here at the University of Pennsylvania and I’ve been waiting for this conference for a long time. Very excited it’s here and we’re having the discussions that we’re having. I look forward to moderating our documentary panel.
The students who are here know that one story I tell, and I’ll be very brief, is getting to graduate school as someone who is trained in film. This is still when film wasn’t a metaphor; we were changing magazines in a black bag and sending it to the lab, and hoping we got the right exposure, and we were editing linearly on a steam bag. I’m not that old but that’s still how I was trained. I got to graduate school to get a Ph.D., and I was only brought there because they hired someone else in that department whose specialty was film.
They were like, we have this person who works in film, we have this student who’s interested in film, they can work together. But within five seconds of getting to that department, it was clear that I was under no circumstances to pick up another film camera until I got tenure. That was it. I was to do work, simply and exclusively in print. I was stubborn and hard-headed, so I did filmmaking anyway. I just did it secretly, under the cover of darkness. I swore the other grad students who knew to secrecy. I didn’t tell my committee. I came out to my committee on my postdoc and showed them my films.
But I bring that up only because one of the things I’m proudest of, in my 13 years here at the University of Pennsylvania, is that one of our students in Annenberg became the first student in the history of the University of Pennsylvania, 270 plus year history, to graduate with an all visual, all film dissertation. It had never happened before.
There’s a critical mass of students in five different schools across the University who are also doing that work, who are saying that their academic identity is constituted, at least in part, in and through this commitment, to talking about the world, to telling stories, to theorizing in images and sound. I think that is spectacular and, for me, a sea change from what I experienced not that long ago.
So for me, that’s the context that brings me to a panel that hopefully gets us to thinking credibly, critically, and reflexively about what this particular modality can allow for. We have four fantastic folks, I think, to take us through versions of that discussion in the context of a media moment under siege, in all the ways we’ve begun to impact it at the center is organized to address and to fix, actually.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time. I’ll do a quick introduction of each person, all at one time. They’ll come up give their talks, then I’ll come up and we’ll have a discussion. Does that sound okay? You all want a different scenario?
John Caldwell is Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media at the University of California Los Angeles, and author of many important books including Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television. I only bring that up because for the students in—we have a group called CAMRA that’s about multimodal scholarship, and the book’s become a kind of bible for a lot of our students. We’ve gone back to that time and time again.
Sam Gregory is program director for Witness, and he also teaches a graduate-level course at Harvard, the first one on harnessing the power of new visual and participatory technologies for human rights engagements. So we’re glad to have Sam here.
Simon Kilmurry is executive director of IDA, International Documentary Association. That’s after 16 years in public television as executive producer of POV, the long-running PBS showcase for documentaries. We’ve watched many POV documentary over the last 13 years here to get students thinking about how to do the work better.
Last but not least, Bryce Renninger, filmmaker, journalist, educator, who’s produced feature-length documentary film called Hotline and is producer now on a feature, that’ll be out relatively soon, called After Louie, which stars Alan Cumming and Zachary Booth.
Also, hopefully, we’ll think about hybrid films and what it means to toggle back and forth between fiction and non-fiction, whether or not that reification even makes sense in the contemporary moment. So without further ado, John, it’s all you.
John Caldwell: Yeah, thank you very much. I’d like to thank Barbie and John for having me here, and to the other speakers. It’s been a great conference so far. I’ve already had to change some of the ways I think about things and I’ve been alarmed at many of the cases we’ve been talking about so far. When I first got the invitation to participate, in the Fall, from Barbie, I thought about what I had been working on and realized that the definition of risk in those two projects is very different than the definition of risk here.
One of the things I’ve been thinking through was the financialization of Hollywood, the way that equity funds now have taken over Hollywood and media companies and production in LA. It was a great panel right before ours on the WGA pointing out, there’s equity fund money on both sides of table. MCAA, they represent artists and they are also producing content and hiring artists. It gets worse than that. I could go on and on and on. We’re talking about Steven Mnuchin and Bannon and others. These are parts of the equity funds and hedge funds that now run Hollywood.
But, as I thought about this, I thought, well, media at risk in that context would be capital risk. That’s the way everybody talks. What’s the risk? What’s the possible upside, the benefits, etc.? So I wanted to think about financial risk in relationship to these alarming cases of censorship and backlash that we’ve been hearing about today.
The other thing I’ve been working on for the last couple years is a kind of ethnographic fieldwork among adolescent millennial makers on YouTube and elsewhere, to understand what’s going on at that level, and what the relationship is between that and professional documentary and production work.
What I realized, the more time I spend in the space, I’ve discovered, well, that’s different than Mnuchin and Bannon and the equity funds that are running CAA that are focused on financial risk. That’s a world where there is a constant invocation of the idea that, this is a world of creative making, where there are no risks. “We’re going to show you how and why using the crowd can be a risk- free fulfilling enterprise.” So I thought I would think a little bit about those things.
One of the reasons I started that project—I started my career out in production and teaching production for 16 years. About 18 years ago, I shifted away from that and began doing just cinema and media studies research. Two years ago, because of a staffing shortage, they asked me to take over the undergraduate production program at UCLA again. One of the first things I had to do was, to manage the admissions process for the undergrads. Every year we get 2500 applications and we select and admit 25 freshman and 25 transfer students. It’s an interesting process.
It was a little bit overwhelming, but as we cut that group down to 1500 to 750, and then to 150, I was seeing things that I did not recognize and that were quite alarming to me, and made me begin to think maybe I should start looking at this and, before we cut down to the 60 interviews of the 125 applications that I was looking at, scores of these individual 17 and 18-year-olds had very large YouTube channels with lots of subscribers. About a dozen of them had already been to South by Southwest and Sundance, were making the festival circuit, and probably a half dozen of them already had very lucrative branding deals or deals with Maker Studios and Disney.
I tried to ask myself, why are these people applying to film school? Our 30-year- old MFA grads would die to get their films into Sundance or South By Southwest or to get deals with Disney. I mean, those are still impossible even for very good professionals, right? So, what is going on here? That’s what spurred me to look at the relationship between this pre-university film education that’s going on, media education that’s going, and what’s happening later on, what’s the relationship? In some ways, I don’t make hard divisions anymore between professional level production and aspirational production at that level.
I want to think about risk in less exceptional ways and very menial ways that everybody has to deal with. For decades, independent documentary has maintained visibility and legitimacy, not by minimizing risks, but by showcasing, managing, and marketing itself as a special risk-based enterprise. Post-screening Q&A’s invariably include stories about long odds and personal jeopardies overcome. Indie success, in some ways, correlates to risks taken. Yet this cultural status has been undercut and confused in recent years, as documentary practices and social online media have spread ubiquitously.
We’ve already heard about how digital and social media have complicated media-making and journalistic credibility, widely understood and in sometimes frightening ways. I want to ask how Indie documentary, as a specific risk delegation system, carefully managed by filmmakers, festivals, curators, publicists, and critics, has lost much of its footing as a result of recent changes.
The question of why this has happened leaves me with some nagging doubts. Was it just the cost or the relative scarcity of the Indie doc mode of production that John was just talking about, or the profession’s relatively high barriers to entry, that allowed many to imagine Indie documentary as a special resistant arena, as a stable platform unlike entertainment, from which makers could actually leverage the political world in one way or another. Is it the institutional bias against amateurism? The cultural construction of value as a risk-based proposition in academia and the art world, that devalues or dismisses documentary practices in the lower castes, social media, and YouTube.
Documentary can’t be insulated, obviously, from the occupational and ontological hazards brought on by the newer digital technologies. The documentary itself as a genre is also clearly at risk today for reasons that include the following. First, the disappearing credibility and specificity of evidence, due in part to digital’s affinity for mashing up and reiteration and a hijacking and reversal of footage enabled by special effects. Deep fake—as we heard about last night—videos are the most recent examples of this.
Okay. Second, the declining authority of observation in general. Apparently, there are no longer stable subject-object positions to guarantee it.
Third, the ineffectiveness. Bill Nichols’ definition of documentary is “discourses of sobriety.” Whereas Nichols’ definition of documentary might’ve worked in 1991, serious argumentation is now pastured and written off as partisan inclination, as nothing more than rhetoric or partisan arm-twisting, and that’s pretty toothless.
Two institutions that used to sanction, manage, and protect authenticity, observation, and evidence—academia and the art world—have themselves either been discredited as institutions or simply overwhelmed by the online den. The trolling, the contentious echo chamber that drags all claims of accuracy and elite systems of authenticity, down to the same jaded level of irrelevance.
95% of production cultures are marginal or marginalized, to begin with, yet we as scholars seldom include these margins, the aspirational, precarious, the under-funded, and under-employed workers in the generalizations we make about media production, yet they are the norm.
Endless personal rationalizations and large amounts of soft cultural capital prop up the widespread absence of sufficient financial capital, for the amount of content that is actually needed by the system, needed by the platform, and produced by makers and YouTubers. As such, economic and vocational risks are the norm before we can ever talk about how recent politics, or backlash, or digital technologies, may have amped up risks recently for documentary.
