“Once in a while, a documentarian is actually yearned for.”
Stephen Maing is the rare storyteller persistent enough to follow a film over several years that will anger people in important places. Maing’s new documentary, Crime + Punishment, follows 12 police officers who take the NYPD to court for targeting and arresting citizens from minority neighborhoods in order to fill their department quotas. Along with his producing partner Ross Tuttle, Maing had already spent years following police/community relations before embarking on this project. After the 2013 federal hearing failed to bring reform in New York, the officers Maing had been following decided to become more transparent in their efforts to push back against these harmful practices.
“From that point on, more cops joined by word of mouth,” said Maing to No Film School. “Soon enough there were 12 main plaintiffs who were willing to come forward. It was an organic process of this story unfolding in this way that one person would lead us to the next and to the next, and one might be a cop, the next person might be an activist, the next person might be the lawyer who then leads us to the private investigator, who leads us to a young man being under siege for falsified charges, to another mother who was seeking out private investigators. The story radiated outward from this central idea of officers trying to push back against the quotas system they see as harming the community.”
Maing sat down with No Film School to talk about making the Sundance Impact Award-winning film, from crafting a story that works on a macro level to the journalistic decisions that surround the use of hidden cameras.
NFS: When you started Crime + Punishment, you were already familiar with NYPD officers who had come out about the illegal quota practices in the Department. As more officers came out, you wove more people into this story. Was it important to be open to following where one person might lead you?
Maing: Absolutely. This film is about an issue that people think they know a lot about already, or they're seeing a lot in the media and maybe are even fatigued to some degree. We wanted to make a very different kind of film that would get audiences to live through these experiences in a new way, in a very firsthand manner. At the same time, I wanted the film to have a structure that was built around organically woven, multi-character portraits. If done that way, we could show the single action of an officer that receives a directive to go out and get a certain amount of arrests and summonses, and then we'd see the tremendous ripple effect through the community. I structured the film that way because I wanted to get away from the traditional, linear narrative of the single protagonist.
NFS: As in, not just one character receives the full focus of the film?
Maing: I wanted to avoid a traditional three-act structure and diversify the burden of responsibility through multiple subjects. A single person would have to bear the brunt of the pressure from the city or the department or otherwise. Featuring multiple people enables a corroborating effect. If you don't believe this person, well then, what do you think about this other person's version of it? And if you don't believe him, what do you think of this mother who's been struggling because her son has been in Rikers for 12 months? And so forth.
That way everything that you are learning is encoded into the next scene, and yet we can move forward without having to track a singular storyline. Each person is playing a role to inform the next, like a genetic code or a helix, genes that the sum total of all information constructs a narrative of a person. If you just looked at any single piece of information, you would never be able to identify that bigger picture.
"A documentarian is not there to exploit the media to get the narrative out that allows them to achieve their agenda."
NFS: What was your strategy when filming different subjects? Sometimes we see you having to film covertly so that you're not drawing attention to the officers. Was your strategy to "one-man-band" it out of necessity for the privacy and security of the characters?
Maing: There were a lot of situations where Ross and I would go out and track a character from afar and try to cover an officer on the beat. That said, yes, in many situations throughout the filming, it was a one-man-band kind of thing. There was a great need for intimacy and [for keeping a] low-profile.
At the same time, I wanted to push the film so that it shifts genres. I wanted a highly cinematic mode that could be spellbinding and let you live in these spaces and capture imagination so that it would keep viewers invested. I designed aerials to create this topography of the city every time a new officer or precinct was introduced. That choice ping-pongs the viewer around the city and proves that it's a systemic issue. It's a bit of a metaphor in that we can't see the narratives that lie below. We can't see that systems of abuse and oppression exist in a way that disconnects us from the on-the-ground human impact of it all.
When a more pressing situation arose with journalistic information unfolding in real time, we had to really make sure that the fourth wall could be broken. I wanted my voice to cut through and I wanted to provide a transparent engagement. At the end of the day, you can't tell your subjects to ignore you when something important is unfolding. You can't redact your presence.
NFS: You can never entirely redact your presence as a filmmaker.
Maing: It's a superficial convention, this phenomenon of immersive filmmaking. It's now more a fad than it is a functional process, and I didn’t want to be confined to that. I wanted to let the viewer know that there were different modes of engagement.
In a moment of levity, like when the private investigator is taking my camera in order to give me a pastry, it was an opportunity to show that we don't play this kind of distant “objective” role. We're very much "in the pocket." This is the only way you get to tell these stories. You have to have your subject's trust and they have to be willing to bring you into their world. Showing this provided us with opportunities to present information that diversified our understanding of who these people are. Once in a while, a documentarian is actually yearned for, and in a way, it’s a sad thing that speaks to the urgency of these problems that remain unseen. It’s difficult to navigate, because we're not trying to be advocates for our subjects. They understand that anything goes, sure, but that doesn't include actually being a spokesperson for or a collaborator with them. A documentarian is not there to exploit the media and get the narrative out that allows them in.
NFS: Some moments in the film consist of secret filming. You will use a tape recorder or a hidden camera in a watch or a pen. Was that a filmmaking tool that you brought to the story or was that just out of necessity to the officers?
Maing: Some of the cops had been making recordings on their own, and others wanted to and didn't have the tools to do so. Since they didn't have the privilege to meet with each other as much as I was meeting with each of them, I became one of the conduit of information over the years. In some situations that felt appropriate, I was willing to lend a hand.
I think there's a very delicate question there that pushes up against the boundaries of what traditional journalism deems appropriate and inappropriate. Is this aiding and abetting of a story or creating a biased relationship with the subject matter? For me, we have to do whatever allows us to interrogate the issue at hand and get closer to it. So fuck it. Do it.
At the end of the day, it is a struggle. People are going to vet this humanistically, cinematically, as a film, and then they're going to vet it journalistically. There will surely be efforts to dismantle certain decision-making that went into the film. In that particular case, if you want to discredit it, that's fine. However, imagine if I hadn't helped some of these guys. It would have taken them an additional eight months to get up to speed and then they would've missed the opportunity to collect the evidence they wanted.
NFS: Someone in the film says something to the effect of, "You think a group of officers is going to come out to public again like this in 100 years?" The person is speaking to the rareness of the event. You were there to capture the story. Based on your efforts making this film, what would be your advice to other documentary filmmakers?
Maing: While it's all about access, the access won't allow you entry into certain aspects of the story. In this case, we had access to cops who were speaking out, and yet there was an opportunity to have a deepening story. As the years wore on, that's exactly what allowed for a verite film to be made featuring very intimate moments about people engaged in a very sensitive period of their lives. There was no way for us to make this film if we hadn't made the first three. It’s important to care enough to want to stick it through and let the story and relationships guide you. Other than that, if it feels hard and kind of torturous and you find yourself struggling and hurting, then you're probably doing the right thing. You're probably on the right track.
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