Now/Then: Connecting today’s headlines with yesterday’s documentaries

Heat Related Deaths Corrections

By Lewam Dejen

Angola, USA

A few weeks ago, President Obama pardoned 46 low-level drug offenders. The next day, he visited the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s annual conference in Philadelphia to proclaim his commitment to prison reform in the last stretch of his presidency. Although this issue may feel recent to many Americans, it has afflicted our country for decades. Seventeen years ago, the documentary film The Farm: Angola, USA brought unprecedented insight into mass incarceration and its disproportionate effects on black Americans.

“I’ve been raised here,” Eugene Tannehill Jr. says matter-of-factly. By “here,” he’s referring to the former plantation he lives on, where his food is monitored, hard labor profited from, life threatened frequently, and individuality stripped. This place, which he is forced to call home, is the largest prison in the United States, known colloquially as “Angola.” (Its informal name derives from the Angolan slaves that previously worked the land.)

“It was October 4th, 1959… I must have been 24 years old then,” Mr. Tannehill says of the day of his sentencing. At the time of this interview, he had lived in Angola for 38 years. Tannehill is a black man– one of many, as Angola had a 77% black demographic (at the time of this film’s release). The prison also has an 80% death rate within the prison. Few who enter leave alive.

In a chilling scene, the film introduces Vincent Allen Simmons, who is African-American. Simmons brings his case to the parole board for appeal–his first hearing in 20 years at Angola. He was charged with the rape of two white girls and sentenced to 100 years. Simmons sits tall and broad-chested on one side of the table as he supplies the three-man board with evidence challenging his guilty verdict (evidence for which he petitioned several U.S. courts a dozen times, after which they finally provided documents allegedly “lost” previously). Simmons provides the board medical evidence that suggests both sexual assaults never occurred (made stronger by the complete lack of physical evidence that sentenced him), testimonies from the two women who said they could not identify the rapist because “all blacks look alike”, and a photograph of Simmons as the only man in the lineup with handcuffs on.  This discussion of unfair sentencing did not take into account the prevailing anti-black racism in 1970’s Louisiana.

After Mr. Simmons steps out of the room and the door shuts, the camera pans to the three men and within seconds, all three board members claim defiantly that Simmons is guilty–with nearly zero explanation or discussion of the presented evidence. “He did it… Let’s get this thing over with” one says, rushing to have the other two sign the decision of dismissal.

The Farm opened viewers eyes to the U.S.’s vastly flawed criminal justice system in 1998, as did several other documentary films, news specials, and books written nearly a generation ago. Why has it taken until now for a U.S. President and Congressional body to address the issue? Why is it that President Obama is the very first to visit a federal prison, although mass incarceration began plaguing our country in the 1980’s?

Towards the beginning of the film, singing inmates fill viewers’ ears with a hymn as they bury a fellow inmate:

…Praise the Lord, I’m free. No longer bound, no more chains all in me. Soul is resting, and it’s just another blessing. Praise the Lord, hallelujah I’m free…

Lewam Dejen

100Reporters intern and Stanford University student

An Oscar under review

Cinema Europa, Lisboa, Portugal

By Drew Williams

Technology and tradition collide, and a forward-thinking documentary industry may have to reconsider its Oscar addiction following a recently announced New York Times decision.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences currently requires a review from either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times to qualify a documentary feature film for award consideration. But the New York Times shifted its policy of reviewing every theatrically released film in New York City, Variety reported May 20. It is a move that could particularly target independent documentary films — which stand at an existential crossroads regarding style, distribution, and awards recognition.

The Academy will have its annual meeting this month to discuss any potential rule change, while the Los Angeles Times will have to decide whether to copy its New York counterpart. “I can’t imagine [it] not following suit,” said Nina Gilden Seavey, director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University.

The new film review policy went into effect in February, but did not become public until Variety obtained a courtesy email sent to publicists whose films will not receive a review, said A.O. Scott, the Times’ chief film critic, in an interview with IndieWire. “The number of New York releases has continued to grow each year, driven in part by our policy of reviewing everything,” Scott said, adding that financial considerations made that course untenable.

The Academy’s decision to “have an independent publication be the arbiter for the qualification of a major national award” was a controversial one even before this development, Seavey said.

Which films deserve a newspaper review and which films deserve an Oscar consideration are ostensibly separate arguments in the modern age of media.

And in worthiness for Academy and critic alike, a nonfiction film’s release platform — theatrical, television, video-on-demand, or digital streaming — looms almost as large as its quality.

