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Increased risks for filmmakers and sources in documentaries' Golden Age

By Sara Rafsky/CPJ Americas Program Research Associate on July 17, 2015 1:27 PM ET

Joshua Oppenheimer travelled to New York for today's premiere of his documentary "The Look of Silence," but one place he won't travel is Indonesia, where he says his work on this and an earlier film puts him at risk. Earlier this week, Laura Poitras, the Academy Award-winning director of the documentary CITIZENFOUR, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government seeking information related to border interrogations to which she was subjected between 2006 and 2012. These two cases represent the increased and varied risks facing filmmakers and their sources in what many critics have dubbed the Golden Age of documentary film.

Cheaper and more accessible filmmaking technologies, the emergence of new distribution platforms and funding sources, and the rising popularity of the genre with viewers have combined to create an ever-richer offering of nonfiction films over the past 15 years. Filling the void created by dwindling print journalism budgets, many of these films take the form of cinematic long-read investigative reporting. As they take on these journalistic functions, documentary filmmakers should adopt the model of the press freedom community to protect themselves and their sources from threats both old and new.

CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras's intimate 2014 portrait of the backstory behind the publication of the Edward Snowden-leaked National Security Agency files, is the most prominent example of high-risk documentary filmmaking in recent years. But the reactions by authorities to her work came earlier, in the years mentioned in Monday's lawsuit, when Poitras was working on two previous films about U.S. national security policies in post-9/11 America and says she was interrogated and searched approximately 40 times at the U.S. border without any official explanation. "After the first year of being detained every time I traveled, I became much more savvy," Poitras told me in October. "I [knew it]... would threaten my ability to do my work and so I started taking measures to protect myself and my sources." One of these measures was moving to Berlin in 2012 as part of a promise she had made to her sources to edit her film outside of the U.S.

Fearing subpoenas, surveillance, or worse, Poitras and her journalist colleague Glenn Greenwald avoided travelling to the U.S. for months after the first story based on the Snowden files was published and continue to use the most sophisticated digital protection methods. In a bizarre twist, a retired naval officer in Kansas, Horace Edwards, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the American people in December against the entire team behind CITIZENFOUR, alleging they had aided the publication of classified information, according to news reports. Edwards dropped the suit in April.

For "The Look of Silence," a companion piece to his Oscar-nominated 2013 film "The Act of Killing," Oppenheimer looks at the victims and perpetrators of the government-sponsored mass killings in 1960s Indonesia. While Oppenheimer's narrative techniques are more cinematic and genre-blending than many other journalistic films, both documentaries delve into highly sensitive issues rarely discussed in the country, angering Indonesian officials and putting the safety of the film's subjects and makers at serious risk.

Oppenheimer and his crew, who filmed the footage for both films before the "The Act of Killing" was released, were constantly taking stock of the danger in an evolving situation, and tried to "envision the next four steps ahead. How do we anticipate an escape route, both literal and metaphorical, if things go badly?" he told me in an interview on Thursday. Precautions were taken during filming such as using encryption when emailing the crew in Indonesia, making copies of all footage and distributing them to three locations, and keeping tabs on whether word was spreading between some of the powerful men interviewed in the film as to the substance of the project. Ultimately, the principal subject of the film was moved with his family to an undisclosed location in Indonesia; most of the local crew members appear in the film credits as "anonymous" to protect their identities; and Oppenheimer says he has been counselled by human rights organizations that it is not safe for him to return to the country.

Other high-profile cinematic exposés have faced their own backlash of a different nature. The week before Alex Gibney's critical take on the Church of Scientology, "Going Clear," premiered at the Sundance Film festival in January, church officials took out a full page ad in The New York Times to attack the film. Referencing the famously discredited Rolling Stone article about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, it asked: "Is Alex Gibney's upcoming HBO 'documentary' a Rolling Stone/UVA Redux?"


The filmmakers behind the HBO documentary miniseries "The Jinx" were accused by some critics of compromising journalistic principles by misleading viewers regarding the chronology of key events in the film and of letting an alleged murderer remain free until the March finale, in order to avoid spoiling their bombshell ending about the alleged crimes of real-estate scion Robert Durst. In interviews, director Andrew Jarecki was vague about the exact sequence of events, but told The New York Times, "We provided the relevant evidence to law enforcement some months ago, and it's been in their court." And whereas previous filmmakers have fought to quash subpoenas for the use of their outtakes in civil and criminal investigations implicating their subjects, Jarecki suggested to reporters that his footage should be admissible in court in a future murder trial and cancelled media appearances so as not to taint future testimony.

While these cases represent the highest level of the traditional production scale, the makeup of the documentary film community has undergone the same dramatic shifts that the press has experienced in recent years. Boundaries between reporting, filmmaking, and advocacy work have blurred, challenging the definition of who is a documentarian and broadening the community. The disappearance more than two years ago of Osama al-Habaly--both a protagonist and cameraman for the award-winning documentary "Return to Homs"--and the work of the anonymous filmmaking group Abounaddara Collective in Syria exemplify the necessary and risky role citizen filmmakers now play in conflict zones.

As disparate as the documentary community and as diverse as the threats they face, these groups could greatly benefit from joining together for their own safety to outline best practices and heighten awareness about possible risks for them and their sources, as press freedom groups have long sought to do. CPJ has defended directors whose investigative work has gotten them in trouble, whether they face censorship, legal threats, surveillance, or brutal reprisals. But the nature of filmmaking --from the number of people involved to the immersive nature of the reporting--can involve hazards that differ from those of the journalism world.

"The challenge as a nonfiction filmmaker ... [whose process] is so immersive and intimate is that a lot of best practices don't really fit the model," Oppenheimer told me. "How to get in and out of a country multiple times over the long term, how to keep a large crew safe... there is no one size fit all approach ... if we get into trouble."

Industry documentary groups like the International Documentary Association and local unions have admirably sounded the alarm when their colleagues have been endangered, but the community has no dedicated group to turn to for its defense. All parties--whether journalists, filmmakers, or advocates--should take responsibility to protect vulnerable sources and recognize the risks, online and off. Otherwise, how they define themselves and on what platform they tell the story will matter little.


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