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Double Exposure 2020: Investigative Documentary Investigated

At Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival, come for the recent festival winners that share a common DNA: investigative journalism, and stay for the conversations about how to do it right.

Originally written by Patricia Aufderheide for the International Documentary Association, this article (and its below excerpts) is a rare and much-needed opportunity to discuss journalistic documentary and see its latest exemplars.

The Stuff of Nightmares

There were nightmare-inducing films, with actionable political revelations here in the US. Erika Cohn’s Belly of the Beast should galvanize a movement against the continuing sterilization of women of color in the California (and who knows where else?) penal system. Cohn, who has spent a decade doing legal work on this issue, focuses on one woman sterilized without her knowledge, but the genocidal practice is widespread. Chillingly, as the film shows, forced sterilization has some public support from those who see it through the lens of eugenics—and that framing is disturbingly common. Missing in Brooks County, by Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bemiss, takes us on a search for a lost brother/son in the Texas desert, where he disappeared while taking a dangerous route from Mexico. In the process, we learn that uncounted thousands have died in that desert, with animals dispatching their corpses within hours or days, since the US government in the late 20th century began closing down safer crossings. Everyone expected deaths to rise. No one has been responsible for counting them. And some, including ranchers followed in the film, are fine with that. Both stories have as an ominous undercurrent: the endemic, pervasive racism that organizes American society. Both were co-produced with ITVS.

Cinema Vérité

There were cinema vérité works that revealed lived realities not often seen. Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Anonymous filmed inside Chinese hospitals during the first three months of the COVID pandemic there, for 76 Days. The film tells a universal reality: Hospital personnel, short on time and sleep, desperately work to save lives, comfort survivors, and deal with the exasperating and irrational. One old man, who out of stubbornness and possibly dementia keeps trying to leave, testing the viewer’s patience more than, seemingly, that of the hospital staff. Loira Limbal’s Through the Night moves inside a 24-hour daycare center, a crucial service for financially-strapped, overworked families.

Talking It Out

Who can and should be telling the story? A panel on accountable documentary storytelling argued that filmmakers, particularly those in a position of social dominance, need to work with communities they chronicle, to avoid ingraining the narratives that justify injustice. A working group has launched a values-statement-in-progress. On another panel, Loira Limbal talked about building a rapport with the 24-hour daycare provider, Nunu, with whom she shared a cultural background, in making Through the Night. Many of the families were single-parent. “People ask, ‘Where are the fathers?’ I don’t explain that. That’s a judgment. I’m a single mother, too, and I don’t judge these people.” Instead, she said,she shared their reality.

In an interview, Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bemiss, neither of whom are Latinx or from the Southwest, said that they used several ways of overcoming the cultural distance between themselves and their subjects in making Missing in Brooks County: They made some 15 visits to the area; they spent extensive time with their subjects; and crucially, they worked with consultants in the area to prescreen work, to double-check their own narrative choices.


Two outstanding keynotes marked the conference. Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose New York Times project 1619 became a meme and a T-shirt (I have one), shared her surprise at the growth of the significance of the project. It is spinning into multiple forms, including both a documentary and a fiction film. She has also been viciously and continuously attacked since the project launched, not least by the US President. “I take that as a sign that the project really matters,” she said calmly, in a conversation with Soledad O’Brien. The project of putting slavery at the center of American history and America’s story is a complete narrative restructuring, she noted, because of systemic miseducation.

Filipina journalist Maria Ressa talked passionately about the need for an all-hands-on-deck approach to the current political crisis in both the Philippines and the US. “I think people are going to find that democracy becomes a personal thing,” she said. Her news site, Rappler, was founded with a commitment to giving citizens actionable, accurate knowledge. She was aware then, and has been proven right, that good journalism is the enemy of authoritarianism. Duterte has used social media to mobilize his base, she noted, but it also helped Rappler achieve its current success. Ultimately, she believes, this is a political fight for a participatory society, with journalism as a key tool.

The question of finding the boundary between advocacy and independent journalism ran through the conference, not just Ressa’s keynote. In discussing Belly of the Beast, Erika Cohn—who also has advocated against forced sterilization—said that she confronted that line “every single day.” She was helped in part by the fact that her legal advocacy was grounded in extensive documentation, and by the investigative work on the issue by Center for Investigative Reporting. Talking about Welcome to Chechnya, which reveals genocidal practices against LGBTQ+ Chechnya citizens, veteran investigative journalist and filmmaker David France noted that his previous practice guided him. He also noted that the film takes a strong human rights stand, while going to extraordinary lengths (including using AI to substitute facial features) to hide their informants’ identities.

FRONTLINE’s Raney Aronson-Rath recalled asking Ramona Diaz if she was ready for a full vetting and fact-checking process for A Thousand Cuts; Diaz welcomed the process. Aronson-Rath also remarked that by working with point-of-view journalists, FRONTLINE could get access to important stories from an experiential, emotionally rich perspective; For Sama and Inside Italy’s COVID War were examples.

For more about the standout films featured in the 2020 Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival, click here to visit the complete, article by Patricia Aufderheide for the International Documentary Association. Patricia Aufderheide is University Professor in the School of Communication at American University, and serves on the board of the Independent Television Service.


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