'Alt-Right: Age of Rage' Filmmaker on Documenting the Alt-Right: 'Develop Thick Skin'
What do some liberal film critics and alt-right trolls have in common? They don’t like Adam Bhala Lough’s latest film.
When Adam Bhala Lough, a filmmaker of color and the son of immigrants, started noticing a momentum of people purporting an American ethnostate, he decided he needed to roll the camera. "You need to understand what these guys are saying, especially if you have any type of interest in combating it," Bhala Lough told No Film School. But covering the ideas of the alt-right is not an easy sell.
Alt-Right: Age of Rage, which is out this week, opens with a scene from from a pro-Nazi conference in pre-war United States. It then shifts to another where a car rampages down a street and into a crowd of people. Following players behind both the alt-right and Antifa, the films leads up to the tragedy of Charlottesville.
Bhala Lough began the film before Breitbart News, white nationalism, and the Trump presidential campaign were on the radar for mainstream America. “During the final months of filming The New Radical, Cody Wilson started talking a lot about the alt-right," explained Bhala Lough. "I never heard of the alt-right before so I just had no idea what it was he was talking about."
After witnessing Wilson shift over the course of a few years from “almost leftist anarchist” to “almost conservative, small business owner flirting with the alt-right,” Bhala Lough decided the movement was something he needed to understand.
Bhala Lough sat down with No Film School to discuss capturing the events in the film with his DP Chris Messina and a Sony FS7, being approached by the former Mayor of Charlottesville after the world premiere, and why critics telling him not to make movies like this should save the drama for their mama.
No Film School: Once you decided to make this film, how did you figure out who the main characters would be in Alt-Right: Age of Rage? There are prominent figures from the alt-right as well as Antifa. How did these characters fall into place?
Adam Bhala Lough: We reached out to a lot of people. Looking back at my original treatment, there are a lot of other characters in there, like Milo Yiannopoulos, for example. I was exchanging emails with Milo for a few months and we were actually about to go film with him in Miami when the news about the whole podcast in which he talked approvingly about pedophilia was released. That basically destroyed him. He had to go totally underground and so he canceled the shoot.
On the other hand, Richard Spencer was very eager to film. You have ideas of characters you want to film with, and maybe you put in the treatment being the main subject or one of the main subjects. Sometimes they end up not wanting to film at all and you pivot around other characters.
Daryle Lamont Jenkins came in to play because, as I was researching the alt-right, I learned about Antifa. I thought, who would know more about the alt-right than an Antifa leader who had been tracking them for 20 years? I just found Daryle in videos on YouTube and in news articles, and so I reached out to him directly and got on a phone call with him. He was also very eager to talk.
I think it was actually in the same trip we ended up flying out, filming with Daryle in Philly, and then filming with Gavin McInnes in New York, and then Richard Spencer in DC, and Jared Taylor in Northern Virginia. That formed a basis of the first teaser that we then took to the CPH:DOX forum in Copenhagen.
NFS: What is the conversation like with people when you reach out, in terms of explaining where you're coming from and getting access to follow them around with the camera?
Bhala Lough: A lot of these guys, specifically Richard and Gavin, at the time were getting a lot of press requests. I don't know how much they're vetting these particular press requests, so when you show up, they don't always know which one you are. That definitely happens. In some cases, the producers or the production company will reach out and do a general media request.
To be honest, with the big characters, with the big fish, it's almost always me reaching out personally. I write a very long, passionate email and get a response. The producers or the production company is generally just ignored. It almost always comes down to me just having to sit down and do that and approaching them as an artist whose done these other projects that I can talk about, and who's interested in listening to them, and hearing what they're saying. I'm not a confrontational filmmaker. I'm not Michael Moore.
If they do a little research into that, or in most cases they have heard of my previous work, then they're more likely to want to talk, or at least to get on a phone call and hear out my pitch.
"I'm not a confrontational filmmaker. I'm not Michael Moore."
NFS: As in your work on The New Radical, you are documenting people whose opinions you don’t share. What is your strategy to be able to have conversations with, say alt-right guys?
Bhala Lough: Well, my strategy's always the same. The films that I do are for a broader audience. I'm not coming from a deeply intellectual standpoint or a niche standpoint. I just want to understand the real basics behind what they're about.
