By Tench Phillips, Naro Cinema
After two years of enduring the daily assault by media surrounding the presidential election, one might ask, just how independent is the press in our country? And how does our press compare to other countries in the world? The World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders can shed light on these issues. Countries are ranked according to criteria that includes the degree that journalists are allowed to function independent of their governments.
Americans have a great advantage over the citizens of other countries in that our Constitution guarantees freedom of the press as a First Amendment right. And yet the news that Americans receive is censored by the six giant media corporations that control 90% of what we see, read, and hear. These companies filter the news to fit a top-down corporate, militaristic, nationalistic narrative that reflects the interests of corporate America. As a result the U.S. ranks way below those European nations that place as much importance on labor and the underclass as we do on Wall Street, the military, and the wealthy. But we’re also lower than countries like Costa Rica. In fact “the land of the free” is only 41st in the world in press freedom. We can draw some small consolation from the fact that our old nemesis Russia is 148th and North Korea ranks 179th. See www.rsf.org for more information.
Another reason for our lower ranking is that we don’t have ‘shield laws’ in the U.S. that protect journalists from government prosecution for not divulging the names of their sources. This causes a chilling effect on investigative journalism. And those who blow the whistle on government crimes and abuses have found themselves in greater jeopardy than ever under Obama. This administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers for telling the truth than any other presidency. If it weren’t for web publishers like Wikileaks and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, the public would know very little about the secret activities of the NSA, the military, and for that matter, the Democratic Party.
At the same time that our government wants to operate without public transparency, the large hierarchies want to know all about us. Facebook, Google, AT&T, Verizon, Amazon, and other internet giants operate in tandem with the government to collect our information. The companies store the data on their servers and then sell it to third parties that can investigate our activity or target us for advertising. We recently learned how AT&T pockets millions selling off their customers’ data to law enforcement without our knowledge or consent.
Most of us aren’t too worried about this scenario. Maybe it’s because we get free email service from companies like Google and feel that we have nothing to hide from the big hierarchies. Even so, it should make perfect sense that if our personal life is going to be transparent to them then these companies must also be transparent to us. Otherwise democracy will succumb to an authoritarian system of power.
In contrast to how the U.S. enables the activities of these companies, Germany is leading the resistance against the multinational internet companies. The German government is demanding that search engines and social networks make public the data algorithms that are used to control the information that their subscribers see. In response, these corporations, mostly U.S. based, are fighting any such transparency that may restrain their power.
Personal technology has greatly increased the ability of citizens to create transparency into the world of law enforcement. The use of cell phone cameras has created a window into their cloistered world. The reality of police violence and racism has been captured on camera almost daily by citizens and posted on the web. This is the new media of the people. It’s the exercise of true democracy and the message is reverberating throughout our media landscape.
The authorities have fought back by detaining those who attempt to use their phones to record the abuses of police and corporate security. In addition they’ve also arrested journalists who attempt to cover abuses by the police at demonstrations. Two examples being the high-profile arrest of Amy Goodman of ‘Democracy Now’ at the ongoing Standing Rock protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline and of filmmaker Deia Schlossberg (How To Let Go of the World) for filming the actions of some monkey-wrenching activists at the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline on the Canadian border.
Many of these topics are covered in the Wednesday night ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ series. In Do Not Resist, showing on Wed, Nov 30, filmmaker Craig Atkinson documents the increased militarization of the police over the last few decades. More than merely compiling Youtube footage of police abuse, this visual storyteller includes revealing interviews with authorities in addition to disturbing footage of SWAT teams and recent police clampdowns of protestors in urban areas.
In the film National Bird, showing on Wednesday, Dec 7, filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck has taken footage of U.S. drone strikes in the Middle East showing the devastating results of our War On Terror. It makes for compelling viewing when combined with the narratives of U.S. drone pilots who have braved prosecution to become whistleblowers against the government. We are fortunate to once again host the noted peace activist and organizer, David Swanson from Charlottesville to speak at this film event. He will be holding a book signing of his two new titles, ‘War Is A Lie: 2nd Edition’ and ‘War is Never Just’.
In Cameraperson, showing on Wednesday, Dec 14, the interface between a documentary filmmaker and her real world subjects is examined by cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. For her film she has compiled footage shot during her 25 year career and has fashioned a stunning visual essay that includes such personal moments as her mother’s encroaching dementia. Johnson has worked with such top directors as Michael Moore on ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ and Laura Poitras on ‘Citizenfour’. Here she uses outtakes from many of her shoots to express the difficult compromises she must face while she is filming in impoverished and war torn cultures.
This is how Kirsten Johnson articulates her ethical concerns for her audience. “The people I film are in immediate and often desperate material need, but I offer little to nothing material. I can and will leave a place I film (a war, a refugee camp, etc.) when the people I film cannot. I traffic in hope without the ability to know what will happen in the future. I ask for trust, cooperation and permission without knowing where the filming experience will lead the subject. I alter the balance of power by my presence and act on behalf of one side or another in a conflict. My work requires trust, demands intimacy and entails total attention. To both me and the people I film, it often feels like a friendship or family, but it is something different. I know little about how the images I shoot will be used in the future and can not control their distribution or use. My work can change the way my subject is perceived by the people who surround him/her and can impact reputation or safety for years into the future.”
