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What is the Real Difference Between a Filmmaker and a Journalist?

By KJ Relth

From last year's GETTING REAL conference to Sundance's recent "Bringing Truths to Light" panel to the upcoming "Based on a True Story: The Intersections of Documentary Film and Journalism" three-day event held in conjunction with True/False, the issue of doc filmmakers and journalism has never been hotter. Our own Doc U panel "The Filmmaker as Journalist," held in San Francisco last month, weighed in with a fiery discussion of its own to confront the artistic and personal challenges of working in both the documentary and journalism spaces. The panel featured highly-regarded filmmakers Andrés Cediel (The Judge and the General), Dan Krauss (The Kill Team), Carrie Lozano (executive producer of documentaries for Al Jazeera America), and Pete Nicks (The Waiting Room), along with first amendment expert James Wheaton and Trevor Timm, executive director of The Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Just three days before the release of the Center for Media and Social Impact's new Dangerous Docs report, the panelists considered the results from this critical study and weighed in on ideas such as truth, reporting against your story, and understanding the contract you have with your audience.


There is no legal distinction between a filmmaker and a journalist...

"The law does not define journalism in any of the statutes," begins James Wheaton. "It rarely becomes necessary to define who is a journalist. The one place that it does come up is when a filmmaker wants to resist a subpoena for turning over outtakes [or] confidential sources. Then, you first have to establish who is a journalist for the purpose of asserting a privilege not to answer the questions, not to turn over your outtakes, not to turn over your documents."


...but there are tests you can run to determine if you fall under the same First Amendment protections.

Wheaton outlines the four tests that courts will run to determine whether someone who has collected a story is a journalist:

- You go out and gather information about something other than yourself.
- You package that information—you provide context, you report, you do something with the information other than a data dump.
- You publish it to an eager or willing audience that wants to hear it.
- You do this relatively independently, never at the behest of your subject.

Wheaton pointed out that this doesn't mean your film can't have a point of view, even one that it share with one of the film's main subjects, as long as you maintain your own independence in making the film. 


Whatever the audience believes to be true should be true.

"There's a range," says Carrie Lozano, Executive Producer at Al Jazeera America. "Was the sky really blue, or did you color correct it? That's maybe one thing. But if we're saying that so-and-so was somewhere in 1967 on November 1, that really should be the case. If that's what the audience leaves believing to be true, then that should be the bar."

Pete Nicks shared his creative team's own process of grappling with the issue of transparency in the making of The Waiting Room. "We originally had planned to have 15 crews, and shoot for one day multiple times, and pick the best day and have that be the film. That became practically impossible for the hospital to manage. So we decided to shoot over roughly a six-week period and then stitch the material together as a composite. We didn't want to have the film to carry the burden of having to communicate that information to the audience. We didn't feel it was relevant. We had been in that hospital for well over two years to the point where we felt that we knew what an average day was. Our intent was to show that day in the film. Whether the audience perceived it to be an actual single day was the question."


Understand the contract you have with your audience.

"The contract with the audience when you are a journalistic organization is very different from the contract you have with your audience at a theater showing an independent film," says Dan Krauss, director of The Kill Team. "The expectation of the audience is very different. In a film [such as The Kill Team], where I was taking on the US military, I didn't feel the call to ambush a general in the hallway of the Pentagon and try to get an answer. It wasn't part of my mission as a filmmaker. That has to do with what the purpose of the film or the documentary is, and what the implicit agreement between the media maker and the audience is."

Nicks adds: "It's so complicated. How relevant is the truth? As a filmmaker, I am most interested in trying to create a mood, an emotion, an environment, an experience for the audience that has less to do with the nitty gritty of the particular truths. It's an ethical thing. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to manipulate people, or are you just trying to tell your truth?"

"The contract is a little simpler than people are making it out," says Trevor Timm. "The audience is looking for some honest telling of a version of a truth, or the best that the producer of this information can do. It's a much more fluid situation than some of these debates give credit. Everyone is a journalist if you are telling a story to the public in hope that they get something out of it."


Filmmakers and subjects can share a point of view.

On the issue of filmmakers and subjects, Krauss states that "empathy can sometimes be confused for advocacy. I wonder how that plays out legally? A lot of filmmakers make films with subjects with whom they share an ideological agreement and a deep emotional and empathetic experience. How does one differentiate?"

Wheaton responds to this: "The critical thing is not whether you're an activist, it's whether you are independent of your subject matter. The court in the Central Park 5 case looked at independence through a couple of different prisms. One was financial independence. Second was, who decided to make this film? Did you decide to make it, and then go to someone with whom you might be sympathetic, or did the source come to you and say 'I want you to make a movie about me.' Do you still have your ability to look at the subject and perhaps look at both sides? Or are you just making a propaganda film?"


Documentaries with strong journalistic leanings can also be art.

"Documentaries are an artform," says Krauss. "There's an expressiveness to documentaries that is cloudy. Talk about no borders! The reason that so many filmmakers feel uncomfortable defining themselves as journalists is that desire to express themselves artistically. I wasn't interested in the response from the US military [with The Kill Team]. They had already spoken; they had a very loud and visible microphone. The film I was making was much more experiential."

"I also don't think there's a distinction necessarily between journalism and art, either," says Lozano from Al Jazeera. "I think journalism can aspire to an artistic sensibility as well. Even in much of what we do, the aesthetic is just as important as the story. And we talk about it in the way that you would if you were doing a narrative film."


You don't have to report against your story...

Andres Cediel, who is currently producing a follow-up documentary to his doc Rape in the Fields, about immigrant victims of sexual assault, has been talking to more sexual assault victims. Related to one sequence of the new film, tis raise question of his responsibility to a man accused of committing rape: "[We] asked the guy, and he says 'I didn't do it.' What is my responsibility to this guy? How am I going to present this woman's story knowing that there's somebody else saying this woman is a liar? I have to go through every step I can to make sure that he has the opportunity to tell his side of the story. There's a lot that we're doing behind the scenes just to be able to get to this point where we can convince ourselves of what we believe to be true."


...but it might make your film stronger.

Initially, Lozano didn't depict the other side of the story for a certain episode of Fault Lines. She recalls: "Our executive producer, to his great credit, said 'No way! Our job as journalists, as watchdogs, is to get answers to these questions. And even if we're not going to get an answer, we're going to show the audience that we are trying; that we are making every attempt at accountability by people in power.' Sometimes people point out the door-stepping (journalists appearing at your house or at your work unannounced to ask you to answer questions) on Front Lines, but it is a really important part of the journalism. We're not just going to tell one side of it. We're going to give every opportunity, and actually, we're going to demand answers to questions."