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Story + Journalism: Tabitha Jackson and Joaquin Alvarado Talk Documentary Safety and Security at CPH:DOX

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Tabitha Jackson, director of the Documentary Film Program at Sundance Institute, and Joaquin Alvarado, from Studiotube and former director of Centre for Investigative Reporting, were in discussion in March 2018 at CPH:DOX about the relationship between journalism and creative documentary filmmaking as part of Doc Society’s the Safe+Secure initiative. The following is a lightly edited transcript of their dialogue.

Alvarado: When we say documentaries, it means a lot of different things today — they have evolved greatly in the last couple of decades. How you would you sort of level-set for folks the space of documentary and how we talk about them in terms of these hybrid forms and how they emerge? How do you understand the form right now?

Jackson: Something I think journalism and documentary have in common is [the question of] intent. The artist Lynette Wallworth describes it best when she talks about this painting [above], Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Bruegel. Do you know the story of Icarus? He and his father, Daedalus, were imprisoned. Daedalus made two pairs of wings from feathers and wax and told Icarus, “Don’t fly too close to the sun”. Icarus did fly too close to the sun. He ends up in the water down here [pointing to the bottom of the painting] — those two little legs, that’s Icarus. W.H. Auden wrote a poem inspired by this painting called “Musée des Beaux Arts.” I will just recite a few lines from it:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I think what both journalism and documentary are trying to do is get people to feel something. Here, a boy has literally fallen out of the sky It’s tragic, and yet it’s so easy to take it in just as a fact and not to notice it. So we’re using techniques to make people aware of things — to know the world in a different way. And it just so happens that we use different techniques to do that. Maybe there’s a creative documentary to express what happened here: some artful reconstructions, some impressionistic scenes, maybe the voice of the dead Icarus. A reflection on hubris. It would be beautiful, lyrical and perhaps tragic. Meanwhile the investigative documentary on Icarus would ask questions like, “Who’s to blame for the systemic failure behind the tragedy of this boy?” “Was the ploughman somehow involved?” An advocacy documentary might press to ban the sale of wax wings or to introduce legislation prohibiting flying too close to the sun. An activist documentary might gather people together to stage a noisy sit-in, wearing wax wings, in the swimming pool of the house owned by the chairman of Big Wax… There are all these ways of approaching telling different stories, all to a similar end, which is to get people to understand something differently, feel something different, or do something different. But as I say, the tools are very different [in each case].

For me, personally, I am particularly excited by the creative documentary approach — non-fiction filmmakers trying to find new language to express the world. In the words of John Berger, “The struggle to give meaning to experience.” Or, in the words of Arthur Miller, to try to “get closest to what is hidden.”

Alvarado: We have to add a category now, perhaps, which is alternative facts — alt-right web documentaries that try to discredit the notion that the sun is getting any hotter or hot enough to “melt wax” off. Documentaries are inherently a form of art and storytelling, and you cited several different genres or, perhaps, flavors of documentaries. When you are presenting [these works], whether at Sundance Institute or at Doc Society, what is your responsibility to address the question of whether the facts are accurately and fairly reported (where there are facts to be reported and represented in the film)?

Jackson: The last bit of that question is the key. I happen to think that documentary or nonfiction filmmaking should be more recognised as an artform. I don’t think all documentary is art — and there are documentary filmmakers who don’t want that word, art, applied to what they are doing. They are rigorously journalistic, and their work is still documentary. But, if one knows that there are kinds of documentary that present as art rather than journalism, one should be asking different questions about what one is seeing.

At Sundance, we are supporting independent documentary filmmaking. That’s unlike when Jess [Search] and I were working at Channel 4, within a broadcaster, where everything was subject to regulation and the Ofcom code and every fact was expected to be accurate, checked and verified. In the independent filmmaking world, before it gets to broadcast on television, that kind of rigor, that practice and capacity building, isn’t necessarily in place.

