Three notable documentarians met to lead a discussion on what comes next for socially-conscious filmmakers.
On the evening of November 9, crowds took to Union Square to protest President-elect Donald Trump's victory and its potentially far-reaching implications. Just a block away, at the Criterion Collection offices, notable documentary filmmakers Michael Moore, Laura Poitras, and Kirsten Johnson were deep in somber conversation. They had convened to present Johnson's film Cameraperson, but the evening quickly turned to what they felt were pressing matters.
"Nobody really bothered with [Trump] because I don't think any liberals or Hillary supporters thought this was going to happen," Moore said during an hour-long discussion. "There was no sense of urgency among liberally-minded people. I've been screaming bloody murder he was gonna win. Everybody laughed and thought it was a joke. I'm so upset and angry."
The fact that Moore was one of the few to accurately predict the outcome of the election was not lost on Johnson. "Michael understood the potential of today," said Johnson, who shot Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Poitras' Oscar-winning CITIZENFOUR. "Some of us were in denial. All of us feel really powerful feelings today."
"We've all met some awful characters in our lifetime, but even the most awful characters have a sliver of empathy. Trump is a complete sociopath." -Michael Moore
But, as the filmmakers were quick to acknowledge, emotional responses should not supersede action. "How do we act?" asked Johnson. "What do we do? How do we acknowledge the capacity of this room to be part of a response?" Making documentaries, Johnson explained, put her and fellow documentarians at the epicenter of history in the present tense. As such, they possess a unique power as social agents.
"There is a state of profound shock and a real sense of fear that these are dark days ahead," said Poitras. "We agreed that it was time for the documentary community to come together and think about what we can do to resist what's happening in this country."
A filmmaker's responsibility
Documentarians, according to Poitras, should think about their role as a necessary antidote to media oversight. Now, this role is more important than ever, given the media mea culpa laid bare in the wake of last week's elections.
Of course, this isn't the first time the media at large have failed to accurately assess a political situation. When Moore made Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004, "the media had absolutely failed us so brutally in terms of doing cheerleading for the war," Poitras remembered. "Michael really educated people about the horrible Iraq War. I remember seeing it at a big cinema and thinking, 'This is fucking amazing, the power of documentary.' This was a crowd of people who were going to the movies to buy popcorn and be entertained. He was able to achieve that level of impact in terms of reaching audiences."
"Exposure is a big thing for us to think about," added Johnson, "in terms of what did or didn't get exposed in the lead-up to this election."
In March of 2011, when activists initially began pushing back against the Syrian government, filmmakers from Damascus whom Johnson had met on a previous documentary contacted her with a plea for help. "They asked me, 'Do you know anyone? We're totally outgunned here.' I said, 'I know Michael Moore.'" Johnson called Moore and asked him to issue words of support for the citizens opposing Assad. That day, they met on a street corner in New York. Johnson trained the camera on Moore as he spoke "precisely and eloquently about the conflict in Syria, before anyone in the United States was paying attention to anything."
"They know who's out there in Union Square protesting. If anyone protests, their face is recorded and their identity is trapped." -Kirsten Johnson
Johnson sent the footage to Damascus. "It went like a flash through the entire Middle East," she said. "People opposing the dictatorship relied on that piece of footage while they were in prison, being tortured. To this day, I'll meet someone [in the Middle East] who will say, 'That piece of footage really mattered to me.'"
With exposure comes vulnerability and risk. "What do we expose, what do we expose ourselves to?" asked Johnson. In today's landscape, footage can be easily traced back to the filmmaker. Poitras has addressed this problem by creating an encrypted SecureDrop platform via Field of Vision, her media publication. But filmmakers also face challenges to their rights in the field, especially during protests. "They're taking people's pictures," said Johnson. "They know who's out there in Union Square protesting. If anyone protests, their face is recorded and their identity is trapped. Our images can be tracked in ways they could never before."
The three filmmakers did not mince their words when it came to discussing America's future under Trump. Moore, in particular, excoriated the Present-elect for what the filmmaker perceives to be his dangerously narcissistic qualities. "At least Ted Cruz is an ideologue," Moore said, "but Trump's ideology is Donald J. Trump. That's all he believes in. We've all met some awful characters in our lifetime, but even the most awful characters have a sliver of empathy. Trump is a complete sociopath."
Just after the release of Moore's new documentary Michael Moore in TrumpLand, the President-elect tweeted a manipulated audio clip that led his supporters to believe that Moore—thus, the film—was pro-Trump. "Instead of coming after me, he embraced it and put out a doctored clip of the film that made it seem like I'm endorsing him," said Moore. "I don't think he started running for president to be president. I don't think he wanted the job. I actually know that he didn't. I can't say how, but I know. I know that it was all to hedge getting a better deal from NBC, re-upping for The Celebrity Apprentice. He was trying to pit another network against NBC, and he thought that if he ran for president, for a month, there would be these great rallies—because he knew, he’s a famous person on TV—thousands of people would show up and it would kind of get this juice going." (At his press conference, Trump called Mexicans rapists and murderers; he was immediately fired from NBC.)
To no one's surprise, Moore closed by issuing a political call to action. "They’re going to try to get as much done as quickly as they can before the public rises up,” he said. “We have to take over the Democratic party. Democrats have got to block every fucking appointment, just like the Republicans were going to do."
"This is not the time to engage in superficial bullshit," added Poitras.