I’ve been making films for over 10 years, and while it can sometimes be a struggle I’m always brought back to the fundamental reason for why I do it. I believe that films have the power to inspire and spark social change and respond to important issues that are facing our society. Maybe that’s why I’ve often found myself documenting protests and grassroots movements. But more recently, I have become increasingly aware of what the impact of this type of filmmaking can mean.
One night I happened to be filming a protest when I noticed the police recording the license plate on my car. A few weeks later a police officer pulled me over while I was stopped at a traffic light. When I asked the officer what was wrong, he said that my vehicle was on file as being stolen. This was odd as I’ve been its sole owner. Maybe these two incidents were just coincidences, but it definitely got me thinking about the recent disturbing trend of arrests associated with filmmakers and journalist documenting activism.
On September 3 of this year, Amy Goodman, executive producer and host for Democracy Now!, was reporting on a protest at aDakota Access Pipeline construction site. This $3.7 billion project, which has received little attention by mainstream media until late, intends to transport crude oil between the Bakken oil field in Dakota to a refinery in Patoka, Illinois, spanning over 1,172 miles. It has also sparked the fierce opposition of members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, other indigenous nations, and non-natives. They say that the pipeline poses significant environmental threats to water supplies, sacred land sites, and fails to comply with federal laws and native treaties.
Goodman’svideo showed security guards working for the Dakota Access Pipeline using dogs and pepper spray on protesters. Viewed more than 14 million times on social media, the footage was rebroadcast by many major news outlets. Five days later, Goodman was charged with a complaint for “criminal trespass.” When this charge proved untenable, it was changed to “riot charges.” Thankfully a month later a North Dakota judge rejected Goodman’s arrest, saying it lacked probable cause. A similar arrest was issued to actress Shailene Woodley. In a livevideo Woodley recorded of herself while being arrested at a Standing Rock protest, she suggests that she has been singled out by the police because of her public profile. Her video proceeded to reach an audience of more than 40,000.
Then in October, filmmakers Deia Schlosberg and Lindsey Grayzel and cinematographer Carl Davis, were arrested for filming activists shutting down pipelines across the country. Grayzel and Davis were charged with up to 30 years in prison for 2 felony counts and a trespassing offense. Schlosberg was charged a maximum potential sentence of 45 years in prison for 3 felony charges related to conspiracy. The extreme nature of her punishment even compelled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to tweet, “This reporter is being prosecuted for covering the North Dakota oil protests. For reference, I face a mere 30 years.”
In astatement Schlosberg released following her arrest she says, “When I was arrested, I was doing my job, I was reporting. I was documenting. Journalism needs to be passionately and ethically pursued and defended if we are to remain a free democratic country.”
What Schlosberg makes clear is the way in which she and many other filmmakers have been denied their rights under the First Amendment. As documentary filmmakers I feel this is something fundamental to our practice especially if we are to share stories with the world that are often untold or repressed. Perhaps the only good thing to have come out of these arrests is the attention it has cast on the issues being reported and the importance of free speech and a free press.
For civilians filming and sharing incidents of unjustified police aggression, a similar trend of arrests has emerged. In July, civilian Chris LeDay was jailed 24 hours after he uploaded a video of Alton Sterling, an African-American man, being shot and killed by a white police officer. At first police declined to say the reasons for LeDay’s arrest and eventually announced it was related to parking fines. Abdullah Muflahi, the owner of the store where Sterling was killed, was also detained after filming the event and has since filed a lawsuit against the Baton Rouge police department.
The very next day when Philando Castile was shot and killed by a white police officer in St. Paul, Minnesota, his partner Diamond Reynolds who had filmed and shared online a video documenting the incident, was also handcuffed and detained for several hours. Speaking at a gathering after the event in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, shereportedthat the police “treated me like a criminal… like it was my fault.”
In a direct response to these arrests, a group of more than 40 documentaryfilmmakerscalled on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the targeting of filmmakers and civilians who record episodes of police violence. One of the organizers of the campaign, filmmaker David Felix Sutcliffe, wrote an openletter to the documentary community declaring that it was “vital we defend the rights of these individuals who use video as a means of criticizing unjust police activity.” Similarly Goodman’s arrest in North Dakota has galvanized several climate action groups to make public statements calling on the DOJ to investigate unjust arrests. Josh Fox, the director of a film that Schlosberg produced, has spoken publicly about his support for Schlosberg and has written an op-ed for theThe Nation titled, The Arrest of Filmmakers Covering the Dakota Pipeline is a Threat to Democracy and the Planet.
At times standing up for what we believe in can be daunting and for some of those filmmakers on the front line, it has come with great personal sacrifice. But seeing the way a film can move audiences and show a new perspective makes me think it is all worth it. I implore you to check out ourcollection today.