We also have the old chestnut of Werner Herzog’s notion of “Ecstatic Truth.” He will play fast and loose with some facts and not give a shit. As an audience member, you may feel betrayed by that; you may feel liberated by that. So we are dealing with this huge spectrum of films. So we, to answer your question, are not policing what films are doing, but as we watch (we have about 100 active films at any one time) we’re trying to ask questions that will help the filmmaker to be intentional about what their engagement with the audience is — around facts, around data, around poetry and most importantly, around meaning.

Now I want to ask you a question.

Alvarado: Sure.

Jackson: How do you think about journalism? I understand it as a methodology but beyond that, it’s not totally clear what journalism is now.

Alvarado: It’s probably not totally clear to anyone. It’s a lot of things. In the United States context of journalism, the First Amendment is really important. It has four things that go along with it: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, assembly, and freedom of the press. So this romantic notion of the Spotlight team that’s going to uncover incredible abuse and then change is going to happen — that’s not a myth, but it is at the top of what would be considered the impact food chain for journalists.

You do the hard reporting — you run the risk doing it — and then, ultimately, get it in front of people who can then do something with it. What happens in between — I think that is really where the most important challenges are right now.

Does anyone know who this is?

Jan Kuciak

Jackson: No.

Alvarado: This is a Slovakian journalist, Ján Kuciak, who was murdered, him and his fiancé, for investigating corruption and organised crime in his country. He was part of a larger network of reporters who very courageously — often as freelancers — go on to cover stories. So, on the one hand, there is this sense that the law must protect a free press. Most countries don’t have First Amendments, by the way. On the other hand, you have journalists doing hard work under extraordinarily difficult conditions and who then are killed, all the time. I think that whereas journalism has had the graded edge against power for a couple of hundred years, documentaries and storytellers are just getting to the point where the threats are high enough and the stories are powerful enough and where the reach is far enough and wide enough that these same dangers that have been visited upon journalists can potentially start to reach filmmakers.

We have to be part of the Safe+Secure initiative and also consider what ways we can take some of the lessons from the journalism world and support the documentary filmmakers and institutions out there.

Then there is this third category, which I joked about. The truth really is up for grabs right now. So, all of the great techniques [of] documentary and all of the innovation in journalism that has tried to stay alive –they’re subject to exploitation by those who are disinterested in the truth and, in fact, who have propaganda and manipulation in mind. It’s happening mostly online, not on cable networks ([although] there’s stuff from maybe one [channel] that’s on in the United States). It’s mostly happening on the deeper parts of the web, [and through] the more isolated filter bubbles, and it’s extraordinarily dangerous. I actually feel that the sophistication that audiences have developed in the doc community needs to be brought into the general web world so that viewers and consumers start to get a little bit stronger [about] how this stuff gets constructed.

Jackson: I think it’s interesting you say that. I am trying to avoid getting into asking you about truth and facts and reality. But I can’t help myself, because that’s how I’ve been thinking about things… For me, I think facts are unassailable. Except, perhaps, scientific facts, and they are unassailable until they are assailed, but [then] there is a very rigorous method of testing and observation. I think facts don’t care, as it were, whether anyone believes them. They are either facts or they are not. I was having a conversation about this with a friend last night [about] facts as data. So data is either reliable or unreliable. Data is the kind of key unit in trying to describe the world, in a sense.

Whenever we see something that looks or smells like a fact, we should be asking, is that data reliable? Where’s it coming from? Who has an interest in it being like this? These are the questions that journalism would require us to ask. There’s been a history within documentary of questioning the notion of an objective truth, and lots of documentaries are playing with that idea and inviting us to question it, which I also think is a really good thing. [To your point about audiences], the more people can ask the question, “What am I watching?”, “Who put it there?”, “What’s outside the frame?”, “What am I not seeing?”, the more helpful it will be when encountering the news agenda too. The trick for us, for the doc community when filmmakers are going to commit acts of journalism — which almost every documentary does — is to learn the best practices while not being so constrained that there is no room for ambiguity. Because that’s the space the sparks the imagination, which is what we need to do.

