Investigative Film Festival & Symposium

With thousands of film festivals scattered throughout the world, the immediate question becomes, “Do we need yet another entry into a already overcrowded festival landscape?”  After attending the inaugural 3-day “Double Exposure-Investigative Film Festival & Symposium” held in the nation’s capital September 30-October 2, my answer is a resounding YES!  Launched by the news organization 100Reporters and with The John D. and  Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as the founding sponsor, this intriguing premise by the nation’s first investigative film festival was delivered in spades and then some.

100Reporters is described as a nonprofit investigative news organization that works with journalists in the U.S. and around the world to bring investigative reporting to a global audience.  To this end, the organization has presented narrative and documentary features supplemented with compelling symposiums that reflect these goals.  Their executive editor, Diana Jean Schemo, founded the festival and brought on board the previous long-time and extremely competent AFI Docs (formerly AFI Silverdocs) director, Sky Sitney to serve as Associate Director.  As stated by Ms Sitney,“There’s been an avalanche of creative work that is straddling the lines between traditional filmmaking and investigative journalism.  No other event in the nation’s capital is devoted exclusively to creating a space where journalists and filmmakers can interact and engage in an exchange of ideas, resources, and best practices.”

The  films and symposiums were presented within easy walking distance in downtown D.C. at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Newseum, and Wolly Mammoth Theater.  The 14 symposiums conducted over two days included a multitude of over 60 prominent personalities including media experts, journalists, filmmakers, and principal players covering such topics as “A Case of Identity”, “Access and Advocacy”, “Encryption Workshop”, “Safety on the Frontlines”, “From Print to Screen”, “C#ns*rshi!p by Proxy”, “Dangerous Docs:  A Report”, and “Storytelling on the Cutting Edge”.  Another featured a conversation with one of cinema’s premiere documentarians, Academy and Emmy Award winner Alex Gibney whose investigative works ranged from sports deceptions (Lance Armstrong) to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to the inner workings of The Church of Scientology.

However, the highlight of the three days was a morning screening of director Johanna Hamilton’s superb documentary 1971.  The riveting film, which was released earlier this year and is currently available on iTunes, recounts how a small group of average citizens on March 8, 1971 broke into a small auxiliary FBI office in Media Pennsylvania and  proceeded to steal all of the files.  When they discovered covert illegal surveillance operations outlined in detail in the documents, they anonymously released the information to prominent media outlets to share with the world.  Their actions resulted in the first Congressional investigations of U.S. intelligence agencies and forever changed the culture in which these organizations surreptitiously operated.  For 43 years, the participants, which included parents, teachers, and ordinary citizens, remained unknown – until now.  Their story is told by Hamilton using archival footage, interviews with the participants and reenactments which detail an operation by folks who risked everything in order to arrive at the truth.

Supplementing the film was an engrossing afternoon symposium entitled “Crossing Boundaries, Then and Now:  A Case Study of 1971 Featuring Activist of ‘The Burglary” and Edward Snowden” which included these panelists:  The filmaker; the attorney representing the eight burglars, David Kairys; Betty Medsger the Washington Post reporter who received copies of the damning files from the burglars and who later wrote in 2014 “The Burglary” on which the film was based; burglars Bonnie and John Raines and Keith Forsyth; and appearing via Skype former CIA employee Edward Snowden currently exiled in Russia who in 2013 leaked classified NSA surveillance information that parallels the ideals and exploits described in 1971.

Here’s hoping future Investigative festivals can be expanded into the weekend so that even  more patrons will have ample opportunity to experience and savor this fascinating and significant festival.  However, the bar has been set extremely high by the events experienced over these three days in D.C.

