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A Foot in the Door: Gaining Access to Large Institutions

By Peter Burgess Smith

One of the most daunting tasks facing small documentarians with big ideas is getting access to the large enterprises—Fortune 500 businesses, state governments and federal bureaucracies, nongovernmental agencies, and the like—that dominate American society. The scope of these concerns makes their problems and weaknesses of fundamental interest and import to the society's well-being. Unfortunately, their bureaucratic and protective natures makes them obscure and, sometimes purposefully, impenetrable.

"We can't just get [audiences] to feel guilty or sad or outraged about certain situations," says Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Trent. "We also need to give them the names and the faces of the people who are responsible for creating the situations the films are depicting, but more often than not, nobody gives them the names and the faces."

The simple reason is, it's a pain. Large institutions move slowly to begin with, and they have the legal resources and media savvy to stall and deflect any serious attempts to examine them. Singlehandedly pressing the issue is a stressful undertaking. The financial strain alone can cause filmmakers to give up the waiting game.

But it can pay off. Trent, for example, was in Panama shooting The Panama Deception with members of the Empowerment Project, when she put in repeated interview requests to General Maxwell Thurman, head of the Southern Command, who had run the war. No one had gotten through to interview him, een six months after the war's end.

Trent and her crew were shooting at Albrook Air Force Base, which had been relinquished to the Panamanian government and was being used by USAID as a refugee center. U.S. military police came in and tried to shut down her shoot. She raised hell, refused to quit, and told them they were out of their jurisdiction. She called the USAID regional office in Costa Rica, who then complained to the Southern Command. That evening, she began to publicize the issue in radio interviews back to the States. "It was already hitting the fan. By the next day it had hit the State Depart­ ment, the embassy, several congressional offices. And this all came back to the Southern Command," she recollects.

Then she paid an unannounced visit to the command center, where a parade of increasingly high-ranking officers wanted to talk to her. Now known as a major thorn in their side, she left and continued faxing requests, copying them to the Center for Constitutional Rights and various congressional offices. As the heat increased, an interview was granted, then uncannily postponed until after the date she was supposed to leave. In response, she moved back her departure, and they finally capitulated.

When she went in for the interview, the general candidly dropped that one goal of the war was to grind the Panamanian defense forces down to nothing—something no one else had stated on record. "He actuaLly came out and said it," Trent recalls. "That clinched it."

It's no surprise that Trent found an obstructive military at every turn. She already had two films that discredited previous U.S. foreign policy misadventures, Destination: Nicaragua (1986) and Cover-Up: Behind the Iran Contra Affair (1988), while they were still hot political situations. Thus her job has been doubly difficult, because she must get to the underlying reality of an issue at the same time the bureaucracies in question are focusing a broad array of resources to obfuscate the same issue. Trent confronted strength with strength, but the result was that she and the Empowerment Project finished The Panama Deception in 1992 in a state of total physical and emotional exhaustion.

Frederick Wiseman produced Titicut Follies in 1967. The film, now a classic example of direct cinema, also became the prototype for a career-long series of institutional analyses that are strictly observational and devoid of interviews. So, in that sense, he does not directly confront his subjects, and they understand he is not seeking a point-by-point answer to criticisms of them. But he is sadly critical of the institutions he investigates, and his films are not devoid of timely subtext. Basic Training, for example, was released in 1971, during the Vietnam War.

When attempting to gain the permissions he needs, "I usually try to ask the person in charge of the institution," says the filmmaker. "That's something I learned in the army. You go to the top and you waste less time." He begins with a phone call, then an exchange of letters, and follows with a personal visit, during which he outlines his project, usually a month-long period of unlimited access to the institution. He follows up with a comprehensive letter, "not in legal language, but an outline of terms," which the person in charge signs on the bottom and returns. He plays it "as straight as possible" to avoid future misunderstandings. "I always tell the truth. I don't ever bullshit the people I deal with," a practice, he says, in which "ethics and tactics coincide."

Al Maysles, who with his late brother David made Salesman, Gray Gardens, and other classics of American cinema verite, walked in cold to CBS and borrowed a camera for his first film, on Soviet psychiatric hospitals, in 1955. With no contacts in Moscow, however, he got nowhere. He decided to sneak into a party of top Soviet politicians. The American journalist ahead of him in line handed his credentials back to Maysles after showing them to the KGB, and Maysles presented them as his, a ruse so transparent the KGB agents laughed, then inexplicably waved him through. At the event, Maysles met the Soviet head of psychiatry and left with an appointment.

"I live by coincidences," he says. "That's how l do everything. I just live from one coincidence to another to another. It's amazing. My brother and I have always had easy access because people trust us. It's a gift. And with that comes the confidence you will be trusted."