“If a film is released by a distributor, it will get reviewed. I don’t think anybody is questioning that,” Seavey said. “What it leaves in sort of this no-man’s-land are these films that are either self-distributed or four-walled.”

Four-walling refers to the practice of renting out a theater to release one’s own film, often for the publicity garnered from a Times review — even the worst critique contains a pull quote — or, by extension, an Oscar consideration.

As Scott noted, New York City and the Times increasingly provided a haven for vanity projects, and some in the industry expect that the majority of films newly excluded from the Times will be unlikely to succeed or win awards in the first place.

But four-walling has not been limited to low-budget films looking for exposure. “This is really a stab at HBO in particular, who has been four-walling their films and getting reviews for them,” Seavey said.

Television-network backed films that do well on the festival circuit may open theatrically in New York just for the qualification — a scenario that has produced winners in the past and could produce controversy in the future, said A.J. Schnack founder of the Cinema Eye Honors and director of “Kurt Cobain: About a Son”.

“Citizenfour” — winner of the 2015 Oscar for documentary feature — was not four-walled, peaking at 105 theaters nationwide, but did premiere on HBO the night after its Oscar win. Dividing its domestic box office earnings by the average ticket price in 2015, only roughly 345,000 of HBO’s 28 million subscribers would have had to watch to match the theatrical audience.

The 2008 Oscar winner “Taxi to the Dark Side” made only $274,661 in theaters domestically, before being aired on BBC and HBO. “The film won the Academy Award but … it wasn’t a traditional, and I would argue wasn’t a legitimate, theatrical release,” Seavey said.

Documentary releases that utilize multiple release platforms — often emphasizing digital over theatrical — are less akin to industry predators than cinematic Darwinists, adapting to survive in a competitive field.

“How do most people see documentaries? They see them on TV… they see them on Netflix, they see them on iTunes, they see them streaming,” Seavey said.

The initial release loses financially, but wins a slew of high-profile publications able to deliver the ultimate goal: “Five great things to try to sell the film to Netflix,” Schnack said. New York theaters are often just a pawn in a documentary’s PR press game.

“Documentaries in general — a lot of these films don’t merit the cinematic experience,” Seavey said, adding, “if you look at Citizenfour, I don’t think anyone would argue that it was a cinematographically beautiful film — it just happened to be a thriller.”

Even as films take various shapes and sizes, the Oscars are undeniably about the cinematic experience. And therein lies the disconnect: a documentary industry simultaneously focused on the frontier of distribution technology and the most old-school of celebratory circles.

The feature documentary Oscar “has an amazing heritage and tradition — it’s an award that was won by Walt Disney and Jacques Cousteau,” Schnack said. “It’s seen as one of the highest profile platforms that you can have as a documentary filmmaker.”

The exaggerated value some afford the award can result in tunnel vision, and inadvertently constrain the creativity of documentary films.. “There’s two Oscars given to documentary every year. The idea that somehow that defines the form is slightly terrifying, but in some ways it does,” Seavey said.

Filmmakers driven by Academy Award ambitions walk a tightrope of voter expectations from the moment the concept takes life. “If you look at most Oscar contenders, they tend to be pretty mild films in terms of their controversy,” she said, adding that older members of the Academy predominate the voters who actually watch most of films nominated.

Realistically, the Gotham Awards, Director’s Guild of America, Spirit Awards, International Documentary Association, Emmy Awards and Peabody Awards are equally important avenues of documentary recognition, Seavey said.

The Academy and the Los Angeles Times will likely make their decisions soon. But for the documentary industry, these structural decisions are a staple of its old territory, not the frontier it develops — a frontier of peer recognition, online views and online reviews, and theatrical releases of the home theater variety.

The decisions that matter lie with individual critics: how they use their newfound freedom to bridge physical and cyber, and whether they share Scott’s hope for review change: “As digital platforms and non-theatrical release options occupy more and more of the landscape, we’ll be better able to figure out how to address them.”

Photo credit

IFF Interview: Triple Divide

A reporter in Potter County, Pennsylvania, Melissa Troutman, shared her ongoing investigation of fracking in the area with budding documentarian Joshua Pribanic in April 2011. Roughly two years later, their film Triple Divide not only helped change the public perception of fracking, but became the lens for the duo to examine power, politics, regulation, and much else in Pennsylvania. The two formed Public Herald, a nonprofit investigative news organization that covers a single issue, fracking, in depth. Public Herald’s work led Jon Stewart to tackle fracking on The Daily Show, in a segment that Pribanic and Troutman helped create.