BELOW ARE REVIEWS, IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER, OF THE SEVEN FEATURES PRESENTED AT THE 3-DAY FESTIVAL

(1)  (T)error  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 93 minutes)

9/11 has ushered in a new era and raised awareness of terrorism.  A heightened level of government paranoia has revealed itself in FBI programs designed to flesh out potential terrorists – even when such threats are sketchy at best.  Saeed “Shariff” Torres is a  63-year-old Muslim, former Black Panther, and ex-con. For over 20 years he has been an untrained paid FBI informant who now wishes to retire and open a bakery.  When he informed one of the filmmakers, a Harlem neighbor, that he was an informant, Torres agreed to have them film while he entraps a Pittsburgh target whom the FBI suspects of being a Taliban sympathizer.  The catch is that Torres never informs his superiors that a documentary was being filmed.  An extra layer of travesty is added when directors Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe begin interviewing the, at first, unsuspecting target and before long we realize that this Pittsburgh native has no intention at all of terrorizing anyone.  This unprecedented documentary is equally humorous while watching the bumbling efforts of Torres and terrifying as we witness first-hand the trampling of the First Amendment rights of innocent citizens, and is certain to linger in your mind and consciousness after its conclusion.  (T)error, which won The Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance and The Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award at this years Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, opened in limited release on October 7.

(2)  Cartel Land  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 100 minutes)

Winner, and richly deserving, of Sundance’s Directing Award and Special Jury Award for Cinematography in the U.S. Documentary competition, director Matthew Heineman examines  the war against the Mexican drug cartel by focusing, not on two goverments’ efforts on the war on drugs, but on two vigilante groups operating from opposite sides of the border.  By taking matters into their own hands, each is trying to accomplish what the Mexican and U.S government have failed to do.  Dr. Jose Mireles (“El Doctor”) has established the Autodefensas in his home in Michoacan and, as a result, has become a national hero.  We follow his efforts to rid the citizens of the ultra violent Knights Templar cartel while clearly risking his livelihood and life in the process.  In Arizona’s Altar Valley, otherwise known as “Cocaine Alley”, Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a small paramilitary group (The Arizona Border Recon) who try and prevent illegals and drug traffickers from entering the U.S. along a 52-mile desert stretch.  Heineman gets extraordinary access to both groups (his opening shot of cartel cooks preparing meth for sale in the U.S. is amazing in itself).  The filmmaker cuts back and forth between the two groups with the Mexican story the more interesting (at one point Heineman films while in the middle of a gun battle).  Although vigilantism has generally been given a bad connotation, observing the activities and gruesome murders of the cartel will have you rooting for both individuals in their brave and thankless efforts to eradicate the prevailing evil around them.  Cartel Land began its limited release on July 3.

(3)  Deep Web  (*** out of 4 – 86 minutes)

Director Alex Winter’s documentary raises many more questions than it answers in this otherwise compelling exposé on the Deep Web, aka The Dark Net – the marketplace of the Internet untouched by search engines.  In particular, Winter concentrates on Silk Road which was an Internet black market drug clearing house that anonymously hid buyers and sellers and operated from 2011-2013.  After an introductory background explanation on the inner workings of the Deep Web, the film shifts specifically to Silk Road’s alleged mastermind and administrator: 32-year-old Ross Ulbricht, who was arrested in 2013 and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment last May.  What isn’t made clear, as the film intimately details Ulbricht’s family and lawyers efforts to exonerate Ross, are the legal and ethical boundaries the government crossed in bringing about this conviction.  Winter doesn’t attempt to hide his subjectivity and that is my main problem with the doc.  However, there is no denying that this work, in conjunction with other noted digital age-related films such as,  The Internet’s Own Boy:  The Story of Aaron Swartz and the Academy Award winning Citizen Four, continue to raise issues that are sure to be questioned and debated long after the credits roll.  Keanu Reeves (who worked with the director in the Bill and Ted franchise) supplies competent narration for the EPIX-produced documentary that is currently available on Apple iTunes.