Kevin Rafferty, who with his brother Pierce had produced Atomic Cafe, and Jim Ridgeway, a Village Voice reporter, wanted to do a film on the Posse Comitatus, a violent racist underground organization. In the course of raising money for the project, they had lunch with a wealthy woman who double-booked them with another supplicant, and that was Michael Moore, pre-Roger and Me, trying to get money for his progressive newspaper in Flint, Michigan. Moore said, "I know some Nazis." Together the three made the prescient Blood in the Face.

Bob Miles, a Michigan-area leader of the ultra-right, had been on a radio show of Moore's and knew Ridgeway as a reporter for the Village Voice. They did two days of interviews, and Miles acknowledged on camera that he understood the filmmakers did not share his coalition's views but that he was using the film as a chance to get out his message. "It seemed to me sort of an essential issue. It's a fundamental question of the film: Who is doing what to whom," says Rafferty.

Getting in, however, does not mean filmmakers ' problems are at an end. Often they have just gained access to an organization that is deeply inimical to their values, and that fact can be hard to conceal. Tensions arise in an atmosphere of forced intimacy and mutual mistrust. Rafferty's experience is an extreme example.

"Before going among that group, I was very apprehensive," he recalls. "But during the first encounter, it was all I could do to keep a straight face. They were saying there were 35,000 Viet Cong in British Columbia ready to invade the U.S. It was a matter of being polite." The filmmakers were then allowed to come back for an interdenominational meeting of the heartland 's rightist fringe.

But at a cross burning later, he began to feel differently. "There were hard-nosed, non crazy people who said to us, 'You get your movie, and then we'll get you."' Rafferty was shaken.

As Rafferty's experience demonstrates, sometimes a hostile group will participate in a film because it's a chance to get across its point of view, and an unfriendly hearing is better than no hearing at all. Often, however, reluctant subjects will call in their experts. They may be called public affairs, public relations, public information, public outreach, corporate communications, or publicity representa­ tivesyou name it—but underneath, they're all PR people, "flaks" to journalists and often to one another.

Flaks come in three basic flavors. The first is the burned-out journalist who switched allegiances because he or she got sick of the low pay or the long hours. These are still apologetic about selling out. The second is the communications school graduate who doesn't mourn the passing of his or her idealism because he or she never had any. And at the top of the heap there is an upper class distinguishable from the hacks by their varied career in and out of political service, news media, and corporations. Among other things, their celebrity gives credibility to their employer of the moment. David Gergen is the most visible recent example.

Depending on their clout in the organization and their perception of the danger of a project, they can either move it along or kill any access at all. One of their chief jobs, however, is to provide a buffer for organizations to hide behind.

"You know going in that you can get these interviews, but they're just going to lie through their teeth. That's their job," says Trent, who interviewed Pete Williams, then a Pentagon spokesman, now a reporter for NBC News. Trent cut back to his repeated denials in The Panama Deception, and after a while audiences began laughing, "because it's just going to be one more denial. But it is useful if you can use it in your film in a way that makes it clear to the audience they're getting the company line," Trent points out.

Documentary production, particularly independent production, is a minuscule sliver of the media industry. Being mistaken for the "working press" can have advantages and disadvantages. Most people don't understand the difference. Many of Trent's Panamanian informants had been so disgusted with American press coverage of the war that at first they were distrustful of her as well. Rafferty was in Keene, New Hampshire, during the 1992 presidential primary season, shooting his documentary Feed, with press passes his team had made themselves with a copy machine and a laminator. The passes even fooled the Secret Service. But at an event during which Newt Gingrich was to convince conservative realtors that Bush was their man, staffers came over to Rafferty's crew and, seeing a 16mm camera, thought they were filming an attack ad for Patrick Buchanan.

Organizations concerned with their image will often grant access, then try to control the filmmaker after the shooting is over. During the editing of Trent's Iran-Contra film, she was surprised by a conference call from the Reagan administration's lawyers, who said, "We can't wait to see the finished piece."

"That's a legal, okay way to intimidate people," Trent says. As she points out, the independent is particularly vulnerable to libel and invasion of privacy lawsuits, because, even if frivolous, they can bankrupt a filmmaker. She ran cuts of Iran-Contra past her lawyers, who finally said they would represent her gratis if she was sued.

Wiseman's legal problems after Titicut Follies are legendary, and after Gimme Shelter, which captured a murder during the Rollings Stones set at Altamont, it took the Maysles brothers six months to get a release from the band, which they managed only after a mutual friend approached Mick Jagger. The response Blood in the Face received was more Delphic. Ridgeway was at a screening in Kansas City.

Three men in suits approached him after the movie. "We're from the Klan," they said. "Interesting movie. Have a nice day."


Peter Burgess Smith is a documentary producer Living in San Francisco. His film 1,000 Millionaires will be released in April