Documentary labor and professional film and television have long faced macro- political threats—union busting, outsourcing, runaway production. Yet they are also pervaded by micro-political struggle as a result of multitasking in the gig economy and local creative labor markets.
Micro-political risk includes racial, sexual, and gender politics on sets and in media organizations, as we’ve discussed today already. Are the new risks from adversarial digital politics more significant than those faced for decades by the many who struggle to survive and prosper inside of media production systems?
The flip side of independence—okay, one minute, good. Indie film and documentaries are consensual arrangements, at least on paper. In contracts, in them, makers voluntarily take away from larger corporations the risks of creation, development, financing, pre-sales, marketing and, increasingly, pre- production, crowdsourcing, and crowdfunding. While the trades praise crowds as cost-effective creator innovations, they never point out that this new upstream sourcing allows Indie auteurs—what might be thought of as risk volunteers— to simply reassign their own willingly adopted risk onto the shoulders of many non-professionals further below them in the crowded food chain.
In this sense, Indiegogo and GoFundMe should now be added to the documentary risks’ delegation arrangements on the development front end. Doc funders now also require that Indie doc makers have study guides and vigorous social media components to increase the odds of success on the distribution backend, or to even get financing support or the deal in the first place. These two risk add-ons simply extend the chain of risk further upstream from the larger monetizing centers: studios, distributors, TV and cable networks.
I’m out of time here, but I just wanted to say that what I’m trying to do is, to rethink what risk is and to get a more systematic taxonomy of types of risks that aspirational production workers and documentarists actually use, to get away from what I would call heroic risk—the risk celebrated by film festivals, official marketing, and HBO—to talk about utilitarian risks to the individual creators, utilitarian risk to the intermediaries, the pedestrian risks, and the collateral risk from the system onto the makers, and from the makers onto the system.
There are lots of recent examples of this, even within the last week or two, about really alarming things that have happened including the pushback at YouTube—the active shooter situation at YouTube a couple of weeks ago, which was based on something that thousands of YouTubers have complained about over the year, which they call the ad-pocalypse: the demonetization by the AI robots of their creative work. They thought they were partners in something, they discovered they were not.
And so those are the kind of things I’m trying to think through and add this idea of the economic predicament and risk to any discussion of political risk or censorship. Those are easier for me to see. I really want to understand what’s going on as risk is delegated and distributed among the families that support the YouTubers, among the friends, among the crowds, among the fans. Systematically, a system of economics and a normalization of the market is happening among the creators before they ever get to the university. That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in this, to figure out what our role is, or should be, in this environment, so thank you very much. I appreciate the chance.
Sam Gregory: Thank you very much for the invitation to be here. I work for WITNESS, which is a global network that works to make it possible for anyone, anywhere to use video and technology to protect and defend human rights. I want to talk about the types of actors we work with—the ecosystems of media makers—how they grapple with questions of visibility and obscurity in their work, how they engage technology platforms that both give them that visibility but also compromise their security, and how we understand those issues moving forward.
I want to start by emphasizing, and I think this is really important, “We know that the cameras are new,” in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ words, “but the violence isn’t new.” What we’re seeing in the work of the types of individuals, networks, organizations that WITNESS works with is more people having the opportunity to show the violence in their communities, the rights violations they face. Not necessarily that these rights violations are new—and I think that’s really important. It’s a diversification of who gets to speak about rights violations, as well as a diversification of risk then accompanying that speech.
I’m going to talk about three broad categories within that ecosystem and describe it through an example in Brazil, and then, really talk about risks. I want to talk about those groups as maybe eyewitnesses, media and community activists, and then, organized journalists, then NGOs. Because there are three constituent parts for a lot of the ecosystems that I see.
Let me start in Brazil. I want to recognize first that, thankfully, Brazil is in the headlines in the last month because of the assassination of Marielle Franco, who was a Rio City Councilwoman, who was killed just over a month ago. Her death is a front piece on a pattern of violence that affects Favela residents in Rio. I want to just show you what happens for the ecosystem of media-makers who document, for example, violence in the Favelas in Rio.
You might be someone, like this person in the window here, and I’m going to give a trigger warning here, this is the aftermath of an extrajudicial killing in which the police are planting a gun on a young man they have just killed. You see them firing the gun at this point and they’re going to drop it by his body.
The first person we need to think about this as is the primary source; this person who filmed it from their window above. The second actor that we might look at in this context is a group of media activists, like these activists from [this group], who are media activists and live in the Favela, work on a range of issues that are motivated by community needs, particularly police violence.
They will often go after that first person who shoots to document the crime scene, to show what happened to creative narrative material. Then they will collaborate with journalists, with lawyers, with public defenders, often to tell more complex stories, which might be stories of curation—“curation” being pulling together multiple narratives and presenting it. Here’s an example of doing that around occupations of buildings and making a case for civil damages.
This is a pattern that we see globally. These are individuals that we know and work with in many contexts, who range from that spectrum of the accidental eyewitness, through to the media activist and community activist, through to people who I would describe very much in the kind of professional world of media and of human rights: NGOs, lawyers, people who work in mainstream media, or in institutions of justice. Again, sort of the way I might capture those three groups.
How do we think about risk in this setting and the way risk may play out? The first might be to consider how we support the eyewitnesses, and I think this is a group that has historically been less supported in these types of contexts, because traditionally, they have not been the people who gather the evidence. One way to do that is to think about how do you support people, to understand what to do in these contexts. I’m sharing here just a template of the types of guidance that we use in these settings.
It really often breaks down to like six or seven types of categories. You’ll notice that three of them at least, are security-based, and they’re largely about the choice to film, the choice to share that content, and that choice points to the people who document it because those recur so frequently in the context here. This is what it might look like in the context of filming hate in the US. This is what it might look like around documenting ICE in the US and immigration raids, with all the complexities of being undocumented or documenting in the increasing lawlessness. Again, going back to what Amy was talking about this morning of ICE raids across the US.
Of course, I’m showing them to you in a PDF format because it’s easier to show that to you, but you might want to be showing that, for example, in the Rio context in a WhatsApp group. As we talk about how to communicate risk, how do we do that when we have all these very divergent understandings of how to understand that, how things are going to be used? Here, you can actually see they’ve obscured the faces of the kids. This is two kids hiding from an attack.
Visibility and risk dilemmas when we’re creating and sharing footage: I want to talk about this tension that I think we find in this work, which is a tension between wanting to be visible and wanting to be obscure. Imagine yourself in the situation of one of these residents of Rio or any other setting—could be documenting an ICE raid here in the US—and think about the risks you face. There’s the very obvious risk that you could be just assaulted when you film, right? Happens very frequently. People are attacked as they try and share or document.
I think the risk that often people don’t recognize, or underestimate—and this is to do with the creeping authoritarianism right now—is the question of increasing pressure to stop people filming via legal methods as well. The right to record is under threat in multiple countries, the ability to film. If we think about young people today, the way you think about documenting your life is, you take out a camera and you film it. That is contemporary free expression, and laws are being passed to push back on that idea.
Often, they’re totally ridiculous. In Spain, we have laws that were first used to criminalize a woman who took a photo of a license plate of a police car parked in a disabled bay, and she was prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws around the right to record.
The second is, you may want to then share it, right? You film something, you share it, what are the implications of putting it out on WhatsApp, or Facebook, or YouTube, and how does that work out? Many people, after they’ve shared it, say, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” We’ve talked about this way in which repercussions come to us as activists, then, as individuals. This is the witness to the Eric Garner chokehold death in New York who said, “I wish”—“I shouldn’t have put my name out there, I should have done it smarter.” We see that consistently.
Globally, there is this question of how people manage risk they hadn’t anticipated, because they’re not in these discussions until it happens to them. How we help people understand that applies also when we look at, say, alt-right footage. This is Brennan Gilmore, who filmed the death of Heather Heyer. This is before we even talk about the question of the people who are actually filmed in the footage. We’re not just talking about people who speak or document. We’re talking about the risks that you face when you film. If we think about increasingly sophisticated facial recognition, how do we understand those risks, and how do we communicate them when we have this ecosystem?
The other risk I want to describe is the fact that, frankly, most people don’t want to watch human rights footage. It’s lost in the volume to start with, if we look at the statistics of footage out there. We talked this morning about the sense of activists overwhelmed, overrun by assaults online, by the pushback from patriotic trolling.
Frankly, often the problem is that no one is seeing it, no one cares to start with—let alone we have a problem with patriotic trolling. Then, you’re dismissed as fake news. As we know, that is often also state-led and state-run and on platforms. In two locations where we work—they’ve both been mentioned today already—Burma and Ukraine, you see the patterns of how activists are demonized, and targeted, and associated with foreign powers and all those issues that play out.
I want to talk about some responses that we’ve done and then, I want to talk about the platform side. Often we’ve worked on tools to help people think how to manage that dual visibility-obscurity. The way you want to, at some points, be visible, sometimes be obscure. How do we pass control to people to do that in nuanced ways? In the case of videos, sometimes that’s really literally how do you blur faces.