100Reporters spoke with Pribanic and Troutman about Triple Divide’s success and upcoming projects based off that model.

100Reporters: When was the movie released?

Joshua Pribanic: It was released in the spring of 2013. We did a screening at an old theater in Potter County, near where we filmed. It is actually a very small county … but people came from all over the state — we ended up having more than 200 people standing.

We got some celebrity assistance. Mark Ruffalo — who of course has been a really strong anti-fracking advocate — did a co-narration with Melissa. Ruffalo has been really helpful with distributing it and talking to people about it.

100R: Tell me how you use film in terms of your day-to-day investigative reporting. Is that where your most important stuff is — on film?

Melissa Troutman: Most of our work is on film. That might be due to the nature of what we are covering. Josh and I are the only investigative news team exclusively covering fracking in the Northeast part of the Pennsylvania. So we are not only gathering huge amounts of data, but we are also telling really intimate stories. Film is the perfect way, and really the only way, to show what people are actually experiencing.

100R: I don’t know if you face the same issues as the print-based news outlets do — for us the big issue is, where do the stories appear, who sees them?

JP: Turning the investigations into a DVD, as opposed to making them in print or strictly have them online, has extended our reach. People are able to share the DVD in their community, they buy the DVD to use in their libraries, other people are buying 100 DVDs just to distribute at meetings, and that type of thing. That’s far greater and far stronger than the majority of the big newspapers you see.

100R: You guys are ahead of the curve in terms of identifying your space in two respects. One vertical, which is geographically rooted (in) specific areas of interest for people who really care passionately — especially if it is their house, where they are getting bad drinking water. But also, creating new ways to tell stories that nobody has been trying. You’ve taken away the constraints of . . . the “traditional mode.”

JP: When I was getting ready to figure out how do I want to be part of the publishing world, it became very clear that documentaries, especially documentaries about big corporations, are an important topic about corporate control in America. That fantastic documentary done by Jen Abbott (The Corporation) disseminated a very difficult issue. And I remember watching it and thinking this is the best way to be telling stories at this time.

I was in Ohio at that time and people reached out to me about the issue of fuel gas in Pennsylvania. I came to see it and asked to meet a local reporter, who happened to be Melissa, and she had an amazing network of sources, and extremely good writing style, and was really hungry to tell more stories. We were able to start a film from there.

100R: When you were making this film, were there certain moments when you looked into it and said: “Wow, this is something I would never have captured on paper?”

MT: Our first interview for the film was with a landowner whose neighbor had put a fracking site right on the property. It was a site 700 feet from Jim Parkins’ back door and there is no way to convey on paper how that sounded, what it smelled like, what it looked like at night. You can take a photo but … to hear the sound and Jim’s voice as he’s describing what it’s like — it is something words just can’t capture.

100Reporters: Once you make the big fracking documentary for Pennsylvania, what do you do for Act 2 if you are very focused on (fracking) as an issue?

JP: We recognize that when we were covering fracking we were also covering health, we were covering business. So what ended up happening with Public Herald is we stripped down the idea of the traditional way of doing a business section, an economy section, health section, environmental section. Now we are just focusing on how the threads of our stories are connecting and where that is taking us to try to publish in a different place. So the next project we are working on that is connected to Triple Divide is called Invisible Hand. What that showcases is how the public is handling the external costs from the free market within a democracy, and what that looks like on the community level. We are not simply filming an issue that is strictly fracking. We are filming an issue of survival democracy, corporate rights versus personal rights; we are filming the issue of transparency, of freedom of the press.

100R: It seems like fracking is the way in for you — what you are seeing becomes a window into the erosion of democracy around corporate interest, which is involved with race and income inequality, and is becoming the story of our times.

JP: I think that’s what we are witnessing. We’re trying to recognize that and showcase it in the new work we are doing. Journalism has gotten a lot simpler in some ways. The way you tell stories, it’s more topical; we’ve seen that audiences have been open to sticking with stories if they are parts of series, especially film series.

MT: One of the problems I was running into as a newspaper reporter, I was expected to write a story and move on. I love right now I get to stay with a story still if it is continuing. We published the film, and we never stopped — more information, more craziness has surfaced. It is transitioning into this bigger picture, which is the Invisible Hand, which also covers water privatization, among other things.