Tag Archives: The Guardian

ARMED AND UNARMED IN AMERICA

by Carol Nahra

Two British documentaries airing this week provide nuanced and balanced glimpses of a frightened American psyche. In Unarmed Black Male, screening on BBC Two’s This World strand on Wednesday, James Jones takes a 360° approach to telling the story of the trial of Stephen Rankin, a policeman accused of murdering a black teenager. The following night Channel 4’s Cutting Edge strand airs The Gun Shop, where director John Douglas brings a mini fixed rig to an American gun store. (The films are part of a noticeable uptick in British television programmes examining all things American in the run up to the November 9 election, which continues to grip and horrify Europe). I spoke to both directors as they were putting the finishing touches on their films.

For Jones, his focus on the Portsmouth Virginia shooting stemmed from his interest in the growth of police shootings in America documented by citizens. He was thinking of approaching it in a similar way to films he made in both North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where he employed an abundance of both curated and collected footage by ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. “I wanted to make a film about how technology is changing awareness of American police shootings,” he says.“In the past the police statement has been taken as gospel truth. So there was the idea that people being able to film it on mobile phones was transforming our perception of this issue.” Whilst scouting such stories, Jones came across details of William Chapman’s murder via the Guardian’s acclaimed interactive journalism project The Counted. In a brief early morning encounter outside a Walmart store in Virginia, police officer Rankin had shot and killed Chapman at close range. Extraordinarily enough in the US, Rankin was actually going on trial in the summer for first degree murder. Like many American trials, it would be filmed. Jones had his story.

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Stephen Rankin

In a documentary that never drags in the course of 90 minutes, Jones secures an enormous range of interviews from those caught up in in the highly emotionally charged events — including Rankin’s only interview to date. The interview came about through dogged persistence, by befriending both Rankin’s wife Dawn, who features prominently in the film, and then Rankin himself. Jones found that both were really wanting to tell their side of the story: “They felt very beaten up by the local media and it felt like she was almost like waiting for the call,” he says.  

The Rankin interview succeeds in instilling viewer empathy for a man on trial for his freedom after seemingly just doing his job (Rankin argued he fired in self defense after Chapman dislodged Rankin’s Taser). But soon the film offers up two astonishing interviews providing a very different perspective. First Rankin’s ex-wife describes his obsession with guns, including continuously discussing scenarios where he would discharge against an unarmed suspect. Then Rankin’s former boss, Ken King, a highly distinguished officer, is interviewed saying: “(Rankin)  was one of these guys who could cause a riot at a church social. He could go to any event and it would just escalate out of control.”  It’s jaw dropping, powerful testimony which is impossible to dismiss.

Jones said that neither Dawn nor Rankin were aware of these damning testimonials when he interviewed them, but he has since talked Dawn through it. “She’s going to hate some of it, she really will,” he admits. “But I think the thing is, on their own terms they come across as sympathetic. The film is much more fair and balanced for having them in it. And you get a sense that there are two families’ lives destroyed by this, whatever the details of the shooting.”

The film goes on to show the ripples of misery stemming from the Walmart shooting, following the quest of Chapman’s family for justice, as well as a mother from Kazakhstan whose inebriated unarmed son also was killed by Rankin, who was never charged.  To round out this story, Jones and his team managed the impressive feat of tracking down two of the anonymous jurors, one black and one white, who describe in detail some of the thoughts behind their deliberations, to which they each clearly brought their own personal experience to bear. “The white juror that we interviewed certainly had had experiences in her life that she told us about that shaped her worldview and her view of someone like William Chapman,” says Jones. “So that was key to the jury’s deliberations. And that’s quite scary that that would be the case.”

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Victim William Chapman

Indeed, like so many films about the US, Unarmed Black Male offers up a vision of dysfunctional race relations. What did Jones himself make of racial tensions?  “The divide felt very stark. As an English person who lives in London where you are surrounded by people from all over the world and there are very few ghettoised neighbourhoods, it’s all a kind of melting pot, going to the south of America was a culture shock. You’d go into neighbourhoods and you’re the only white person there. And you’re viewed with great suspicion at first because white people usually spell trouble in that neighbourhood. So I was shocked that the legacy of segregation was so visible.”

Coming as a stranger into a volatile story, Jones is delighted by just how many people agreed to take part. “We were really happy with the way the film turned out. I don’t know if it’s America, or the South, but everyone was willing to talk to us. And that just never happens. Usually you’ve got like a one in three chance of people agreeing, but for one reason or another they really did want to tell their story.”