Sometimes it’s actually the reverse, right? How do we enable people to have much better control of the things like metadata? This is an archivist conference on the right, where they’re describing the threat of metadata in a completely different way. “Metadata is not a threat of surveillance, it’s a love note to the future.” We’ve worked on tools, and Zeynep mentioned it this morning, this question of—for many activists—the question of visibility being trusted, is as important as some of these methods we are thinking about, of how do we hide our communication? You’re actually shouting from the rooftops to have attention paid to you. An example of a tool, and there are a number out there that we’ve worked on, is called ProofMode.
I want to talk finally, to wrap up, about the devil’s bargain with these online platforms. We’ve obviously gone a long way from—these are some slides I somewhat cynically put up, these photos of the Arab Spring seven years ago, and we’ve gone to this. Mark Zuckerberg, looking like the sheep there. We’ve also seen civil society groups pushing back, so I’m going to superimpose over his face, the very strong critiques that groups in Burma placed on Mark Zuckerberg, on the day of his presentation, where they said, “You’ve done absolutely nothing really, in relative terms, to deal with hate speech and its impact on the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and of Muslims in Burma.”
Two ways to think about how we respond to this from civil society. One is—and this is an example of what we’ve done but others do this as well—thinking about how you push on products and policies. For example, we pushed YouTube to build a blurring feature because we recognized that people didn’t know how to blur their faces if they were sharing vulnerable content. More recently, we’ve been pushing on a number of platforms to build what we call a ProofMode into the platforms that enable people to opt-in. It’s very important to share more metadata, more ways to show that footage hasn’t been tampered with.
Two final threats I want to share. One is another Facebook-based threat, which is fake profiles. If you’re an activist, people create fake profiles of you. These are examples from Brazil. Got my own timer as well, so I know I’m done. Then, the other is loss of contents. We know that content loss happens because there are coordinated campaigns by governments. We know now that Facebook has liaison officers with multiple countries that are often working in very sophisticated ways to take down the content of opponents.
We also know that AI is a threat. For the last eight months, WITNESS and a number of other groups have been trying to work against the loss of hundreds of thousands of videos of war crimes from Syria, that were taken down by new machine learning algorithms on YouTube.
The reason for those new algorithms is partly the pressure of governments on counter violent extremism and on hate speech. As we think about authoritarianism, a lot of that pressure is coming in fairly un-nuanced ways from governments in the West, and is being manipulated by governments elsewhere, and it’s being responded to by tech platforms in ways that are deeply counterproductive to freedom of speech for a lot of these marginalized voices. This is what one of the pages of those groups looks like at the end.
I should mention because we keep talking about the “deep fakes” issue, that we’re working on that. I think the important thing there is that we neither go into the media panic that’s happening now, the info-apocalypse, nor that we’ve seen this all before. There’s something in the middle that learns from the history of new media and new tools like this and actually says, productively, how do we address it? Thank you.
Simon Kilmurry: Good afternoon. This is a little terrifying for me. I’m a university dropout, so to be standing in front of a room full of academics, it’s like I’m waking up in one of my bad dreams; I’ve got to answer all the right questions and I haven’t done my homework, as usual. As John mentioned, I spent 16 years at POV, the PBS documentary series, only ten as executive producer.
Actually, before I go further, I want to define documentary in the context of what I’m going to be talking about, because documentary, like entertainment, is a huge field. It encompasses everything from personal essays, to investigations, to nature. I’m going to be talking about long-form creative documentaries that take on investigative, or are character-driven—deep-dive stories—into an issue. The kind of films that you would see on POV, like Laura Poitras’. My Country, My Country, or Street Fight by Marshall Curry, or Food, Inc. by Robbie Kenner.
When I was at POV, one of our great badges of honor would be when we were attacked. When someone would call us out for upsetting them in some fashion, whether it be a congressman—and we got calls from Bob Dornan or Mayor Sharpe James, who was the mayor of Newark as he was running against Cory Booker. A little funny anecdote, about Sharpe James, the bigger his signature at the end of a letter, the angrier he is, and he was pretty pissed at us.
I always say it was our role to be a partner with those filmmakers in taking on those stories in which they were putting themselves in some jeopardy, and providing a platform for those stories to get out there. Another thing which I’ve observed in my 20 years in the space is—and it’s been glorious to see documentaries moving from the margins of culture to a much more central position; they’re no longer broccoli—these are legitimate forms of both social engagement, but also entertaining in and of themselves, and I think that’s very exciting.
In 2015, Pat Aufderheide, from the American University Center for Media and Social Impact, published a report called Dangerous Documentaries: Reducing Risk when Telling Truth to Power. I highly recommend it. It’s brief but I think it encapsulates a lot of what we’ve been talking about. In that, she has a number of case studies of films which took on and changed power structures that were introduced by independent documentary filmmakers.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, which I think Caty Chattoo produced, Crude, a number of other films like that. Pat, in that, identified a lot of challenges for independent documentary filmmakers who don’t always identify themselves as journalists but are essentially operating in a very similar space and have a lot of similar values.
Coming out of that study, Pat had a number of recommendations, which I think are still valid but are worth revisiting. Reducing the cultural differences between journalism and documentary filmmaking. You’re making better training available for documentary filmmakers in the journalism space, giving them better legal support, organizing for freedom of expression.
When I left POV, I went to run this organization, International Documentary Association, which has a highfalutin name, but we’re actually a pretty small group of people. We do work internationally, but that’s only really over the past couple of years. One of the first things which I started there was a new fund, to address a number of what I felt were shortcomings in the documentary space. Going to what John was talking about, the capital risk the filmmakers were taking on themselves.
We designed this fund, this enterprise fund, to be funding at substantial levels early in projects to mitigate the risk that filmmakers were taking. We also decided that giving money is not enough, that we also had to give them resources, and structures, and access as independents working outside of traditional newsrooms, where a journalist may have access to powerful databases, or fact checkers, or legal support, that we needed to help these filmmakers with all of that.
We formed a number of alliances, with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Then, built a resource that we recently just published in collaboration with the Journalism School at University of Missouri, called Mapping the Documentary-Journalism Landscape, which we’re now making available to the wider field to help mitigate some of the risks that we feel the individual filmmakers—generally working in small teams, outside of the power structures—are taking on themselves.
To go back to where I was a little bit earlier, when I was talking about the risks that filmmakers take on themselves, and taking on entrenched power structures—and it’s something that we would celebrate at POV, we would also work very hard to prepare for. We would make sure that we knew the background of the story, the background of the filmmaker, to prepare us as an organization, as a series—and also the filmmaker—for any attacks that they might have. As such, we could sleep relatively well at night and the filmmakers could sleep relatively well at night. That’s not to say that we didn’t have our challenges along the way. There were certainly many times over the years where we were called out as I mentioned.
I think one thing that I’ve seen change a little bit over the past year, and it’s pretty alarming, is—and I’m going to talk about a film called Last Men in Aleppo in this context, by Feras Fayyad, Syrian filmmaker. This film was on public broadcasting, was on POV, just won a Peabody Award. It was nominated for an Academy Award this year.
As that film was getting more and more attention on this awards circuit, the film and the filmmakers began to come under attack. Not an attack in the way that we usually have seen. This was very much an organized, state-driven attack following this playbook of Russia-backed disinformation and manipulation. Really, what the goal of that series of attacks was—and it was sustained, there was online trolling. They would have people show up at Q&A’s and question whether the filmmaker was a member of the CIA or was sympathetic to Al- Qaeda. They were not really trying to get that stuff to stick.
I think the people are sophisticated enough to understand that they were trying to sow seeds of doubt all along the way. The White Helmets, who are portrayed in this film, are an Al-Qaeda operation. The filmmaker was trying to support that. Those seeds of doubt that were sprinkled all along the way of this film began to stick and began to attach themselves in a way which undermined the credibility of the film and the credibility of the filmmaker. On Twitter and Facebook, Feras was accused of being a liar and a terrorist sympathizer.
It raises, for me, a couple of questions. I don’t know the answers to these, but: how do we support independent documentary makers who are working without resources? Without broad-based networks to counter these kind of campaigns, which are much more pernicious than, say, the campaign that Sea World had against Blackfish? You kind of knew where those lines were. Even more scary, I think, is: how do we then avoid the conscious or unconscious self-censorship that may begin to infiltrate itself into the work of filmmakers, but also into the work of the gatekeepers and broadcasters? I’m going to just wrap up with one final anecdote about that.
I was a gatekeeper at POV for many years, a respected public television institution. A few years before I left, we had two films that we were broadcasting; The Law in These Parts by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz—he’s here— and 5 Broken Cameras. Both films examined Israel and Israeli policy in the occupied territories from very different perspectives. But I felt that those films spoke well together and created a larger narrative, but yes, they were critical of Israel.