Alvarado: There was a time where we built stuff — a steam engine, a radio — and nobody questioned science. And thanks to climate change denial, we basically disrupted the notion that a fact is a fact. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the U.S. — and we apologise to the rest of the world for this — challenging the notion that science cannot exist around something as simple as climate change. Consensus and science don’t matter in that context. It’s part of a larger disruption of trust in public institutions, which has been accelerating in Western countries. You have this decline in how and where people trust, [leading to] an absence [of trust].

Reportero was a great documentary from about five years ago [exploring journalists covering drug cartels]. If you’re a journalist in Mexico, the chances are, if you’re reporting on a cartel, your life is at risk every single day. And you can have a complete vacuum of facts if nobody is in a position to actually go through reporting or storytelling around it.

I think, in the middle of [these topics] is subject sensitivity. Before we introduced the notion of subjectivity there was one perspective. It was the powerful dominant perspective of whatever industry there was. In media, it was white dudes. So challenging and interrogating that lens, we introduce subject sensitivity, and now we can’t abandon that because no one wants us to double down on what facts are. I think that’s a false dichotomy, and you’re addressing it brilliantly. I think that the incredible challenge now that we have drawn this line and said, “We do need to address the safety and security of the stories, the storytellers and the communities impacted,” [is] how do we leverage both disciplines in a way that will strengthen both and how do we listen to audiences to make sure that the impact is actually there and then understand them and learn from them?

Jackson: I think we do it by amplifying that notion of subjectivity. It’s really important to understand that the person making sense of reality, making meaning from reality, is standing in a particular place, and it is important to know what that place is. And it is the multiplicity of perspectives that give us a stronger fabric of reality. Because if you just have the white dude perspective, you are not getting a larger truth of what is going on.

Alvarado: So let me ask, I have not seen Bisbee ’17, which was at Sundance, but if you are going to deal with recreation, how disciplined do you have to be about representing or at least explaining [in this film] what ratio or what methodology of [the town’s] 1,200 people deported? Do you need 1,200 extras out there being deported or can you deal with 120? Or, if you want to introduce an AR element in a documentary project, how accurate does that have to be? H

Jackson: Good question. I think one of Robert Greene’s practices — he’s the director of the film –is to help us ask questions about what we’re seeing. [The film] is really about how the community comes to term with their history. So how do we make sense of it? He was absolutely committed to acts of journalism. If he was going to say 1,200 people were deported, that has to be reliable data — verifiable.

Alvarado: If he’s going to make you feel in his re-enactments that 1,200 people are being deported, he doesn’t have to have 1,200 people. This question of the difference in forms, perhaps, of journalism and a creative documentary is the question of “do they reveal their assumptions or do they obscure them?” And I think, counterintuitively, journalism can obscure the assumptions of the journalist and the context for which that story has been told and the data has been harvested.

Jackson: With a creative documentary like Bisbee ‘17, the film teaches you how to watch it. You are aware that this is a creative, imaginative construction by the community representing deportation. It’s not giving you facts in that sense; it’s giving you sensory data. Those people felt a certain way; they are now going to inhabit a certain character from the past. How do those two personas come together? And that’s what we are very keen not to lose.

But again, I think [about] Herzog, in the film Little Dieter Needs to Fly — we see Dieter Dengler, the main character, and you think he has this OCD compulsion about shutting doors because of his experiences in prison, [but] he doesn’t at all. Herzog asked him to do that. Does that matter?

Alvarado: It certainly matters. How it matters? I’ll pivot to hip-hop. How many people know what hip-hop is? [Room laughs]. This is an art form built on appropriation. It’s high art and low art at the same time. It’s also one of the few art forms where producers die all the time. Go back through the history of rap — how many rappers have been killed as part of being in that industry? I don’t know what the correlation is there, but there’s something about the sense of how do you take a story and either put yourself in the center of it or not?