In the end, the type of mobile phone footage that was the seed for this film instead becomes a grim drumbeat of misery. In between scenes from the Rankin storyline, Jones uses such video to catalogue the many police shootings of black victims which took place, even in the relatively short time span of the film. 

Made using very different techniques, The Gun Shop nonetheless sheds light on similar terrain, notably the current climate of fear in the US which contributes to a gun death rate at least ten times higher than the rest of the developed world.  Director John Douglas says that he and the development team at Rogan Productions were very keen to find a shop whichb flew in the face of British perceptions: “It felt like we should try and move away from very stereotypical views of gun shops and gun owners. So finding somewhere where the shop was based in a community but was diverse, had young and old, and wasn’t just the community you’d normally expect.”

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Joel Fulton, the gun shop’s co-owner

The shop they settled on, in Battle Creek, Michigan has a shooting range and runs educational classes, in addition to a constant stream of varied customers. I wondered what the owners of the gun shop made of the fixed rig style of programming they were proposing – using mounted cameras operated remotely – which is unknown in the US?  “Yeah it is unknown,” Douglas agreed. “The sort of reactions we would get would be people would think it was like a reality show or Big Brother.  It took a while. We showed them some 24 Hours in A&E and some other things I’d worked on which were not rigged but not sensationalising and treated people with respect. So I think that helped.”

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Director John Douglas in the edit

For the six day rig shoot they kitted out the shop with 12 cameras (three would shoot at any one time); Douglas directing from a backroom gallery. Assistant Producer Rebecca Coxon manned the shop floor, seeking consent and fitting customers with radio mics. In a week of follow up filming they delved more into some of the stories, which together paint a rich tapestry of reasons underlying why so many Americans are arming themselves.

Back in London, working with experienced fixed rig editor Sam Santana (see this Docs on Screens interview), Douglas was painstakingly working to make a film which took a nonjudgmental tone. “It would be really easy to make an anti gun film. Really easy,” says Douglas. “But the way that I’ve hoped we approached it in this documentary — and to some degree all documentaries — is always to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes a bit. Because clearly whether anti gun or pro gun there’s not all that anger and rhetoric because they’re bad people and they only want to hate one another and they want to ruin everyone else’s life. They’re doing it because they feel really passionate about the issue.”

Unarmed Black Male airs Wednesday, November 2nd at 9pm on BBC Two. The Gun Shop airs Thursday, November 3rd at 9pm on Channel 4.

Meet Charlie Phillips: The Guardian’s Head of Docs

Lured away from Sheffield Doc/Fest, where he was Deputy Director and ran the extremely successful MeetMarket, Charlie Phillips is now the new Head of Documentaries at the Guardian. As a huge Guardian and documentary fan it’s a job that sounds pretty good to me. But as newspapers aren’t normally in the business of commissioning documentaries, I went to the Guardian to find out more about what Charlie’s up to:

Head of Documentaries is a new position. How was it pitched to you and what are you doing with it?

I was recruited because the Guardian wants to make a push into documentaries. We’ve always had a lot of video on the website and made lots of video. Sometimes that has been documentaries, but more often it has been news and current affairs, or sometimes virals. This is a very specific thing – pushing into documentary proper. The basis for doing that is that documentary is increasingly popular. It’s being regarded in an institution like this as a really great way of doing journalism, of getting people to reflect on the news and absorb new information and be surprised. People here think that documentary is doing that better than any other art form, which of course I agree with.

I was approached to work out what we should be doing with documentaries, and then commission lots of docs for our website and also ideally our YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook platforms — in terms of commissioning documentaries for “the Guardian” that basically means for all of our platforms. So that is my remit, basically, to get the Guardian known for supporting documentary. It’s been four months now. We’ve started commissioning them and getting them out. We’re not at the point where we have one going out every week but we aren’t a million miles away from that. We’ve got a lot of possibilities, a lot of irons in the fire. The ones we’ve put out already have done very well. So there’s definitely a hunger there.

How are you commissioning? Are you doing it through contacts or is there an open process?