As a gatekeeper, I came under enormous pressure from certain sectors of public broadcasting, to cancel those shows, to take them off the air. I was threatened—this is our public broadcasting system—I was threatened by some elements within that system that they would cancel POV if I didn’t take those off the air. Now that was four or five years ago when we were living at a very different environment. We held our ground, and we got it through, and we were fine.
I worry about our public broadcasting system in particular, and the pressures it’s going to be under, under this kind of administration that we’re living under at the moment. I think when we’re talking about media risk, we’re not only talking about the physical risks that filmmakers put themselves at, but we’re talking about a whole ecosystem that is very fragile. I’ll leave it there, and I look forward to your questions afterwards.
Bryce Renninger: All the things that were said about me, in the beginning, were true. Some of you went to school with me or knew me from Rutgers, where I did my Ph.D. and wrote about digital counter-publics and the public sphere. I’m here, actually, representing an organization that I’ve been working with for two and a half years as the managing editor, Field of Vision. I want to kind of talk about the ways that Field of Vision have responded to some of the questions that have already been brought up, and some of the themes that are like the organizing principles of this center.
First, a history of the organization. Field of Vision is a part of First Look Media, which started off as an organization funded by PureMedia. We’re changing the way we’re structured and trying to generate revenue, and other sources of funding may come into the organization. We started with one person whose passion was for the First Amendment, was for freedom of expression, was for what became the tagline of our print sister publication, The Intercept. They said that they focus on “adversarial journalism.”
Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Laura Poitras started The Intercept. I forget how long after that it was that Laura decided that the video component of this venture should be its own thing called Field of Vision. At the end of 2015, we started to publish short documentaries under the banner.
I use the phrase attention economy to organize my talk. The reason I use that expression is because we wanted to not do the thing that a lot of people that are responding to the attention economy do, which is to make these videos that are two minutes, very shareable, have lots of text, don’t need to be watched with the sound on, aren’t very artful, are using footage that you may have seen already before, and are re-contextualizing that footage. We’re not doing that. That’s great but that serves its own purpose and is often done cheaply, in- house, in new media ventures. or in established media ventures.
The thing that we say we do is cinematic journalism. We have, in justifying ourselves, come up with a few things that we say we focus on—risky journalism. We have infrastructure with The Intercept, we share a legal team and a research team that help bring a certain kind of integrity and support to our filmmakers.
We’re interested in unique visual approaches in the short journalism space. We’re interested in working with journalists in the print world who are doing their own investigations and need visual documentation to back them up, and to provide compelling visual narratives to accompany their work. We’re interested in doing—and this is a changing space—we’re interested in doing longer form foreign work that can go online, but also conventional feature- length films, which is something that’s expanding in the organization.
I should say, too, that we are interested in putting our videos online. I’m going to give you a sense of the kind of work that we do, but I’m also going to talk about how we justify our work, and maybe some of the ways that our work is riskier—that we encourage risky filmmakers or provide as safe a place as to do risky work.
There’s a certain kind of filmmaking within the documentary world that comes to mind when you say risky journalism. The filmmakers, Phil Cox and Daoud Hari, wanted to make their way into this den and be able to tell stories that have not been able to be told because there was a limited ability to bring cameras and to do journalism within the borders. In the course of traveling there—this was a co-production, this is actually something we supported; we just said we would support the online publication of a shorter piece on Field of Vision, but this was supported with Channel Four. It’s Captured in Sudan. The filmmakers were captured.
[Excerpt from Captured in Sudan]
Phil Cox: When we’re left alone with these guards, they’re bored. It’s windy, it’s dusty.
They don’t want to be there either. And I see that they’ve found one of my cameras.
Guard: Give me.
Phil Cox: We’re just here with the—
Phil Cox: So I start to tell them how to use the camera and I’m showing them how to take photos. But as I do it, I’m pressing the video button on the camera. So they’re filming me and themselves. They don’t know it.
Our kidnappers are now behind the camera as we’re—
Guard: [foreign language]
[End of excerpt]
Bryce Renninger: This next clip comes from a film by Aaron Goodman and Luis Liwanag. Aaron Goodman is a Canadian video journalist. He worked with a Filipino news photographer who had been documenting Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. The idea originally was to make a profile piece of Luis’s work. What we ended up coming to, in deciding with both Luis and Aaron, is that they would work together on a video representation of Luis’ work. This is incredibly graphic. I’m sorry that this is excerpted in the way that it is. So that is a warning.
When we released this film we released it with The Intercept and with Rappler. Obviously, we heard earlier today that the pressures that the organization itself, Rappler, is encountering in the Philippines. There’s this incredible risk of making these films, but also this incredible risk that it’s documenting. The film is about the day-to-day life operating under this incredible amount of extrajudicial killings in metro Manila.
We started publishing before Trump was elected. We started publishing at the end of 2015. Soon after Trump was elected, we had been talking with Firelight Media, which is a documentary organization that supports filmmakers of color, run by Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith. We worked with them and worked with the alumnus of their many programs to make a series of seven films that responded in some way to life under Trump. This is an excerpt from An Uncertain Future. It’s about living as undocumented people in Trump’s America, but the female subjects in the film are pregnant.
[Excerpt from An Uncertain Future]
Bryce Renninger: That film is by Iliana Sosa and Chelsea Hernandez. Maybe I’ll play two more very quickly. Matt Wolf and Guadalupe Rosales made this film, The Town I Live In, which is about gentrification in the Boyle Heights neighborhood in LA, from the perspective of Guadalupe, who’s an artist who works in galleries within the neighborhood.
[Excerpt from The Town I Live In]
Guadalupe: PSSST is an art space in Boyle Heights. They’re friends of mine and they offered me a residency. That’s when I found out that people are protesting against PSSST and other art galleries in Boyle Heights.
So for me, it was like, “Okay, now it gets complicated.” Is it with them or against them? This issue, it’s not just black and white and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do as an artist from Boyle Heights.
[End of excerpt]
Bryce Renninger: Guadalupe, who you heard there, is able to tell this story as an artist, and as someone who’s from the neighborhood, and cut through the conversations that have been going on in the neighborhood, that ended up in a lot of shouting and a lot of antagonistic comment threads on the internet. In supporting their work and telling her story, we provided support of telling a risky story and making something that’s a little bit different . The final thing I’ll show is this a film that confronts an issue that is about a very litigious organization. We thought that our institutional support of this film, actually made by an employee, was important and that we could allow for the risk of making something about something that’s going on in the NFL.
[Excerpt from NFL film]
Within our institution, we felt like we had a strong sense that this was transformational and that it had a good fair use case and that we were able to support it. Josh picked this concussion protocol, which is built out of all of the concussions that occurred over the NFL season.
Very quickly—we are one organization; there’s other organizations that support independent filmmakers and help them publish their work online. One of the things we do that differentiates us from some of the other players is that we pay filmmakers for their work, and we pay the people who work on the films for their work. Proper wages, not commercial wages but that’s all I’ll say now. Thanks.
John Jackson: I know it’s been an engaging panel because I was so busy thinking about what they told us, I forgot I was moderating. Thank you again, John, Sam, Simon, and Bryce. I’ll make sure, to the best of my ability, I’ll find the hands that are up and try to pick on folks to continue our conversation let’s start right here.
Daniel Grinberg: Thanks to all of you for an amazing set of talks. No one’s really touched on the question of risks to subjects. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about experiences you’ve encountered with subjects being maybe targeted by government agencies as a result of being in a documentary. The video with the immigrants seems like a very salient case for that, and what are some best practices and ethical obligations that documentarians have to themselves?
Simon Kilmurry: I’ll start with that. It’s something that, certainly at POV, we give a lot of thought to and we would talk with filmmakers about this. It’s one thing to agree to participate in the film, but most people—really when they get in agreeing to participate in a film—don’t really realize this might end up in front of millions of people. Those ethics are often situational; they are depending on the relationship that the filmmaker has built up with a particular subject. That relationship of trust and what promises they may have made along the way and actually, this is an area that we are going to be addressing. We’ve done a number of articles in documentary magazine on this over the past couple of years. We have a conference coming up in September in Los Angeles called Getting Real. We are going to be actually having a number of sessions on this topic.
Documentary filmmakers, or the kind of people who I’ve worked with, have often been building up relationships with people for years, and those relationships extend beyond the film. It becomes a real naughty challenge that they have to deal with, in making sure people are properly prepared and they are giving not just consent but informed consent in their participation. But it really, for me, is dependent on the situation.
Bryce Renninger: Yeah. One thing I can say—we made at least two films in the series that I spoke about, on speaking about uncertain futures about undocumented people. In both cases, it’s independent production, so we don’t deal directly with subjects, but the filmmakers report that there’s very informed consent, and the interesting thing that we found in talking with the filmmakers is that—definitely, the other film editors who are in this film—there was a great interest in the subjects being able to share their story, because of the kind of rhetoric that was so prominent and so vile. Despite risks, it was important for them to be able to share their story. Their exposure outweighed any risks that they thought they might encounter.