I think documentaries now and journalism too — for folks who have not followed what investigative journalism has been doing for the last 20 years — involve graphic novels. When I was running the Center for Investigative Reporting I launched a theater project called Story Works. We did spoken word poetry with young poets where we embedded them in investigations, animations, puppet shows. [The form] has done a lot in the last 20 years. What appropriation looks like, and how do you create an artistic license? I go back to [the question], are audiences and communities sophisticated enough to understand how and where the producer of the content is going? I think [the answer is] absolutely. I think what the producers of content are not smart enough about is how the Internet has blown up and it’s a total shit show right now. So when you introduce a piece of content, what are you fighting against in terms of how that narrative gets interpreted? I don’t think most filmmakers have a sense of that — journalists certainly don’t. How it can be trolled, manipulated, twisted and reinterpreted — all of these are open questions right now. All of this is really a key deflection point from what ends up becoming fact-based or truthtelling going forward.

Jackson: I think what is happening at the moment is an increased burden on the audience to be literate and ask the right questions around everything — things that they didn’t use to have to question. There’s also a burden on filmmakers to be aware of what they are doing. The intentionality both around the methods that they are using to make sure that data is reliable and to reveal some of the assumptions that a film is being made with through [considering] the form — there is a responsibility there. There is not a responsibility, I don’t think, for everybody to now be making journalistic films to push back against the climate that we are in.

Again, to go back to this ridiculous taxonomy, there are these things formerly known as facts which I now think of as data, and that data plus time can often equal meaning and interpretation. One of the joys of documentary now is that meaning and the truth that it tells can and will change depending who’s encountering it and when it’s being encountered. The things that don’t change are the facts/data, and that’s where our responsibility lies…

Alvarado: We need a way to explore this. When the Constitution in the U.S. said we are going to guarantee the right to a free press, it wasn’t talking about the printing press, it was talking about the people who did the work. When we are talking about data, we are not talking about the producer of the data, we’re talking about the computer science or unit that then is operated within this network. I just think that there are different roles. I mean these guys are working on the story of Cambridge Analytica — it’s astounding that people didn’t know this. I mean, what do you think Facebook’s been doing with your data this whole time? Know the level of exploitation! Just look at who is exploiting the data. In the United States, there is almost zero concern at the corporate level to actually get involved in what might be considered regulations. In the EU, there is the, the General Data Protection Regulation, which is is really important.

If we’re going to move off the notion of facts, as we have understood them, into the space of data, then how do we protect this idea that human judgement and human dignity matter? And that there are certain rights that people should have protected and should start protecting? It seems to me, documentary filmmakers will often ask questions that journalists will be too afraid to ask because they would seem too personal or astute. Like, how do you coach filmmakers in this environment? Or support them?

Jackson: What we are trying to do at Sundance is to enable distinctive, independent [voices] to express whatever it is they want to make meaning from in the world. I think, going back to the different tools that we use, that subjectivity [and] the use of empathy as tools [are] not endpoints but tools to unlock something from people for whom pure information does not work, regardless of whether it’s fake or reliable. These are the things we need to do. So in creative documentary, we need to use metaphor, which is kind of the DNA of a creative documentary — we need to use incentive, ambiguity and complexity to destabilise the certainties that many people go into them with.

For me, the reason why creative documentary can feel more exhilarating and powerful is because it’s slightly destabilized. I don’t want to go and see a film that says “gun violence is bad” because that’s what I already think when I go in. Unless there is something that challenges my perceptions or makes me see it in a completely new way, I could have just [gone] there and seen a fiction film instead.

Alvarado: “Destabilize” is an interesting verb here. The intention there is to not make people uncomfortable but, sort of, off-centered and to kind of rethink what the center is?

Jackson: Yeah, there is this great book by Rebecca Solnit called A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She talks about how when you’re lost, you become hyper-vigilant, hyper-aware, because you don’t know anything, so you’re looking for these things to cling onto and you’re questioning yourself and your context, crucially. I think what is powerful in films is when you are destabilising your center. And this is a question I want to ask you: I am becoming increasingly suspicious of story because I think story can sometimes be the enemy of truth.

