I went to this year’s Sundance Film Festival with the intention of exploring cultural trends in film stemming from increasing concern and awareness for our planet’s environment. While green themes weave through the fabric of many progressive films, I came away from the festival astounded, rather, by the intensity and prevalence of what I would call activist film-making, or ‘extreme journalism.’
Distinct from traditional investigative, undercover, or ‘front-line’ reporting (which can often be dangerous and aggressive too,) these current films expose, even showcase, the reporter’s role in the story. In essence the reporter doubles as a lead actor and portrays himself.
Another takeaway: Scandinavians have snagged a hook on new documentaries.
Most outlandish among the crop, “The Ambassador”, follows the story of a diplomat who reveals widespread corruption in international politics involving Central African Republic (CAR), Liberia, France, China, and diamond smuggling, by actually purchasing diplomat papers and diplomatic status for $135,000, and then filming subsequent conduct from ‘the inside.’ In this case the diplomat is an undercover Danish reporter/filmmaker/actor who, using his real name, pompously plays the part, really acquiring an Liberian ambassadorship with money. The diplomat Mads Brugger purchases his ‘official’ papers from a European broker so that he may represent the poor battered African nation of Liberia, and then conduct business in the CAR which harbors some of the largest and most corrupt diamond mines in the world. Using hidden cameras in many cases, even a cell phone video camera, he exposes the practice of selling ambassadorships with its accompanying access to lucrative mines and immunity to customs’ searches afforded by his diplomatic status. Essentially, he bought himself the opportunity to discreetly carry a suitcaseful of diamonds anywhere in the world. In the course of filming, a darker view of an international array of layers of corruption and wrong-doing amongst major governments and their economic interests conflicting with humanitarian ones is brought to light.
I’m beyond role-playing by actually being a diplomat, I can forge a partnership with the very sinister owner of a diamond mine replete with gold tooth and machete scars on his forehead. That would be highly problematic for a journalist. But it’s no problem for a diplomat. — Brugger
Entertaining to watch because of its sheer outrageousness and Brugger’s bizarre arrogant humor, on one hand, and disturbing too because of the dangers of operating in a realm where horrors to the players and humanity could lurk around the corner. Odd for sure, but perhaps that’s in part just because we’ve not experienced this kind of film.
Less contrived, and less entertaining, but no less important and informative is the haphazard documentary “1/2 Revolution” another Danish film, about the 2011 violent revolt in Egypt. Unplanned, the film is an assembly of footage taken by filmmakers Danish/Palestinian Omar Shargaqi and Egyptian/American Karim El Hakim, who happened to be on the scene whilst the uprisings took place. Filming the growing daily tensions in the streets and in their apartment above the protests, particularly focused on themselves, their friends and families while not knowing what direction the demonstrations would take. The camera seemed rolling constantly capturing intense philosophical political discussions and tearful, fearful phone calls to family abroad, along with their experiences as participants amongst the protesters including being victim themselves of violent attack during the backlash that followed. The group of filmmakers and friends are strongly-opinionated activists and there is no attempt to conceal their advocacy for revolution, in contrast with convention that dictates journalists remain observer and neutral. El Hakim ultimately filmed his own anxiety and decision to flee Egypt with his Egyptian family, for safety when the revolution turned sour. In a discussion with Hakim following the film’s US premiere, he said he was compelled to make the film because information to the media was restricted, skewed and portrayed an inaccurate story. He wanted to tell the world what really happened in that near-revolution.
Both are courageous films.
Could this be the leading edge of a powerful new trend in truth-telling stories? Enabled by the accessibility of film-making tools to nearly anyone, coupled with rampant self-image promotion (for example, through social media aka instant star status, think self-made web icons, Jenna Marbles) and mass markets with short attention spans craving high doses of entertainment in their news, a new genre of journalism is born in which the journalist/s is a key part of the story. The possibilities. Maybe. If so, whew!