Sam Gregory: Just an observation around that. It’s particularly challenging in this kind of eye-witnessing context. And I think often the emphasis traditionally is on the film and not the filmed, and it’s really important to put the emphasis there. We try and work with kind of informed consent approaches, given the nature of online media that—it’s—danah boyd talks about these things being persistent, replicable, and the idea of collapsed audiences. You know that footage will be misused against you if it’s in public. You know that it will appear at the wrong time. We try and use a “worst case scenario” principle: it’s better to tell people the worst case.
I think a lot of time people make decisions to be visible in that. Like if you are in the human rights context, you know there are risks, right? And being careful not to be paternalistic about consent as well.
People can’t often make very good decisions about risk as well. It’s not always. The other thing I would note is that a lot of context, like I mentioned for the work on ICE, working with communities who document ICE raids, not to film people who you shouldn’t film—because your content could be subpoenaed, it could be seen—and not necessarily to share it publicly. When we talk a lot about documenting police violence, we actually fight people’s first instinct to share it instantly. Because both for an advocacy purpose, because it’s often more effective to hold it back and also, for security purpose. It’s one of the other issues we are saying, like, live–streaming—so trying to think how to encourage people to think about the act of sharing.
Judith Matloff: I was wondering: the protocols that were brought up by the Doc Society, the safety and security issue—were they adopted, for the most part, by major funders? And do you know if they’re actually configured at the moment, and have they made a difference so far? Planning for—
Simon Kilmurry: My colleague Carrie Lozano could probably speak better to this than I can and she’s actually raised some concerns about those protocols, which I can’t get into the details because she’s really the person on the front lines with that. I’ve spoken to a couple of funders who have also been a little concerned. I think the intention behind it is very good, I know there’s been some concerns, but I can’t speak specifically to what those are. Can you?
Bryce Renninger: Yeah. That’s interesting. The question was about the Doc Society’s Safe+Secure protocols, which are these protocols that are meant to reduce risk and to help filmmakers be more secure in their communications in their work. I wasn’t aware of those conversations. We have our own protocols and we were trying to formalize them around the time that Safe+Secure came out. What was the question again? Have they been adopted by foundations?
Judith Matloff: Have they been widely adopted, and whether they’ve made an impact in terms of planning for dangerous assignments?
Bryce Renninger: Right. It’s a case by case basis. Lots of people come looking for advice on being more secure and I would really be curious about how that specific document is being adopted. We do a lot of training with filmmakers, who have specific cases, and we can talk to them with a specific threat level, or threat scenario, about what kinds of things makes sense for them to do.
John Jackson: Going forward I’ll let you ask the next question but just remember to identify yourself briefly before you do.
Parker Higgins: Hi. I’m Parker Higgins from the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and one of the things that we do is newsroom security trainings and we’ve worked with documentary filmmakers in that capacity. The thing that we’ve encountered— that we’ve gotten different responses about from different filmmakers—is special sensitivity and concerns around the intermediate materials. So not necessarily what’s going to be shared online, but raw footage and interviews that are conducted, especially on the crossing borders. I wondered if you could speak to those kinds of special concerns or precautions that you’ve encountered around material at that stage.
Sam Gregory: Certainly, there’s a lot of attention in the space. You have colleagues like Harlo Holmes, who’ve been thinking about the risks often for us as seizure of devices, particularly mobile devices. So how do you think about encrypted storage or backup to the cloud—like, the classic way to record scenarios in the US, is actually someone takes your device and you have the legal right to record, and your content is deleted when you get it back, or something like that. For us, it’s often about encrypted storage on devices and when do you think that’s the right choice.
Bryce Renninger: That’s something that, to my understanding, your organization is concerned with, too. We have helped filmmakers develop protocols for protecting their footage and that’s about being as safe as possible, creating as many copies as possible that are in different places. It’s case dependent.
John Jackson: In the back?
Kevin Platt: Kevin Platt, from Penn Arts and Sciences. You guys talked a lot about the good guys with documentary and I was interested, first of all, in hearing some thoughts about the increasing misuse of documentary form by bad guys, by authoritarian state actors, etc. And both about the evolution of the sophistication of use of documentary form to misrepresent information, but also about the various possibilities for education of audiences to detect misuse of the documentary form.
Simon Kilmurry: That’s a tough one. I’ve actually been talking a little bit about this area for a while because it’s been this kind of blooming of kind of social issue documentary storytelling. Which has been, in some ways, fantastic. But I also have been cautiously talking about—well, this can easily be turned on its head. We’ve seen it turned on its head and I think, Caty, in your upcoming book, you are going to be talking about some of this, I think. I’m not sure I can speak about education. Maybe, John, you can? But I think it’s a real danger at the moment.
John Caldwell: Yeah. I think in the last two to three years—I teach documentary history film as well, and the way it typically is taught, there is a canon. There’s significant works. You can’t show everything, so you go through the history and fine influential works and they tend to be from the left, or liberal, or progressive perspective. But in the last five or so years, there are some huge documentaries that were influential in the last elections and in the last two or three times I’ve taught it I’ve had graduate researchers working on alt-right and kind of right- wing documentaries that have tremendous traction and tremendous online components as well. I think it is something that we need to look at and I need to be a lot more serious about studying.
I’m a member of something called Visible Evidence, and if you look at all the panels there, they tend to also be about progressive, good case studies, like we’ve heard about today. It’s much more difficult to try to engage with these practices on the far-right, and they are out there; they know they are effective. They circulate in all kinds of ways, like cluster bombs, into the news cycle too. I think it’s a great question. I need to do a better job at dealing with it. The students I have—have actually researched—have been kind of just demoralized with what they see, because it is a powerful and effective way that debates are changed quickly.
Bryce Renninger: Yeah. But I think a lot of the examples rely on Fox News style devices and I don’t know. It’s like we have a film about Steve Bannon’s films, which are categorically bad, called American Carnage. We watch people be incredibly confused by what he’s trying to do in the film. Sorry, there was something else I was going to say but I lost it.
John Jackson: If it comes back, let us know.
Sam Gregory: I’m just looking at the context I work in. I think there’s a significant use of very structured news, and documentary, and misinformation campaigns. That is, you have to understand alongside social media. So if we looked at what people have described as the firehose of falsehood in Ukraine, there’s a very structured use of how to make use of structured documentary, alongside rumor, alongside fake footage. I think we have to look at it from the same ecosystem. So there’s like a dark mirror version of the ecosystem. I describe with eyewitnesses and media activists and professional creators that is the dark mirror of how it’s used in disinformation.
The other thing that occurs in our space is, kind of the dark mirror of eyewitness, which is perpetrator footage and there’s a lot of attention now about how we mobilize that and flip the valance on it, in a sense. How do we take all these videos that are shot by people who celebrate human rights violations and use them to tell narratives that challenge those or to use as evidence? I think there’s kind of that sort of dark mirror side in the space I’m looking at as well.
John Jackson: I think the other flip side to this, maybe too obvious to even mention, is the degree to which it sometimes maps on to left or right. But even if we are thinking about how viewers watch the self-same images with very different sort of receptors and thinking through the polysemic nature of all these multimodal formats—people can watch the exact same material and take it in a completely different direction that has nothing to do with the intention of the filmmaker at all. You have to introduce yourself, please.
Nour Halabi: So I-
John Jackson: You have to introduce yourself.
Nour Halabi: Yes. I forget sometimes because I live here. My name is Nour Halabi, I’m a Ph.D. student. I’ve really appreciated all of your publications. I had a question, obviously, on the White Helmets. But one of the questions I had, was the issue of risk not just being the media being at risk, but the people you are portraying are at risk themselves, and the very real implications of vilifying an organization, that is not even an organization, it’s a group of people who are saving lives and they would very much like to be reading a newspaper and doing something else. So, that part.
And also the fact that there seems to be an orchestrated campaign by, I’m going to call it the other side, to mobilize Russian television, to mobilize YouTube, to mobilize Twitter, to mobilize academics like Robert Fisk—to altogether create this orchestrated campaign towards creating a different narrative. Whereas, I don’t see on the one side of the spectrum a commitment to that, and I also see that it generates this type of relative—everything is “yes, okay, and not okay,” that we see, for example, with the white nationalist movement, where the president says, “There must be good folks in the room.” We allow this generosity to certain people that we don’t even allow to people who are saving lives. I think the question is, do you think there’s a possibility, beyond giving awards to documentaries, to mobilize something towards elucidating truth? Clearly, doing a documentary has not done enough with the White Helmets.
Simon Kilmurry: Yeah. It’s not done enough. I’m not an expert on all the tactics that the disinformation campaign has used, but clearly, those techniques have not been leveraged in support of what is a truthful story that was portrayed in Last Men in Aleppo. I do think there needs to be probably a greater sophistication around both preparing for the expectation that those kinds of campaigns—that’s what I was trying to get at. This is kind of a newer thing in the doc space and we’ve never really prepared filmmakers nor the networks that they work with, that there will be this kind of information campaign, and they need to be ready for it before it happens. And also, to be much more familiar with the kinds of techniques that might be deployed against them. But, I don’t have an easy answer for that. But, that also takes resources and this is a resource-challenged sector of the entertainment business.
