If You Liked John Oliver’s Piece on Journalism, Then You Need to Listen to These Documentary Filmmakers.
Last week John Oliver and Last Week Tonight delivered another powerful piece of investigative journalism — this time on investigative journalism. In the 19 minute video he breaks down how our the financial demise of local, regional and national newspapers is directly and negatively impacting our ability to live in a true democracy. When we no longer have trained investigative journalists with financial support for their work and distribution to readers, we no longer are able to balance power and support democracy.
While Oliver’s piece pointed out that it is market forces, technology and the evolving advertising industry leading to the dissolution of journalism, there is also an active effort by local police departments to suppress information and punish citizen journalists — specifically for the recording of police activity. So in addition to to coping with the crumbling pillars of journalism and public information, we now have an active effort to silence citizens.
But as of last week, there is a growing movement of documentary journalists advocating for these citizen journalists, ignited by the Documentary Association (IDA) and documentary filmmaker David Felix Sutcliffe.
Sutcliffe penned a powerful article about the recent targeting of citizen filmmakers — specifically Chris LeDay, Abdullah Muflahi, Diamond Reynolds, Kevin Moore and Ramsey Orta — who have all been arrested or targeted for their videos documenting police brutality. His article featured a call to action created by IDA, which asks documentary filmmakers and concerned citizens to join them in asking the U.S Justice Department to stop targeting and punishing citizen journalists.
“Armed only with camera phones, citizen journalists have shattered America’s myth of racial equality. Instead of garnering Pulitzers and Peabodys, they have been targeted, harassed and arrested by members of the very institution whose abuses they seek to expose.” — David Felix Sutcliffe
I’m incredibly proud to work within the documentary film world. I truly believe that the documentary filmmakers we are watching today are our newest pillar of democracy. Not only have newspapers lost their funding, as Oliver points out, but the proliferation of media platforms, competition for advertising, and the increasing number of cord cutters has lead to the demise of long-form video journalism on TV. Consequently, this has led to an increase in documentary films to fill the void and meet the information demands of the American Public.
This demand has caught the attention of major networks, who are filling the investigative journalism void by acquiring films from documentarians. CNN, Discovery, National Geographic, Netflix, and Hulu have all increased their investments in acquiring these stories because there is a demand for it, and more importantly, a need for it. Media companies like ATTN, NowThis, Upworthy, The Dodo, and AJ+ are all taking existing news stories and packaging them into entertaining short documentaries films for a millennial audience on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
As filmmakers, we may differ on our definition of “documentary.” But many, if not all of us, harbor a core belief: that images have insurmountable power. Not merely to create change, but to trigger fresh thoughts, to nudge our audiences toward a new seat in the theater of public opinion, one whose vantage point endows them with a more informed and empathetic view. — David Felix Sutcliffe
These new storytellers and distributors allow us to have vetted information from journalists and/or directly witness a situation like these recent police brutality videos. This in turn empowers people to take action. Using news, storytelling, film and video to inform, inspire and move people, advocacy groups and movement leaders can then take up the torch and mobilize for change. This connection between information and action is at the heart of much of the documentary community.
These citizen journalists — Chris LeDay, Abdullah Muflahi, Diamond Reynolds, Kevin Moore and Ramsey Orta — are also part of this increasingly important documentary community. They are documenting and giving to the world their eyes at a critical moment. They are not the trained journalists Oliver refers to in his piece, but they serve a crucial role in the documentary and journalism community by gathering information. They should be lauded for breaking barriers that have been breaking down barriers for years — and is how journalism has evolved with technology. There is no reason to restrict their and our rights to record an incident. Any reason feeds into protecting those in power. Or as IDA president Simon Kilmury said:
“If it wasn’t for these people taking these risks, we would likely not have any of the primary source material, the evidence, that shows us just how challenged the relationship between police and communities of color have been,” — Simon Kilmurry, International Documentary Association
Our laws need to catch up to the technology, in every sector of society. But by letting the Justice Department allow police departments to punish filmmaking and video documentation, we are choosing a course that legally values censorship over freedom of speech.
Here is the official statement by the IDA. Whether you’re a filmmaker, a journalist or just a concerned citizen, Please join me — and the entire team at Picture Motion — in supporting free speech, democracy, and the #righttorecord.
Statement in Support of #RightToRecord
“We, the documentary community, call upon the Department of Justice to investigate a troubling pattern of abuse of power: the pervasive harassment of citizens who use cameras and social media to document and distribute footage of law enforcement. Whether they identify as citizen journalists, activists, or civilians, it is vital we defend the rights of these individuals to use video as a means of criticizing unjust police activity. We ask for a full investigation into any and all actions taken against them by police departments, and the larger pattern of abuse that has emerged on a federal, state, and local level, and the threat it poses to free speech and a free press.
We also call upon our peers in the journalistic community to investigate and report on these abuses. Chris LeDay, Abdullah Muflahi, Diamond Reynolds, Kevin Moore and Ramsey Orta are just a few of the names of the individuals who have used personal cameras and social media to shine a light on police brutality. By investigating other instances of police violence captured on video by citizens, and what consequences they may have faced, we can expand our awareness of the problem and take stock of the damages.”
We invite all individuals to sign and show their support, whether they are filmmakers or concerned citizens.”