Alvarado: Sounds like a good book title. I think it depends on how much courage do we want to have, frankly? I mean, if there’s a documentary about gun violence, how much do we actually want to be accountable for what we are going to learn? Whether it’s in the form of a creative documentary that is hybrid or it’s an investigative reporting project or this image of Jan Kuciak after the murder. [Here, Alvarado showed a slide of protests following the Kuciak killing.]

People came out, they stepped out, and they took action. To me, the idea of how humans have to decide how they live in this world would be [based on] the information that they got, the stories that they got. If we don’t mete out with people being able to take action through their lives and maintain human dignity, then something is not working at all.

I think that people can fight over what the truth is but certain narratives last. So, Icarus has been around for quite a while, and the power of those kinds of stories, I think, does not dissipate, no matter what the context and who owns the truth. We can be in a totalitarian regime and the truth is literally the opposite of what you want it to be. So you have to operate in a metaphor narrative anyways — otherwise, you get killed or you can’t do it at all.

Jackson: Going back to your white dude point, these narratives often play into a bigger narrative and maybe that is the most dangerous thing — that we are sometimes not conscious of that. I have two or three problems with story. One, it is so compelling, you know the shape that you want it to be and when it can form into that shape it is deeply satisfying. And that’s a problem when you’re trying to express or accurately describe life, what it is to be human, the world, because the world isn’t a story. That’s why we love storytellers because they make sense of the world, they can make meaning.

But when you have a story that wraps things up, that it is so satisfying. You go to pitch forums around the world, and the commissioning editors are saying, “What’s your narrative arc? You shouldn’t follow more than three characters because it gets confusing for the audience.” The temptation in the Western tradition is to have a hero’s journey, [a hero] who wants something that he can’t get. He has to have a conflict that he has to resolve. It’s often the way that people with money and gatekeeper resources are pushing filmmakers. That’s really dangerous as the world is so complex and ambiguous.

Alvarado: That reflects the relationships of power, right? So unless you’re an independent documentary filmmaker, you have to work with funders, with buyers — you’re in an economy that is pretty explicit. Most investigative journalism in the U.S., or much of it, is now philanthropically supported so it’s dependant on foundations of rich people to support it. There’s not that tradition in Europe and Asia. That’s not the case in pretty much, anywhere else. So as newspapers continue to crater, who fulfills those kinds of functions? You’re forced further into these economic constraints, and you’re also trying to conform to what the expectations are. In the tech industry, the expectations are massive, and they’re going to give you all the money that you need. No filmmaker, no storyteller has that in mind; they are trying to have integrity (knock on wood) with their story, and they’re trying to raise just enough money to get the story done. I wonder what would happen, in the face of the size of challenges that we’ve got, if filmmakers and reporters can operate in the sense of not unlimited resources but outside of the current restraints of the economics [surrounding their business] — how do we get further around it?

Also, [Addresses audience]: Did you know that Donald Trump got elected as President?

Jackson: What!?

Alvarado: Yeah, shocking. There was this huge concern that we don’t have enough conservative white people in newsrooms and not enough conservative doc filmmakers and that there are just no conservative voices — and that’s Fox News! I think that’s kind of a bait and switch. Do you feel some need or urge to go find those missing voices who would support this candidate and try to bring them into the fold? Or were they already in the fold?

Jackson: Certainly, I think most liberal-progressive organizations have asked themselves, “How did we miss this?” I think at Sundance, which aspires to be truly independent, it goes back to the multiplicity of perspectives and subjectivity. We’re missing a whole set of experiences if certain audiences and makers don’t feel that we have anything to offer them, and if we do not do our best job of hearing them.

It’s not about going out to represent the Trump voters. I think it got too reductive, the response to it, and also kind of homogeneous. People who voted for Trump or whoever did it for a multiplicity of reasons. Often what documentary can do — and particularly the more imaginative ones — is to get beyond and beneath the tribalism and the political present to more fundamental human values like love of children, love of home, hopes, fear, death — all that stuff.