John Caldwell: I love that idea, in a documentary proposal, that you would have now a required category for a submission to public television or anywhere else, of a potential disinformation campaign: your statement about how you are going to deal with that, in advance. It strikes me that that’s very important to kind of nail down, or at least think through, before you put the thing together. It’s a great idea.
Nour Halabi: Yet, that placed the burden of proof on the documentary filmmakers. It doesn’t support a system around them.
Simon Kilmurry: Absolutely. Just as John mentioned in his remarks, that documentary filmmakers, the burden has also been placed on them, not only to make films but to learn how to produce discussion guides and impact campaigns. There’s the incredible burden that has been placed on the shoulders of documentary filmmakers. In many ways, it’s unfair because they are not the experts on all these areas, so we do need more resources into the space to give them access to that kind of support. Which is one of the things that we’ve tried to do with some of the work we’re doing but that’s limited.
John Caldwell: If I could just add one thing to connect this kind of to what we were talking about earlier. This is not as strategic and as direct a response about the informed consent issue. One of the things that I’ve discovered in this preemptive adolescent film school that YouTube and Google are generating is: there’s lot of paid workshops and conferences on how to lawyer up at age 17. How to legally protect your IP, on and on; how to set up branding opportunities, contracts. Again, this is what I call the preemptive film school that’s taking place in a kind of corporate sphere. There’s nothing there about informed consent. It’s about protecting your own rights, because somebody will rip you off or reiterate your work somehow.
That’s one of the things that is so troubling about this to me. So one of the things, for the last ten years or so, I’ve done is for all these production students when they finally make it to a university, even if they many of them think of themselves as artists, I make them go through the graduate level workshops on informed consent protocols. Simply the IRB process, those kind of workshops which are kind of mind-blowing to somebody who imagines they are artists, and their mission in life is to take things from the world, take images. Those are usually really kind of important parts in these courses, where you come to grips with the ethical implications of what it is that you are doing with other people’s images.
I think it is a real issue and it’s getting taught out of them, in some ways, early on as they learn to become corporate in their adolescence in the preemptive film school.
John Jackson: Thanks, John. Jessa?
Jessa Lingel: Hi my name’s Jessa Lingel. I’m a teacher at the university here and my question goes onto that. I teach qualitative methods here and I teach ethnography here, both to graduates and undergraduates. And the IRB is not only overwhelming, bewildering to artists, but also to academics. So, what is this thing that’s supposed to guarantee this ethical project? I realized in trying to train, or advise, or share mistakes with students is that so much in academic work about ethics is about consent. It’s like, once you get consent, then you are golden—actually, the whole IRB is set up that way. In class, we sort of try and learn to have a concept of member checks in qualitative work, sort of checking in with the participants about your findings. Like giving them a way to sort of speak back to you. Of course, not all qualitative researchers are ethnography students.
My question is partly about, is there a counterpart to that documentary film and what does that look like, so that I can take that back to my students as I’m sort of trying to think how can we do the work that we do ethically and with our participants?
Bryce Renninger: Yes. There is often such a process but not always. It’s similar and I think we often encourage it in the circumstances of certain kinds of risks, like can you check with them to make sure that they—or just like we encourage certain kinds of—we are wary of it. If there is an effort to anonymize someone, certain things are not anonymizing that some people think are anonymizing. That’s not necessarily a member check. Yes, but then, there is always people who are uncomfortable seeing themselves on camera. You’re confronting all of these insecurities, too. I think when it’s done, it’s done with care, and knowing that people are going to be uncomfortable watching themselves on camera, and that’s going to be the first complaint, or it’s done for specific reasons.
Sam Gregory: Can I add something maybe from the scenario we’re in, which is—a lot of what I describe as documentary projects in my space are these curation projects, where you’re ethically trying to curate lots of volume of citizen footage and create a narrative out of an explanatory film? You have a real dilemma there, because you’re often not in contact with the original sources and you, in fact, may not want to be in contact with them. There’s a big discussion. We worked on a set of ethical guidelines about how you make decisions about, for example, if someone is trying to be anonymous and trying to obscure their identity, you are increasing the risk for them by trying to reach out to them, by trying to uncover who they are.
Our impulse to say we should talk to them and check. You have to check that impulse and actually, should we make sure we respect how they’ve tried to share and keep the protective layer, as we curate it or not decide to curate it. I think it’s actually one of the most challenging scenarios when you think about this active curation is, how do you do it in the absence of this ability to determine consent often in very fragmented pieces of media? That’s what we’ve been grappling with.
John Jackson: Yeah?
Ivan Sigal: Ivan Sigal, from Global Voices. I wanted to ask a little bit more about the disinformation question and the underlying assumptions behind what happens when you make a film about the White Helmets in Aleppo, for example. Unfortunately, the experiences that those guys had is well rooted in the history of Soviet disinformation campaigns. It goes back at least 60 years, that kind of behavior. We know very well what those practices are and we know that what we’re talking about is a clash of ethical frameworks. You’re making a film with a set of assumptions about how it’s going to be presented, how it’s going to be received, and the frame in which the issues that it’s talking about will be debated. What the Russians and the Syrians—in this particular case—are doing, they’re basically saying, “Your frame doesn’t have validity. I’m going to destroy your frame. I’m going to present an alternative ethical framework.” The Russians have been doing this in a whole lot of realms, whether it’s breaking contracts with joint ventures or poisoning people in other countries. We can talk about what all of that means, but what I want to ask today is what you do when you know that.
When you’re making a film which is a product and which has the intention of some kind of social change, goal, and you know already that the people that you’re contesting with, in an adversarial way are willing to treat your media object not as a valid form for debate, but as a target to be weaponized. Do you still play with the same—you have to change the ethical frame in which you’re thinking about or working how it’s been in the first place. I think some of the ideas that Sam is pointing to, about whether or not you’ve actually released the work or whether you actually make a film for the future market or not, or try to come up with some other way of talking about that subject when you know we already know that this kind of attack is going to happen and that work is going to be degraded in different ways.
There’s a whole range of possibilities. I’m wondering, have you had conversations about that? How do you think about that when you’re thinking about funding, or supporting, or presenting work when you know it’s going to be dropped into this space of huge ethical contestation?
Simon Kilmurry: I would hope our response is not to not make the work. I can see where you’re coming from. But, I know the director of this film and he’s actually now back in Syria, making another film in Douma, and putting himself at considerable jeopardy. He, as a filmmaker, exists in a space between the artist and journalist. He primarily identifies himself as an artist and using art as a tool of bearing witness, as a tool of social change. I don’t have an easy answer. I think that’s a really interesting question, which I need to give a lot of thought to. Clearly, the framing is something that we need to be thinking about. I would hope that we can continue in the making of this kind of work because I think in the end the truth will—that the disinformation campaign has been revealed for what it is, and yes, there will always be a certain percentage of the population that buys into the truth of that disinformation campaign. I don’t want to give up the films, because the Russians are going to fuck with them.
Bryce Renninger: And too, I think a lot of this disinformation almost assumes that people aren’t going to actually—going to watch the things, or tries to undercut the whole premise of what’s produced, before it’s produced to start at a place where illegal immigrants can exist, as a concept, might prevent you from taking seriously a film about undocumented people and their circumstances. I would assume that a lot of the disinformation around Last Men in Aleppo had to do with trying to just assume that people aren’t going to watch the film, which is about an incredible set of circumstances. Or a lot of what you were saying is irrelevant, is ridiculous, and is just betting that people won’t spend 90 minutes to understand a little bit more about what’s going on.
Sam Gregory: Ivan, can I just give one response to that, which is I think we can’t—
Ivan Sigal: I wasn’t suggesting the film doesn’t get made.
Simon Kilmurry: Got it, okay. Thank you.
Sam Gregory: Just one thought on that is, I think this is really hard to do for individual media items, because the attacks are not individual media items. Like, you’re overwhelmed by multichannel volume. Looking at a similar context, I think the media literacy you’re thinking about, kind of how we put—it’s unfortunately from the RAND Corporation. But, looking at Ukraine around these firehoses of falsehood and they talk about putting raincoats of truth, which is the—but the analogy is interesting because it’s like, how do you think about how to equip people to distinguish.
I think I want to link it to the deep fakes discussion, which has a lot of apocalyptic language around it that actually weighs how to respond to an increasing velocity of disinformation and fake information, which might include fake media. It probably isn’t disproving every single piece of media, in a kind of aggregate. It’s like, how do we think about ways to equip our populations to deal with it and the center that’s going to be influenced by these, not the two sides of the spectrum. One that’s already convinced and the other that’s the fiercely opposed. I’m not sure we can do it in an individual media item level.
John Jackson: Yeah. Right behind you. I’ll come to you next.
