Writing is often a privilege that we often forget has power. While many of us can write freely about anything that we find meaning in, communities in the world, including the inside of the U.S., are fighting for the right to write the truth that affects their communities. Is there a way to fight against those powers that take our freedom of the press away?

First-time documentarians Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler set out to show us how to fight for this right in their Sundance film, Bad Press

The Muscogee (Creek) Citizen-directed film follows the complex issue of a reporter for Mvskoke Media, who wants to give her readers access to all the information relevant to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. This powerful, funny, and delicate story crafted by Landsberry-Baker and Peeler showcases the importance of this story, and how one voice can make a difference. 

Landsberry-Baker and Peeler sat down with No Film School before the film’s Sundance premiere to talk about the film’s importance, the struggles of making the documentary, and their hopes for the film’s future.

'Bad Press' Sundance interview with the filmmakers'Bad Press'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

No Film School: How did you both become interested in the subject of Mvskoke Media's struggle for free press rights around the time that the 2015 Free Press Act was repealed?

Rebecca Landsberry-Baker: I am a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and also a former tribal media journalist and editor at what was at the time the Muscogee Nation News, but now it's just Mvskoke Media. I was born and raised there in Oklahoma, right outside of our tribal headquarters in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. 

This was my community, and I had worked with Angel, Jared, and Sterling in this previous life as a journalist working and covering the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. I was very familiar with the story, and with the issues that journalists working in tribal media are facing, including censorship, and transparency issues that are there in Indian Country. Also, we deal with this issue in my role currently as the executive director of the Native American Journalists Association.

So, free press in Indian Country is one of the issues that we tackle. No other nonprofits or spaces are dedicated to talking about this issue, and how it plays out in Indigenous communities. It was a story that was very personal to me, and I'm connected to it in so many different ways. And my husband has been along for this ride since we were dating a decade ago, I would come home and tell him stories about what was happening with the tribe. He would say, "Your life should be a documentary. It's such a wild roller coaster that often tribal journalists are on." 

I said, "I know, it's so wild." Fast forward to when the Free Press Act of 2015, which was lauded as this great step for one of the five tribes at that time that had free press protections. They were doing some hard-hitting news.

In late 2018, on the horizon of an election season, when it was repealed—suddenly, I said, “We have to document this. We can't just let this be swept under the rug like so many times it is in Indigenous communities by the tribal government.” 

Thankfully, my husband Garrett [F. Baker], who is also a producer on Bad Press, he and Joe were friends, and Joe is an established documentarian. We came to him, and said, "Hey, Joe, what do you think about joining up and getting on board for this project?" Thankfully, Joe wanted to sign on board, so I'll let him share from his perspective what drew him to the project. 

Joe Peeler: Yeah, it was a swift process after that. We spoke at the beginning of the week, and I was flying out to Okmulgee on Friday to film over the weekend and met Angel that weekend. She's so passionate, she's so funny. She's fast-talking, she's smoking, she's cursing. She's transparent, and she just cares so much about free press, and she cares so much about the Muscogee citizens.

That was kind of the final piece of the puzzle. Because the issue is very interesting, I think, but it can get very heady and it can get very intellectual. You have to learn about tribal politics, tribal governments, how everything works, and learn all this information. Then, you just meet Angel and it's like, here's this person who is just out to kick some ass. That weekend I filmed with her, and came back like, "Oh, we have to pursue this. She's going to fight this fight.”

NFS: Watching the documentary, there was so much I learned that I didn't know at all. For instance, the Nation's constitution is fairly new when, and, in many ways, it is still being written today. As filmmakers in the process, how do you see your role in informing the multiple communities that you're reaching out to about the newness and the corruption of these laws, and how do you navigate the storytelling tools you have to support the stories that need to be told?

Landsberry-Baker: I think something that we've highlighted throughout the storytelling process is how, in Indigenous communities especially, one vote can make all of the difference. To make sure that there's accountability between the actions of the tribal government and the citizens who are electing these officials, that's how the free press supports tribal sovereignty while empowering the people to make educated and informed decisions and be educated and informed voters. 

Again, 10 votes can make all of the difference. You see how something like that plays out in our film. I believe it's important to be able to show the Muscogee journalists and their fight for freedom of the press in Indian Country, but it is also something that lays a blueprint for the rest of Indian Country and tribes that may not have a free press. This is one story of how it can be done. 

I hope that our story makes an impact on my fellow citizens, and on those journalists that are out there covering their tribal nations in Indian Country. It is also very exciting to be sharing this story with a wider general audience, who, like we've seen many times, don't have any idea that this is happening here in the U.S. So, I think to a large degree, it can be an exciting opportunity for tribes who are still shaping their tribal governments, one story, and one person at a time to some degree.

It's a great opportunity to look at what the Muscogee people have done in this fight, and how some of those things may be applied to their democracy. It can be very exciting. Again, the journalists that are in the story are facing a lot of these issues that we talked about, but also injecting a lot of Indigenous humor, which is also important to me as a filmmaker to show how funny and diverse my community can be. 