I approach it from a very basic level, almost asking dumb questions to get the answers. I also approach it from more of a level of a conversation where there's a back and forth, rather than a bullet point list of questions where you keep telling the subject to repeat the question back in their answer and do really annoying shit like that. For me, it's more of a conversation. I'm a guy who knows nothing about the topic. I want to understand first.
NFS: In the film, there’s a discussion about these competing theories of quarantine versus inoculation, in terms of ideas, racist ideas in the film specifically, and a debate about whether it’s best to try to quarantine them from spreading or let them out so the public will be inoculated against their spread. Is that something that parallels your thought process in filmmaking?
Bhala Lough: We had to understand that there would be blow-back. There would be people who would be upset that we were giving these guys a so-called platform. But that didn't affect or change anything in my technique or my tactics at all because I'm not going to change the way that I make movies based on somebody's opinion on how I should make a movie.
That’s the one thing. I think that if you want to get down into the nitty gritty of the discussion of the metaphor that Mark Potok was talking about, I agree with Potok. I think that sunshine is the best disinfectant. I think that you we need to understand what these guys are saying, especially if you have any type of interest in combating it. You need to understand it first.
On a larger level, I started thinking about this aspect after I premiered the film. A lot of people say these things about my films, and this film in particular, like, “Oh, you can't give these people a platform.” A lot of these people, pretty much all, are white progressives.
They have to understand that I'm a person of color. I need to know what these people are saying because my mom is an immigrant; half of my family members are immigrants from a "shithole" country. They're under threat by this rhetoric, and so for a white liberal elitist progressive to tell me that I can't do a film on it is, in my opinion, coming from a place of extreme white privilege. So, please save that drama for your mama.
"We had to re-edit the entire film and it ended up getting a completely different third act based on Charlottesville."
NFS: What was your strategy to cover people and events that we see in the film, like events where white nationalists are getting together to celebrate being white?
Bhala Lough: With the American Renaissance conference, I had gotten permission ahead of time from Jared Taylor to come down and film the conference. We flew down to Tennessee. The American Renaissance conference was happening inside this building, and then there was a very large planned protest happening outside the building. Half our characters were going to be inside the building. The other half, including Daryle, were going to be outside the building.
We basically split up the crew and we decided that Chris Messina and our producer Alex, who were both white, were going to be inside at the American Renaissance conference, and then me, being darker-skinned, was going to stay outside with Antifa. We hired a local cameraman from Tennessee who worked with them, and that's how we did it.
Chris and I have worked together for five or six years. I don't really need to communicate with him at all. If anything, I might see something and motion to film something that's going on, a conversation or whatever. But we're very comfortable working together, so I don't really have to communicate with him at all on set.
He’d be shooting with a Sony FS7, and he has a backpack with, I don't know, four or five lenses in it that he just carries around. We both try to look out for it so it doesn't get stolen, and generally we'll have a PA. Unless it's a really stripped down shoot, there usually will be a PA to look after our stuff.
Most of the time I'm running sound. I've got the Zoom H6 and I've mic’ed up the subject that we're filming with. In rare instances, if it's two subjects that are really important, I'll mic both of them because I have two Sennheiser lavs.
That’s the strategy if it’s an enclosed space. If it's outside and it's a really crazy event, like a protest, I will mic up the main subjects, but I'll also have a boom and I'll be booming because I know I might lose him or her and I'll just be chasing them around. At Tennessee, I had a boom, but that's more of a rare setup. I think I used to use that more often at the beginning, on my first few films.
Usually Chris will then look through the footage at night. He's up late just looking through the footage and seeing how it came out and how it was. He might text me, "Yeah, this looks good," or "This didn't really turn out," or, "I caught something really crazy here." But then I'm asleep.
NFS: What was your strategy at Charlottesville? Were you and Chris there again with this setup or did you have someone else? Did you think it would go down the way that it did?
Bhala Lough: Chris and I were not there. What happened was, I was home finishing the film because the film was basically done. It was going to end in Tennessee. Daryle had said, "You guys should really come to Charlottesville." I was wrapping this thing up, rushing to submit it to festivals. Chris was not even available; he was on another shoot. We sent one guy down there and all that footage was from him and another young cameraman on the ground who we were able to partner up with.
At that point, we just stopped. When it happened, the next Monday, we go first thing in the morning, we sit down in the production office and we're like, “Well, I guess we have to change the whole film now.” So, we did. We just stopped submitting it to festivals. We had to change the whole thing. We had to re-edit the entire film and it ended up getting a completely different third act based on Charlottesville.