Caty Borum Chattoo: I’m Caty Borum Chattoo, I direct the Center for Media and Social Impact, producer and reporter—I just want to raise a couple of points that are things that we’re thinking about at the center, in our research. But also, to acknowledge to the room, for those of you who may not know our work, specifically. We come from a lens that really looks at civically engaged documentary that’s designed to engage with the civic society, engage in civil discourse, and social justice topics. I say all that because I want to start by saying that I think that we run into some tricky territory when we assume that humanitarian causes and justice causes in human rights abuses are neatly polarized into left and right.
That’s something we struggle with a lot in documentary film, particularly for those of us who believe in it as a form of civil discourse used for civil society and so on and so forth. One of the things we’re working on over the next year or so is starting to—I think we need better semantics. I think our semantics alone put us, as documentarians, as the documentary sector, at risk, because we assume there’s right and left, and there is propaganda on the far-left and propaganda on the far-right. That’s not the kind of storytelling we’re talking about. I just want to raise that and present my lens.
A couple of different things that I just want to raise and maybe have you all respond to. One is: economic models that go beyond just the sheer survival issues, right? The economic models are really tenuous for the kinds of documentaries that further civic discourse. On the one hand, we have this influx of capital coming from Netflix, which is an entertainment industry model, entertainment industry economics, putting more money into the documentary space over the last decade than I think documentary people have seen in a long time.
Then, on the other hand, the greatest source of funding for films that really are designed in a nonpartisan fashion to further civil discourse is ITVS, which is public broadcasting, which is threatened on a regular basis for its actual zero out capacity. So, that’s one thing, the economic model, but within a perspective of films that are designed to further civic discourse, not just entertainment.
The other piece is something that is an undercurrent of all this. But documentarians who work in this space don’t always call themselves journalists. I think that’s meaningful because this area of creative license and freedom wants to be protected by these makers. In fact, we have research that shows that that evidence is really what is helpful. That’s one piece, but the creativity opens filmmakers up for risk in a legal capacity because it becomes truth, legal defense, etc., etc..
The other issue that I just want to raise is something I’m starting to track a little bit. I just wanted to hear your thoughts about it. Related to the Netflix scene of this sector—Netflix, by the way, has been very good for social justice documentaries, a lot of money, all that. But when we think about how documentaries have been used within community settings, within justice settings, within civil society, there’s a long tail to these kinds of social justice docs that comes from physical preservation of the films. Once the digital rights expire from the models like Netflix, the entertainment economic model, and the rights are very tight. In a decade or so, we might have a challenge for the long tail use of these kinds of films, for this kind of civic dialogue over time. I see preservation issues coming pretty quickly, particularly as Netflix starts to gobble up the space and do what it did to Hollywood, which is to dismantle it. I don’t know if you all kept track of all the things. Let’s talk about all of them.
Simon Kilmurry: I don’t know if I can tackle all of them, but let me try a couple of them. There’s been this ongoing debate, filmmaker versus journalist, artist versus journalist. It’s an unresolvable one, but I actually think it’s kind of a false one in some ways, because you can be both a journalist and an artist. You can be working on a creative documentary that is grounded in fact-based journalistic storytelling. They’re not mutually exclusive. I think we have to encourage filmmakers, particularly when they’re taking on high-stakes stories, not to be afraid of identifying themselves as journalists because of some of the additional protections that may come along with the identity. It’s an ongoing debate in the field and I’m not sure how it’s going to get resolved. And Pat, in that report, I think captured it very well.
The economics of models in this field, as you all know, are tenuous. Just full disclosure, IDA partners with the Center for Media and Social Impact every two years to do a state of the field study. We first started doing it a couple of years ago, looking at the economic models in the field. They’re surprisingly tenuous in terms of how filmmakers are self-identifying as independent documentary filmmakers can actually make a living in this business.
Netflix has been gobbling up, but they’re also changing their model. They’re responsible primarily to the shareholders or this algorithm-driven model. They’re taking a lot of money that they had, that at one point they were using to acquire films, and focusing on the one percent of filmmakers who they recognize, that they’ll work with an ongoing basis and putting into Netflix originals and acquiring much less. In some ways, Netflix is becoming less of a golden egg for filmmakers than maybe it was a couple of years ago. I think that’s shifting and will continue to shift. Yeah, I’ll let other folks weigh in.
Bryce Renninger: You mentioned the conversation in industry between artists and journalists and how filmmakers should consider themselves, and that goes on every day in our offices when our filmmakers are forced to talk to our legal team, and our lawyer, and our researchers, where we have certain standards. It’s interesting because it’s usually totally fine, but it’s an unusual process or an uncomfortable process sometimes. Like, “What do you mean?” There’s often some discomfort about the idea of having their truth questioned, but easily gotten over and I think we understand that the truth is complicated. I really appreciated your reframing of the conversation around left and right politics and how we, as an organization, are trying to get to deeper understandings of issues. We have a film about the National Front in France coming out soon. It follows three National Front members, which I know is something that, in the US, we are overwhelmed with—profiles of Trump voters—but still, we thought that this approach was really exciting and a very compelling way to understand the growth of the National Front and other far-right organizations in Europe and elsewhere.
John Jackson: It’s been a long day. What we are going to do now we are going to change it up a little bit. I’m going to take three questions, all right? Three questions. Still, identify yourself in quick succession you all will all pay attention to what they are and try to, everyone doesn’t have to answer every question, but try to get to them. Maybe do that a couple times and then, maybe start to wrap up. Sound good? One because I missed you before, two, and three.
Judith Matloff: Judy Matloff, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. What’s becoming a standard in the journalism landscape is that when you know you are going to embark on an assignment, you can get possessed by it, and you make a contingency plan, and you plan backwards, what’s your worst case scenario, and you plan backwards. Is that taking place in the documentary industry as well? Because when I hear about this case, for instance, with the White Helmets, if the risk assessment had been done ahead of time, then they would be assigned a new place. Not that they could have fully stopped such an eventuality, but at least it would have been better. I’m just wondering is it a standard when you are taking on a film from a filmmaker, do you have this discussion with them?
John Jackson: Okay. Good question, one.
Nelson Ribeiro: I’m Nelson Ribeiro from the Catholic University of Lisbon, and I have just a very small comment—thank you for your talks—which is regarding a case that’s mentioned. The assassination of Marielle and her driver in Brazil. My comment is—just because I think that case really illustrates two main topics that we have been discussing the entire day, both misinformation and also how digital platforms are doing very little in this war against false information. Because after she was killed, there were dozens of fake news coming up on Facebook and also videos actually, with some footage that was made during her life on YouTube. The Brazilian courts ruled actually, that Facebook had 24 hours to take out that fake content and what Facebook did was that it replied that, “Well that’s very subjective what is fake and what is not.”
It just ended that the family had to go and pick each piece of content that was to be removed. This also made me think that—and you also talked about eyewitnesses—the fact that today there are so many visual fake content also on these platforms. It’s also a way of discrediting many eyewitnesses that come out and produce this footage, because you have these organized groups that they can easily try to associate that with fake content. So just wanted to bring that up.
John Jackson: Excellent, two. And Monroe, you’ll be three.
Monroe Price: Monroe Price. My question is—sorry it’s the last one—is the Foreign Agents Registration Act and the kind of movement to have labeling attributions of authorship and statements of propaganda, and this is becoming a matter of retaliation. Perhaps spread at this kind of requirement around the world.
John Jackson: Before you all answer, just know that wasn’t the last go round. We’re going to do three more but I want you to know, the fix is in. So I already know who the three are so don’t even raise your hands. And then, we’ll wrap up.
Sam Gregory: Can I actually pick out Nelson’s comment, which I think is really important? It’s a great case study of how material is recycled very quickly. A lot of this eyewitness content is not literally faked. It’s recycled content. I think it’s also really—and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it here—a lot of WITNESS’s work recently with other groups has been trying to focus attention on protection around media- makers in a context like we are right now. Because really, at the moment, you have an interesting sort of dynamic of attention from two sides. You have the mainstream media in Brazil that doesn’t have the best reputation for how it respects grassroots documentarians chasing for voices and in fact, recycling the words of people from two or three years ago, of grassroots media-makers.
Which may not be accurate now. It’s a very different situation so again, this context to how people recycle this footage and reuse it in ways that are deeply threatening, and it goes to the consent discussion before of how we reuse this. Also, the levels of threat to those grassroots media-makers, and they tend to fall under the radar of the way we support journalists and documentarians. Because they are not organized, they don’t have formal affiliations, so how do we think about the threats to those types of people in that context? It’s a really good illustration to me, of a lot of these problems of the eyewitness footage of the threats to these media-makers and how the system doesn’t very well support people who I would view as documentarians, but they don’t quite fit the way we would describe them in a broader context.
On the Foreign Agents Registration Act, we know that globally those types of acts are being used to shrink civil society and media makers are part of civil society. We see that everywhere we work, there are attempts to target groups who make media, and accuse them of using it as propaganda, and to use law against them as well as force.