Peeler: Yeah, I think what the question is pointing out is that the government and democracy of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is young enough that it can still be affected by a single person. The course of that democracy's history can be changed by somebody taking a stand, which is not something that you always see on a larger scale. That was a really exciting element of the story for us, which was if Angel's successful here, then she could change the history of her tribe. Watching that process unfold in all of the ramifications, I hope you will be able to screen in multiple other Native tribes. As Becca said, we've now got a blueprint on film for how this process might work, and that's an incredible thing. Angel's still processing the fact that she's that person who's fighting. I think that's been fun to see her in that role.

NFS: It's the beginning of the free press revolution on film, and I love it. This is the first feature-length documentary for both of you. What does your collaboration look like during the production process?

Peeler: Becca is one of the preeminent experts on the free press. She's experienced censorship firsthand. She grew up in the tribe. She's a member of the tribe. She knows all the journalists, and she provides all the access. She knows everything about the Muscogee (Creek) government in and out. I am a total outsider. So, the process of filming was a learning experience for me.

The fact that I don't have the inside baseline knowledge and that I am an outsider allowed us to toggle back and forth while we were interviewing subjects or filming to say, “Okay, I'm the first audience. If I don't understand, then nobody's going to understand who's outside of the Native journalism community.” That was kind of an exciting thing on the ground, which I would toss in questions to interviews or just generally to the subjects because it was clear that this is something that can be very intricate and confusing if you don't have a clear explanation of what is happening on the ground politically. 

Landsberry-Baker: I agree. I don't think either one of us could have made the movie without the other. As Joe mentioned, I have access to and connection to this community and know the ins and outs of it. Joe is so important in representing the wider general audience who I think will be the majority of people who see this film, and saying, "I have a question for you," while we were going through the interview process.

That was important, especially when it's fellow tribal media folks. We can be inside. It was great to be reminded that folks were going to need context for these conversations, and maybe these interview questions that we're going through to help bring understanding and contextualize some of these big points and ideas. We made the perfect team. And Joe, again, coming from his background, I had to learn to show, not tell. Joe did such a great job of making this story cinematic too, and it is so beautiful.

NFS: The collaboration is great, and we see it throughout the film, both the kind of journalistic instincts and the documentary style coming together when you are following these multiple people who are pulling different strings in the story. What is the strategy for capturing these interwoven stories without drawing too much attention to the camera, and keeping the focus on the main story?

Peeler: Honestly, being there as much as possible helps. That there's a genuine and legitimate concern in Native communities about outside entities parachuting in just to extract a story, whether it's journalism or documentarians or anything like that. Our goal was to embed in the community to gain their trust and gain their understanding that we needed to tell the story. Be there for so many of these crazy up-and-down plot twists that would happen to work for the film. There's a network of characters in the film that we track, and see how they're interwoven with the issue of freedom of the press in the tribe, with Angel at the center. It did take months and months and multiple visits and being with the subjects as much as possible to just make them comfortable.

There are multiple times in the film where you can hear both Becca's voice and my voice. That was indicative of the relationship that we had with the subjects. We tried to make it a conversation. It wasn't one-sided. It wasn't, “Give us your story and we will go away, and you'll never hear from us again.” If I was behind the camera, then I was chatting the whole time. The audio cleanup was a giant pain in the ass, but that was very much how it was. We would chat with them, we would talk, and it was always conversational. 

Landsberry-Baker: I probably was just too chatty, so I'm sure Joe and Jean [Rheem] in the editing room were like, "Okay, let's move it along here, Becca, with the interviews." 

But again, I think that's part of the connection that I have with our participants. I'm so grateful to show this is really who they are as people. Anytime we can show this and represent the diversity that's here within Indian Country is a genuine portrayal of who these people are. They're funny, and they are doing whatever they can to cope with these stressful situations in very funny ways. Being able to show that and showcase this Indigenous humor that's inside not just the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, but Indian Country at large was something I'm very grateful that our team was able to capture.

NFS: I know when it comes to filmmaking, there is always a slew of challenges. But if you had to choose one, what would be the biggest challenge that each one of you faced while making this documentary, and how did you overcome it?

Landsberry-Baker: I'm so glad and thankful for Joe and Jean, and, again, their expertise in taking this story and making it cinematic. I think for me, it was a lot more personal. Throughout production, I guess four out of our five producers, including myself, had babies. Our seasons of life have evolved and changed along with the story as we've been following it. And so I think for Joe also, he is the one that adopted a fur baby.

Adjusting to life as a filmmaker and doing this in addition to my full-time job working with NAJA as executive director and then also becoming a parent, there's a whole slew of challenges that come with that. But again, it's so rewarding and we're so thankful to finally be premiering and just very, very grateful for the opportunity to tell this story. Even if, in 2019, I thought, I was like, “This is going to break me,” because it was the election season. It was like we were flying back every month. 

Peeler: I think mine was in the edit. Jean, our editor, and I had to distill a very complicated issue that you could write a textbook about into a fun, funny, dramatic, suspenseful film that wasn't bogged down with explaining every intricate detail that you need to know about freedom of the press or the inner workings of the Muscogee (Creek) government. That was difficult and took a lot of shaping and paring down. 

We landed in a good place where you understand enough to get through the film. That was our primary challenge in the edit. Getting the story to continually move forward, tell you the information that you needed to get through the next chunk of the story, find that path, and keep this forward momentum.


No Film School's coverage of Sundance 2023 is brought to you by Adobe.