“Speaking truth to power, social justice documentaries are really part of a cutting edge of documentary,” argues filmmaker Kirby Dick about the wave of investigative nonfiction films we’ve seen in recent years, including those from our “Meet the Experts” documentary panelists. Watch our group discussion with those directors above.
Dick and Amy Ziering exposed sexual abuse in the music business in “On the Record.” Rick Rowley investigated the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in “Kingdom of Silence.” Tommy Oliver followed a man’s journey to free his parents from an unjust prison sentence in “40 Years a Prisoner.” And Mary Mazzio explored racial inequality through the eyes of a team of high school rowers in “A Most Beautiful Thing.”
“All of the films here on this panel are great examples of what has been core to filmmaking since it was invented: people are drawn to make documentary films to change the world,” says Rowley. Dick also thinks the current movement in documentaries “was initially a reaction to the oppression of the George W. Bush administration. I know that certainly affected me.”
But injustices didn’t start or end with Bush, and America’s historic abuses of power informed all of their films. “It’s this legacy of racism, four centuries of white oppression that’s been unchecked and not even reflected on,” Ziering points out about how these stories show the lasting scars of racial tyranny on the Black community, while Rowley’s film explores how American injustice extends to our international alliances.
We’ve even seen how film can change culture in real time. It was the citizen journalism of a bystander who captured the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police that helped launch an international protest movement. “The camera showed the brazen indifference to life of a white cop kneeling on a Black man’s neck,” Mazzio remembers.
But for Oliver, whose film deals directly with racism in the justice system and who grew up knowing and hearing those stories, they’re no more or less important for how they’re captured on film: “Whether somebody else sees that is up to them,” he says, but what filmmakers “can sometimes do is elucidate. We can show the human side of things.”
And often at great personal risk. Oliver came close to being arrested himself in telling this story of incarceration, while Rowley was challenging the same Saudi Arabian regime that killed his fellow journalist. But as Dick points out, “Without terror, why do anything?”
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