Simon Kilmurry: To your question about the risk assessment and contingency planning. I have observed over the past 20 years, there’s a much greater awareness to the need for filmmakers to be doing that and there are more resources for them to access. I still don’t think it’s across the board. I still think there are some people who don’t think about that as seriously as they should. But, I think it’s becoming a much more standard practice within the field, we are thinking about this stuff. One thing which we, I think, we need to be doing more of is making things like insurance more affordable for filmmakers in that space. That’s going to be up to organizations like IDA or partners in the field who are bringing those companies to the table.
I’ve spoken with filmmakers like Katy Chevigny, who made The E-Team, who could barely afford an insurance package for that film which was following people from human rights often into dangerous situations. We have to look at also those systemic issues.
John Jackson: Okay. Okay, so what I didn’t tell you is that two of the three people who are going to give us the final questions don’t even know they’re chosen. It’d be Jonathan, Lisa, and then our convener, Barbie, will end with the final question, but all at once. As quickly as you—
Jonathan Gray: No pressure. I’ve got a question about documentary and parochialism. Is any one of the risks we haven’t brought up too much today, which is sort of endemic to all media. Since so much media is constructed in a national environment—to talk to that nation and really that nation alone—it feels like, since the advent of media, so much media is, like, in this country, it would be Americans talking to Americans about Americans. One of the things that I’ve always been impressed with is that documentary is by far the best at breaking out of that mode. News tries but it’s often, parachutes in, quick comment. Whereas documentary can actually give us a sense of the humanity of people in other countries. It seems like an important element. My question is just, first, what do other media genres have to learn from documentary?
It seems particularly—documentary is often made by public broadcasters or supported, so they should be more of the problem and yet they seem to be more of the solution. What is documentary doing differently and how is it structured? I’m also interested in moving forward things like Netflix. Do you see that representing a sort of creating even richer territory or is it going to close things down?
Lisa Henderson: Lisa Henderson from UMass. I think my questions are for Bryce and John.
They’re questions about students. I encountered Field of Vision first, with a student-made film called Concerned Student 1950, about African American student activists at the University of Missouri. Although the student filmmakers embedded in them weren’t all black, but they were also, I think, Missouri students. I was curious about Field of Vision’s assistance to and development of the student filmmakers. The related question to John is, I studied student filmmakers in the Pleistocene Era, a long time ago. They handle risk by recognizing that maybe one in ten of them would be in the film industry five years after film school, but they all believe they’d be the one in ten.
They couldn’t not do it because if you didn’t take on those odds, you couldn’t survive, but I’m curious about what these lawyered up 17-year-olds who are in the sort of YouTube scene on their way to film school, what languages they use to rationalize the risk and to handle what remains a likelihood, which is that a minority of them will continue to work, in the entertainment industry for which they are being trained.
Barbie Zelizer: Very briefly because I’m actually backing off of Jonathan Gray’s question. First of all, I want to say again, four fantastic presentations, I’m sorry it’s the end of the day. Somebody always gets stuck with this particular slot and I’m sorry if it is all you. I want to say that one thing we haven’t heard about at all is radio documentary. What has been certainly running through these conversations are very different forms of documentaries. Short, very short, very long, and of course, audio. I’m just wondering, in conjunction with the very important question that Jonathan raised, which is what does documentary have to teach these other modes of media practice? I guess I want to ask, what is the kind of documentary that we need to be aspiring to in this particular political climate? Six seconds or less.
Simon Kilmurry: Let me start with Jonathan’s question about the international component. I’m not an academic so I don’t study the field formally, so I can only speak from my own experience. I would celebrate international documentaries when I was producing POV and for me, it was incredibly exciting when we had a film about Sudan from a Sudanese filmmaker. Because it’s so rare to get those perspectives from people who are—who lived the experience. I’m just curious about that. I had the privilege of sitting in that seat to make those decisions. Then, I would get complaints from these stations that I had far too many subtitle films on these series. But, that was my prerogative as the executive producer.
I don’t know how Netflix and others are going to really engage this. Certainly, they are going after global subscription audiences so they will need some content that is from and reflects those communities. I don’t know that they have that kind of commitment, necessarily, to the kinds of films which I was interested in when I was producing POV. Radio documentaries, I think, is an incredibly interesting space, particularly podcasts. I’m on the Peabody board, as is like half the room in here, and through that process I’ve gotten exposed to an incredible range of radio documentaries, and it’s gotten me thinking, as someone who’s spent his career in visual documentaries, about the relationship between those kinds of storytelling firms, and that’s actually going to be another thing that we are going to explore at our conference.
I don’t know. We actually are an editorial partner on a really interesting podcast called The Document, which comes out at KCRW, hosted by Matt Holzman, which actually takes traditional documentaries, visual documentaries, cinematic ones, and goes behind the scenes into the kind of creative approach of each of those films. He calls that a mashup between radio and documentary film. I think there’s a really interesting relationship between audio storytelling and visual storytelling. Yeah, it’s an exciting space and we’ll see what comes out of it.
Sam Gregory: To your question, Barbie, and I realize I’m a little bit of an outlier on this panel, but I think that learning from different forms is really interesting, so I would give two examples there. When you look at live-streaming, I think that’s very closely related to radio and how we think about radio as a form and it’s a form that is very prevalent in my space.
Then, when I showed those eyewitness tapes, I actually think that you are really trying to boil down the how to tell a short story film, narrate factual based narrative to the purest essentials. We do it in a very kind of, like, “here are seven things to remember,” but a lot of that comes out, obviously, of the documentary tradition, which is where myself and others come from in a lot of this space.
I do think there’s a lot of relationships here, in my context, often about the kind of work they are trying to condense down to the simplest version, yeah.
John Caldwell: If I could just take a shot at the question about rationales that aspirants use to survive. Even though one in ten may make it, what I think is happening is, in communication research a long time ago, there was a distinction made between administrative research done for outside funders and critical or independent research.
What looks like is happening to me at this kind of YouTube maker space is a kind of administrative creative production is happening. Where you learn how to engage with clients with sponsors, you learn how to set up co- branding deals, and things like this. I’ve got another paper where I outline how all of these new, young filmmaker auteurs actually are pre-trained in television broadcasting, advertising, and marketing. They have to know their analytics, they have to be aware of how they’re being seen by the AI robots.
They develop creative strategies in order to trigger these things and they are sold counter-AI software to reiterate their programs over and over again. It’s an audience-focused, market-focused aesthetic, that’s being taught in this preemptive film school that I was talking about. I remember the days you’re talking about. You would never talk about advertising or money in film schools 20 or 30 years ago, because you were making art, and you were going to get discovered because you were very good at it—you were visionary. The ones I have interviewed about this will say, “Well, I can always go back to the deals I had at Target or the meet and greets that are set up by multichannel network and things like this.”
Merchandising and marketing and cross-promotion are now part of the aesthetics of maker creative production, so I refer to that as administrative production now. It’s not the kind of video art that it may have been in the old days. It’s that kind of corporatization of the art act, early on, that may give some of this people a false confidence that there is a future there.
Bryce Renninger: My responses to Jonathan are similar. We accept pitches from anyone who’s willing to send us something, and we are happy to have conversations with anyone, and there just needs to be something that excites us about it and that gives us confidence that someone can make something exciting. We’ve worked with a lot of first time filmmakers who had been photographing in a certain space or photographing in their community. We helped facilitate turning their photographs into films. Actually, I noticed that most of these films are made by teams, so it made me think of like how risky films sometimes need more people to kind of mitigate the risk or something. The Town I Live In, about LA, and Duterte’s Hell both had members of the partnership that could have been subjects, or were subjects.
All the filmmakers and our team worked hard to make sure that some of what you were talking about, some of this deeper humanity, was able to come out through these partnerships. The filmmakers who made Concerned Student 195O, which is something that we’re super excited about and we think that everyone involved with that film did a great job, they were at the Murray Center—they are all students of the Murray Center for documentary journalism or something, which Simon mentioned earlier. They’ve worked with IDA on the—
Simon Kilmurry: The Mapping the Documented Journalism Landscape Resource.
Bryce Renninger: Yeah, and they had a visitor, during the beginnings of the Concerned Student 195O protests, who questioned the students saying, “Why aren’t you working with your community to document what’s going on in your community?” Being an instructor of media-making sometimes myself, I find that that’s often the problem: people forget that they are potential makers. They had a very excited and supportive mentor in their professor, Robert Green, who was incredibly supportive of their vision. We helped, we were in constant conversation with them about crafting the film and they got to premiere it during the True/False Film Fest, which is also in Columbia, Missouri, for like 2000 seats. The whole community was there to see it and it was an incredible experience for them.
John Jackson: Thank you. On that note, two things. One, I want to remind you it’s been a long day, I know. There’s food, there’s fellowship, there’s drink, there’s fun upstairs, immediately after this event. Don’t leave, hang out a little bit with us, and please join me in thanking John, Bryce, Simon, and Sam for their contribution. Thank you very much.
Thank you, guys.