It’s primarily through contacts at the moment, and obviously through people directly approaching me. From my time in Sheffield I know lots of people; I know the documentary industry. So it’s not that hard for me to reach out to them. I’ve also been doing talks and have been to a lot of festivals. The word is generally out that we’ve been commissioning docs, and the films have been going out as well…Maybe once we’re up and running and have everything going out we might have some section on the side which says how you pitch to us. I’m very aware I’m not connected to everyone.

How does it work in terms of Guardian journalism? Is anything driven initially by print or are you just free to go where you like, content-wise?

We’re pretty free to commission anything regardless to what is happening in the rest of the building. And it’s very important that the video leads. What we want is for people to watch documentaries on our website regardless of whether there’s a tie in to anything else. That has to be the first thing…Although we’ve always had a lot of video up, it’s not always been that easy to find, and has not been done as consistently as we would have liked. So we have not really built up that audience like we could have done. That’s our ultimate priority – get really good stuff up there and get people watching it, and maybe don’t worry so much what other people in the building are doing. With that said, there are some subjects that are so brilliant and are such a focus of the organisation that we will coordinate, and we will commission a doc, and someone will write a piece, we might do a podcast, and we might do a data led explainer.

Can you give me an example?

We did a big focus on the Guantanamo Diaries. That wasn’t one that I was directly involved with, because it is more news than documentaries anyway. But it’s a good example. So there was coordination across publishing the diaries, a really beautiful animated doc that my colleague Laurence (Topham) made, there were readings from famous people which went out in the audio department. That kind of thing can be great but it’s not practical to do week after week.

It must be very labour-intensive too — and has to be the right type story I would imagine.

Yes, it has to be the right kind of thing. And also the kind of things I’m doing, they are not news videos. We have a separate news commissioner who does news. So I am looking for things which are maybe reflective and story led, not necessarily things that the writers here are going to want to write about. It needs to feel contemporary and relevant now but that doesn’t necessarily make it news.

Can you give me another example?

If I Die on Mars was a film about three people who want to be on the first manned mission to Mars – the Mars 1 program. And that did really well for a number of reasons. One of them was people didn’t really know about the Mars One programme. It had been reported a bit but it was quite under-reported. We knew it would intrigue people. It’s from a production company called Stateless Media, a guy called Peter Savodnik. He was quite clever – he framed it in terms of why do these people want to leave earth on a one way mission, that is effectively a suicide mission. It’s quite a melancholy piece, so it had that human element.

Another thing that we have coming up in a totally different way is we’re doing a version of They Will Have to Kill Us First, which is a new film by Together Films about music being banned in Mali a few years ago. So this is effectively what happened since the ban – and the human effects on these amazing musicians. It is also about Mali music becoming very popular at the moment.

Presumably you are aiming at people on tablets and phones – is there an ideal length you go for?

It definitely has to be under 15 minutes. Generally things are going to be the 10-12 minute mark. You could say that is quite long for online – the wisdom is that people don’t concentrate for more than 30 seconds. But we’re doing things which are very story and/or character led. So I really feel like if it hooks you in from the start, and it takes you on a journey, and it looks beautiful, and you feel like you’ve had an experience watching it, you will stick and watch it. And if people don’t watch the whole thing but they watch five minutes but really like those five minutes, that’s okay as well. You can’t assume everyone is going to watch the whole thing, but as long as a good proportion do, and also as long as they share it and tell other people about it — it’s about building up the audience.

It’s a tough model.

It’s a new model and a form a lot of filmmakers aren’t acquainted with. So it’s hard graft getting something going out…It’s not a grammar that to be honest loads of filmmakers understand, because they are used to a longer form. And that’s fine because that’s been their main thing. But increasingly people are going to have to learn how to make something that is shorter and is going to work online and get attention. It’s a medium that people should use more. But it’s different. In the same way that doing something for TV is different than the cinema – it’s a different art form.

Do you have a model that you are following from other newspapers or media?

The two big influences are definitely the New York Times in the sense of doing short documentaries, working with filmmakers, having a commitment to high quality docs, and not doing any random old thing. Vice are definitely an inspiration, especially in terms of how they’ve built up that audience. Which they’ve done very cleverly, working across different platforms.

What kind of budgets are we talking?

The range is anywhere from at the lower end, a low point of £1000 if we are acquiring ten minutes or just chopping ten minutes with very little editing, up to an original commission that we really really want where it’s all being shot up front in a far off country, then it can be up to like £8-10,000. Most things at the moment will be something in the middle of that range. We’re doing both original short commissions and cut downs of longer docs.

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