About the writer
Award-winning filmmaker Briar March has released three documentaries through New Day. Her most recent workSmoke Songsis about a Diné (Navajo) punk rock band. The film shares personal insights from band members on what it is like to be an activist fighting for environmental and indigenous issues.There Once Was an Islandexplores the impact of climate change on a small Pacific island community, andMichael and His Dragontells the story of a returned U.S. veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress after the war in Iraq.
In December 2015, I had the rare opportunity to screen my film There Once Was an Island at the Paris climate talks and it got me thinking about the role films can play at environmental conferences and festivals. As international delegates work around the clock to secure a new climate deal and activists lobby furiously on the streets, it’s easy to lose sight of those smaller voices; the communities and individuals who are the first victims of climate change but often the last to be heard. Films can be a powerful and effective way to keep our priorities in focus, and to remember what is actually at stake.
There Once Was an Island was one of two documentaries invited to screen at the COP21 Climate Change Summit as part of an exhibition entitled “Entwined Destinies: Migration, Environment and Climate Change.” The feature documentary tells the story of three Pacific islanders living on an atoll only one meter above sea level and who face the threat of becoming some of the world’s first environmental refugees. Following its screening, a panel of four experts discussed issues related to migration and climate change. Event organizer Daria Mokhnacheva remarked,“The audience was very moved by the message that the film conveyed. The screening also led to a very interesting discussion about how climate change is perceived by local communities, and how we can all act individually to help mitigate climate change.” As a filmmaker who wants to have the greatest impact possible and inspire social change, I can’t think of a better place to screen my film. I also know that for my characters it will mean a great deal to learn that their story is being shared among powerful government officials who have the ability to change the course of their future.
Other New Day films have also been having a powerful impact at environmental conferences around the world. Greta Schiller’s film, The Marion Lake Story: Defeating the Mighty Phragmitescreened at the Justainabilty conference atFranklin Roosevelt University in Lugana, Switzerland. The documentaryexplores one of the largest citizen-led battles to eradicate the highly invasive phragmite reed in New York State. The film’s screening at the conference sparked a discussion among delegates over local conservation efforts in Switzerland versus government policy, and many questions were asked about how the workers involved in the clean up of the lake were being paid. Reflecting on the screening, Schiller writes:
Screenings in academic conferences are important because too often the academics who see my film understand the theoretical principles of biodiversity but have little idea of what cleaning up invasive weeds entails and how much maintenance is involved.
Schiller’s ability to show a more holistic picture of this issue impressed one German professor so much that he invited her to apply for a prestigious fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich and now, as a Carson Center Fellow, Schiller is furthering her conservation work through the production of a new documentary called Earth Repair which explores three distinct ecological restoration projects in Europe, India and Australia.
One of New Day’s most recent releasesWhite Earth, an Oscar-nominated film about the oil boom in North Dakota, is currently gaining significant attention at environmental festivals. In the past few months, director Christian Jensenhas screened the short documentary at three notable environmental film festivals: The Great Lakes Environmental Film Festival, The American Conservation Film Festival, and Telluride Mountain Film Festival. In an email conversation with Jensen, we discussed the ways in which festivals– much like academic and political conferences– allow filmmakers to engage with audiences in a deeper, more proactive way. Jensen noted that the current plunge in oil prices has made his film a jumping point for further conversations on what has happened in North Dakota now that fracking operations have become unprofitable. He also added that while many of his audience members were already involved in activism and familiar with issues of land development and resource management, his film offered them an alternative point of view:
In focusing primarily on the perspective of children living in the oil boom, White Earth has encouraged audiences to shift from the major dialogues about big oil, oil worker safety, and industrial environmental degradation, to the often overlooked inner landscapes of the children whose lives and communities are undergoing dramatic change.
Now that the Paris climate talks have wrapped up and governmental officials have gone home, it seems that world leaders are finally embracing the fact that climate change is a very real global issue that affects all of us. After personally witnessing the power film has to connect audiences and inspire change, I am so grateful that there are so many New Day films leaving a lasting impact across the globe.
My film White Earth is a look at a North Dakota oil boom as experienced by people on the fringes of society – in this case, three children and an immigrant mother. It hits on several topics related to the issue of domestic oil production, but at the end of the day it’s about people trying to navigate economic and industrial forces much bigger than they are. And it’s also about my favorite documentary cliché: The American Dream.
The idea for the film was born when I witnessed a huge exodus of people from my hometown in Southern Utah to North Dakota to find work. White Earth is also an ode to misfits. I’ve always felt a special connection with outsiders and misfits – probably because I am one myself. I wanted to look at this major story—a topic of great national debate—and throw out all the authoritative voices that you would expect to hear from in a film about oil work. No oil companies. No activists. No academics. No oil workers.
As a cinematographer I rely on those almost Zen-like moments where after wandering around with my camera for hours on end, I come across an image that elevates the story to places where words are insufficient. The flaming oil fields of a North Dakota winter were a cinematographer’s dream and I’m so glad my production schedule allowed me to just drive around over several nights waiting for serendipity to intervene and place the perfect light or image in my path.