Then in December, we went back and we shot a whole bunch of follow-ups with Spencer and Daryle and then another protest with Spencer in front of the White House. We created an entirely different third act.
"People were being beaten and bloodied in the middle of the street of an American town while police, some of the most militarized police in the history of this country, were standing around watching."
NFS: I was able to be at the premiere for your last film, which had many different reactions. What was the premiere like for Alt-Right: Age of Rage? Did people in the film attend?
Bhala Lough: This one was great. It was in Austin, Texas. We didn't necessarily invite anyone, but we didn't stop anyone from coming. Anyone who wanted to come could come and Daryle ending up coming, so of course Daryle and I did a Q&A afterwards and it went great.
But the craziest thing about the premiere is that the mayor of Charlottesville, Mayor Signor, was there. I had never met the mayor. I should say ex-mayor, because he quit right after the tragedy. I think we might have reached out to try to get an interview and they declined. I'm sure he didn't want to talk about it.
He came up to me before the screening and he said, "Hey, I'm Mayor Signor," and I was like, “What?” I was shocked. Apparently he was in town and was giving a speech at SXSW, so he was there already and he read about the film. He sat through the entire film and the screening was packed. They gave us a premium slot, to shout out SXSW, so there was not an empty seat.
Interestingly enough, the mayor was quite upset by the film. He came up to me afterward and he said, "Look, I'm very conflicted about your film. There's a lot of stuff in there that really upset me." He said, "I was really upset by the way that my police force looked," and I listened to him. I said, "Thank you for your opinion. Obviously this is something that's very close to home for you, so I understand why you would say that." I said, "But I think that the 16 people who were injured and then the young woman, Heather Heyer, who died, and her family, are equally upset at your police force."
The thing is, I also read the 300 page independent review of the Charlottesville tragedy. There was supposed to be a cop stationed at the intersection where Heather Heyer was run down. That cop got scared and left the post. The Charlottesville PD and the Virginia State Police did not communicate with each other at all that whole day. There was a huge failure in communication and that caused a tremendous amount of violence to happen.
As you read in the review, they specifically decided to let a certain amount of violence happen so that they could call for a state of emergency and clear everyone out. People were being beaten and bloodied in the middle of the street of an American town while police, some of the most militarized police in the history of this country, were standing around watching. We presented the events that happened, and I'll tell you, it's a lot worse than how it's presented in the movie. If you read that independent review, it's a lot worse.
Bhala Lough: But I understand why the mayor was upset. I didn't take it personally, but I had to let him know that we have to agree to disagree on that one. I don't know how he feels now after seeing the movie back in March and some time has passed. I hope he did feel that there was some important stuff in the movie that needed to get out, and I think as somebody who has basically, in a lot of ways, had his career just destroyed by the alt-right, white supremacists, and anti-Semites, I hope in retrospect that he does appreciate some parts of the film, though I understand why he'll always be upset by it.
NFS: With everything you’ve learned so far in making films that are upsetting and controversial, what would be your advice to other filmmakers?
Bhala Lough: The obvious, I guess, is that you need to develop a really thick skin. You need to have an understanding early on that not everybody's going to love what you're doing, and that's okay. At the end of the day, the people who are most important are the ones around you, your family, and your close friends. I think a lot the thick skin that I have comes from my mom. She's really a tough cookie and she loves what I'm doing. She understands what I'm doing. She feels that it's important. I think you need people like that around you because it is a hard road to travel.
One piece of advice is to really go through, what's the worst-case scenario? Then lay it out there in your head, and really sit with it and live it in your head. You will then feel a lot better when you realize that it never really does get that bad. I can testify to that.
I'm strengthened by other filmmakers, too. I met an amazing filmmaker in Copenhagen who I did a panel with. He's a Syrian filmmaker, he spent a year with Al Qaeda, documenting a family in Syria’s arm of Al Qaeda.
NFS: Is that the filmmaker behind Of Fathers and Sons?
Bhala Lough: Yes, Talal Derki. Hearing his stories and trading war stories with him made me feel a lot better. It really strengthened me; that guy could be killed by Al Qaeda any minute now. Filmmakers like that strengthen you, so meet other filmmakers like that. Talk to them, become friends, become pen pals or whatever if they're in another country. I always meet these great filmmakers in other countries who are doing similar things as me, and they strengthen me.
It's so important that as independent filmmakers who are doing interesting or even dangerous work, that we have a community and that we stick together.