Alvarado: Classic storytelling?

Jackson: Classic storytelling.

Jackson: Okay, so I have just set this up, this is a famous concert pianist, and she’s playing a Mozart piano concerto with full orchestra in a televised concert. She realises as the orchestra starts playing that she has rehearsed the wrong piano concerto.

Jackson: I love this for so many reasons. But respectfully, it’s a terrible piece of storytelling. At the moment, you’re waiting to see if she can pull it off the director decides to have him say “she pulls it off” before you get to experience it. It’s unbelievable — every time I see it makes me both joyful and angry. I think, what creative documentary can do is to take you inside her head. What must she be feeling now (if it wasn’t undercut by the conductor telling us)? So that’s the first thing, that feeling that is so powerful. But then if you start asking appropriately journalistic questions, [like], it’s being televised as a concert, and that’s very dramatic, but why is he wearing a towel around his neck? Well, it’s actually because it’s a lunchtime concert and they are rehearsing for the big concert in the evening. That’s why he can say to her, “You can do it,” even when she says, “This isn’t on my schedule.”

There is something else going on than what you actually apprehend — there are no stakes apart from her and even then we come to realise they are slightly lower than we thought they were. But while we mustn’t take away the ability of creative documentary to help us imagine, we also need the journalistic rigor to ask the right questions when we are looking at images in order to really understand what’s going on.

Alvarado: I couldn’t agree more. I just have one statement to wrap up, which is: Journalists are cheap dates. It’s not hard to get them to pay attention. You just act a little interested and have a beer and they will spend time. So I would like to stimulate this idea. Just invite a journalist into your film. You don’t have to give them any power and they will spend all day working, near you, for you, around you, to get there.

I think we both share the instinct that there’s a lot going wrong and we have to be together if it’s going to go the other way.

Jackson: And also we love white dudes.

Alvarado: I know many of them; I am often mistaken for one too.

Jackson: Can I buy you a beer?

Alvarado: Absolutely.


Safe+Secure is an initiative aimed at preparing independent filmmakers for the physical, psychological, legal, digital and political risks involved in their work. One part of the initiative focuses on the risks of not being journalistically prepared.


Documentary filmmakers may see themselves as journalists, and may have previous work experience or training in journalism. Equally, documentary filmmakers may regard themselves as fulfilling a totally different role, and it’s true that docs are often made with different goals in mind than traditional journalism. But regardless of whether you view your work as journalistic or not, if your film puts forward facts that are inaccurate, either because they didn’t seem important to you or were not properly checked, that can have repercussions for you, the film and those involved with it. Our free checklist and guidelines can help you navigate these complex waters.

    Libel, Ethics And Fact Checking Resources

Media Defence – Manual on European Defamation Law
Kelly / Warner Law – US Defamation Laws and Statutes
Kelly / Warner Law – International Defamation Law Database
PolitiFact – 7 Steps to Better Fact-Checking
Xindex – 10 Fact Checking Tips for Journalists
PBS Frontline – Journalistic Guidelines
Ted Talk – Paul Lewis: Citizen Journalism
Committee to Protect Journalists – Press Freedom Support Organizations
Committee to Protect Journalists – Journalism Resources and Manuals
The Center For Media & Social Impact – Dangerous Documentaries Resources

    Journalistic Protection Resources

First Amendment Institute (US)
Media Legal Defence Initiative (international)
Council of Europe – The Platform for the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists
Defense Handbook for Journalists and Bloggers, – Reporters Without Borders, Paul Hastings LLP and Thomson Reuters Foundation
Committee to Protect Journalists – Countries & Regions Resources
International Press Institute – Media Law Database: Media Laws in the EU and EU Candidate Countries
Columbia Journalism Review: Journalists in Ferguson: Case Study
Reporters Without Borders – Country updates and World Press Freedom Index

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