Speaking at the showing of ‘Cameraperson’ will be filmmaker Roger Richards. Although he has made Norfolk his home base since coming here in 2000 to work as a photojournalist and editor at the Virginian-Pilot, Roger is often traveling. His career work has ranged from coverage of the White House to reporting from conflict zones throughout the world – and has included the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, the US invasion of Panama, the guerrilla and narco-conflict in Colombia, political and social issues in Haiti and Peru, the continuing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the abuses of fracking by oil drilling companies around the country.
Roger is just completing the final edit of his film that has been 14 years in the making. Filmed in Bosnia during and after the war, ‘Sarajevo Rose’ is showing at film festivals in Europe and at the European Parliament in Brussels. He will speak at the Naro about his film project and how it relates to the topics and insights expressed by Kirsten Johnson in ‘Cameraperson’.
Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema
Simon Godwin’s dazzling Globe Theater production has cast Charles Edwards (Downton Abbey, Philomena)as the tragic King Richard I, an intelligent and eloquent man whose emotions make him ill-suited for the throne. This is Shakespeare’s most searching exploration of the meaning of kingship and the rising powers that can destroy it. Shows Tues, Nov 15. ‘Globe On Screen’ is introduced by Tom Ellis.
August 1, 1966 was the day our innocence was shattered. A sniper on the top floor of the iconic University of Texas Tower opened fire, holding the campus hostage for 96 minutes in what was a previously unimaginable event. Tower combines archival footage with animated reenactments of the dramatic day that set a precedence for indiscriminate mass murders in this country. Shows Wed, Nov 16 with speakers and discussion.
Set in rural Virginia, Loving celebrates the real-life courage and commitment of an interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Nega in acclaimed performances), who fell in love and were married in 1958. But it was illegal for interracial couples to marry in their small town of Central Point, Virginia and they were jailed and banished from the state. Their civil rights case, Loving v. Virginia, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1967 reaffirmed the very foundation of the right to marry. Richard and Mildred returned home and their love story has become an inspiration to couples ever since. From writer and director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud). Opens Wednesday, Nov 23.
DON’T BLINK: ROBERT FRANK
Robert Frank, now 91 years old, is among the most influential artists of the last half-century. His seminal volume, ‘The Americans’, records the Swiss-born photographer’s reactions to American poverty and racism. Director Laura Israel, Frank’s longtime film editor, was given unprecedented access to the notably irascible artist. The assembled portrait is not unlike Frank’s own movies – rough around the edges and brimming with surprises and insights. The soundtrack includes Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Yo La Tengo, and Tom Waits. Shows Tues, Nov 29. Presented with Chrysler Museum.
DO NOT RESIST
The directorial debut of Detropia cinematographer Craig Atkinson offers a stunning look at the current state of policing in America and a glimpse into the future. Starting on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, the film puts viewers in the center of the action – from a ride-along with a South Carolina SWAT team, inside a police training seminar that teaches “righteous violence”, and to the floor of a congressional hearing on the proliferation of military equipment in small-town police departments. Winner of the Tribeca Film Festival award for Best Documentary. Shows Wed, Nov 30 with speakers and discussion.
This new film documents the harrowing journey of three U.S. military veteran whistleblowers determined to break the silence surrounding America’s secret drone war. Tortured by guilt for their participation in the killing of faceless people in foreign countries, and despite the threat of being prosecuted under the Espionage Act, these three veterans offer an unprecedented look inside this secret program to reveal the haunting cost of America’s global drone strikes. Shows Wed, Dec 7. Author and peace activist David Swanson from Charlottesville will speak.
THE EAGLE HUNTRESS
Set against the breathtaking expanse of the Mongolian steppe, this stunning documentary packs the dramatic force of an epic narrative film. It follows the 13-year-old Aisholpan as she trains to become the first female eagle hunter in twelve generations of her Kazakh family. The film details the trials of the young girl’s journey as she trains, takes part in her first hunt, and attempts to rise to the pinnacle of a tradition that has been handed down from father to son for centuries. Opens Friday, Dec 9.
This is a night to highlight the Hampton Roads film community. Teams of filmmakers have two weeks to film and submit their short films for competition. The evening will include the screening of all 13 short films followed by the presentation of awards. Shows Sunday, Dec 11.
SAINT PETER’S AND THE PAPAL BASILICAS OF ROME
This unique film combines history, spirituality, architecture and art. It takes its cue from the ‘Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy’ proclaimed by Pope Francis to take place in 2016. It has brought the faithful from all over the world into Rome to view the interiors of the Papal Basilicas. Shows Tuesday, Dec 13.
Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson calls her new film a memoir, an autobiography, an ethical inquiry, and a theory of documentary filmmaking. It’s a manifesto of sorts that asserts the importance of the camera as a person. It’s a tapestry of footage collected over her twenty-five-year career. The result is a surprisingly emotional and heartfelt film that tells us who Johnson is as a person and as an artist. Shows Wednesday, Dec 14. With filmmaker Roger Richards and discussion.