(4)  Drone  (**1/2 out of 4 – 80 minutes)                                                                              Here is a somewhat imbalanced report on drone use in warfare by the US military and CIA.  Swedish director Tonje Hessen Schei presents somewhat slated investigative reporting on the effects the use of drones and the ways it is changing how conflicts are waged by the US.   Schei relates the history of its creation (originally drones were manufactured to aid fishermen locate tuna) continuing to its use in the military-industrial complex shortly after 9/11.  Included are interviews, archival footage and simulations to pound home her point that drone operation, by recruited video game enthusiasts, kill innocents thousands of miles from their joysticks.  Part of the focus is on the Waziristan region of Pakistan where drone strikes have claimed the lives of innocent citizens as US operators attempt to eliminate terrorists in the region.  So fearful are its residents of future attacks, they have placed huge posters of children on rooftops to alert drone operators thousands of miles away to drop their bombs elsewhere.  Pakistani lawsuits against the U.S. are pending (good luck with that!).  In the US, a damaged former drone operator, Brandon Bryant, now campaigns against the techniques.  The fact that his actions have killed over 1,600 people is sobering when considering the US’s deadliest sniper Chris Kyle (the subject of  last year’s film Sniper) killed about 150 or so.  The doc is so one-sided that I found myself wanting information about drone warfare employed by other countries.  Also, I was bothered by her under-reporting of other issues raised.  In the end, although competently filmed, the sensationalized documentary left me as cold as its message.                                                                            

(5)  Spotlight  (**** out of 4 – 127 minutes)  \                                                                  The opening night film, and the only narrative presented at the festival, is another gem from writer/director Tom McCarthy (writer/director of 2003’s terrific independent film  The Station Agent  and screenwriter for the animated Up from 2009).  With a riveting screenplay (co-written with Josh Singer) and an excellent ensemble cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy and Stanley Tucci, this was the perfect film to kick-off and emphasize the focus and goals for an investigative film festival.  Just months after 9/11, another blockbuster revelation literally grabbed the headlines that first appeared in The Boston Globe on January 2, 2002:  “­ Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years”.  The Globe’s investigative team, know as Spotlight, was responsible for unearthing the abuse which, as it turns out, had been stealthily occurring in Boston for years.  The film will bring to mind another great old-fashion newspaper movie,  1976’s All the President’s Men, as it details the painstaking work to uncover and ultimately bring to print the scandalous misdeeds.  They ultimately unearthed about seventy cases in Boston alone and led to the disgracement of ­Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, who was later banished to Rome.  The group’s efforts earned them a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and since resulted in the revelation of multiple acts of clergy abuse in cities in the US and around the world – a fact that is hammered home in the rolling coda list at the film’s conclusion.  Spotlight is one of the finest films this year and is certain to be well-represented at next years Academy Awards.  The movie opened on a limited release on November 6.

(6)  The Storm Makers (66 minutes)                                                                                   (Director Guillaume Suon’s documentary looks at human trafficking in Cambodia through the eyes of an ex-slave and was not screened at the festival.)

(7)  The True Cost  (**1/2 out of 4 – 92 minutes)                                                                Director Andrew Morgan, whose narration leaves a lot to be desired, covers the “fast fashion” industry discussing the clothes, the people who make them and the impact it is having on the world.  Damning statistics include the fact that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world (oil is #1); clothes consumption has skyrocketed to 500% over the last two decades; and America is currently producing only 3% of its own clothing (compared to 95% in 1960) with the other 97% being outsourced to developing countries.  Bangladesh is offered as an example of the deplorable conditions the ridiculously low paid workers undergo in the sweatshops.  Coverage includes the tragedy there in 2013 where a building, previously declared unsafe, collapsed resulting in over 1000 workers killed.  The doom and gloom continues as Morgan proceeds to illustrate the devastation of the environment where the cotton demand has added an over abundance of pesticides and the resultant river pollution has led to a significant rise in cancer and birth defects.  Landfills are shown in Haiti filled with mountains of discarded non-biodegradable used clothing.  Interspersed are the obvious advertising YouTube clips of attractive young females as if to proclaim how cool it is possess the cheap wares purchased at your nearest Target, H&M, Forever 21, etc.  The director cuts back and forth and back again as he incessantly hammers home points many of which are not revelations and could have been made easily in less than 20 minutes.  Also, I would have liked a discussion of how retailers might send their markups to improve manufacturing conditions instead of being earmarked to their pockets or overall, offer some kind of hope for the rest of the planet.   In the end, this film about clothes just might have you immediately disrobe and head for the nearest nudist colony.

Jay Berg lives in Baltimore, MD.  His blog “Jay Berg’s Cinema Diary” can be read at http://jayberg.blogspot.com/.  He can be contacted at jaybergscinemadiary@gmail.com.

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