Documentary has always been an exercise in freedom of expression. This year's Full Frame Documentary Festival put the spotlight on free speech and the filmmakers who are taking risks to showcase our first amendment rights.
I had the privilege of moderating a Speakeasy discussion at Full Frame with three filmmakers who are reminding us that documentary film is at risk when we don't stand up for free speech - Fredrik Gertten, Bernardo Ruiz, and Judith Erhlich. At the forefront of this message is Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten. His latest film, Big Boys Gone Bananas!* premiered at Sundance and opened to a standing ovation at Full Frame. It tells the story of how Dole Food Company used it's enormous coprorate influence to try to prevent the distribution and crippled the credibtily of Gertten's other recent film, Bananas!
Gertten and his team originally set out to tell the story of how Nicaraguan Banana workers were sterilized by Dole's continued use of a banned pesticide. Intrepid Los Angeles attorney, Juan Dominguez took on the case of 12 workers suing Dole. The result instead was a lawsuit against Gertten and the withdrawal of Bananas! from the Los Angeles Film Festival competition.
Gertten told the Speakeasy audience that what was most upsetting for him, was the inability (or unwillingness) of the film community in the United States to to rally in defense of documentary's behalf. Dole's press campaign and corporate pressure was so successful that the mainstream media declared the film fraudulent without ever having seen it.
Perhaps our documentary community has been so disillusioned by repeated failure of the press and the public to investigate such charges that we have become too complacent. Full Frame Festival Director Deirdre Haj reminded the audience in her opening letter that we are living in a time when social documentary hero Josh Fox is arrested on the steps of the Capitol for trying to film a public hearing. Documentary great Laura Poitras, American citizen, is repeatedly detained by Homeland security and her equipment comfiscated unjustly. And social documentary may lose one of it's primary distribution outlets, PBS, who may no longer uphold its public media mission to provide diversity of viewpoints by bumping documentary programming.
We are at a pivotal moment in our community when social documentary has to battle to uphold our right to free expression.
No one knows this better than Bernardo Ruiz, also at this year's Free Speech Speakeasy. Ruiz's latest film is Reportero, with a story that will cause necessary shock to many U.S. audiences. It takes use just beyond the border to Juarez, Mexico, to a place where free speech comes at the cost of life itself. Popular newspaper Zeta has been publishing since 1970, but it has also cost the lives of at least 3 reporters, who were punished with assasination for taking on the rampant corruption and crime in politics and on the streets.
Reportero is a powerful cautionary tale for citizens who do have the right to stand up for free speech. But it's also about the tremendous courage, zeal, and fortitude of the journalists who keep Zeta alive. Printing the paper in the U.S. and having it driven back over the border, and choosing to list their byline as a team instead of as individuals, for their own safety. Reportero has also beein on tour with the premiere Mexican festival Ambulante, and received with great enthusiasm among Mexican audiences.
Freedom of speech is about supporting whistleblowers. To understand what this takes, go back to Judith Ehrlich's 2010 documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. New generations can be inspired and motivated by a portrait of the man who took on the Pentagon and the leader of the free world. What's amazing is that his story is just as relevant today as ever -- and Ehrlich's documentary plays a crucial role in ensuring that this story is accessible and available as part of our public history and foundational knowledge.
At 15 years, Full Frame continues to provide an essential forum for exercising our free speech. Other champions included Laurens Grant and Stanley Nelson, with the story of Jesse Owens and his role in shaping American history; Jeff Orlowski and Chasing Ice, the story of one man's quest to document our disappearing glaciers at the expense of his own body; and Macky Alston with Love Free or Die, the story of the Episcopalian Church's first openly gay, non-celibate bishop and his battle for love to prevail over human fallacy.
There's so much more where that came from at this start of the festival season. At the Center we're looking forward to upcoming Telluride MountainFilm and SILVERDOCS among others to carry on the momentum of showcasing the latest generation of free speech foot soldiers.