A new report on the threats documentary filmmakers face when they challenge powerful interests recommends steps filmmakers can take to protect themselves and their work. “Dangerous Documentaries: Reducing Risk when Telling Truth to Power,” released Feb. 19 by American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact, is based on more than 50 interviews with filmmakers, investigative journalists, funders, lawyers, and other practitioners. It outlines the risks that surround this work, covering safety, public relations, insurance, and legal action. Drawing from interviewees’ experiences as well as recent high-profile examples—from “Citizenfour” director Laura Poitras’ relocation to Germany, aimed at avoiding detainment during production, to SeaWorld’s retaliatory campaign against “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite—the report lays out practices and resources that can help filmmakers mitigate these risks. Recommendations include observing journalistic standards regardless of professional affiliation, planning for public relations from the start of a project, and seeking legal advice throughout the filmmaking process.
Detailing cultural divides and emergent dialogue between investigative journalists and independent filmmakers, the study finds that the risks of challenging the powerful may be less well known among those who consider themselves filmmakers than among those who consider themselves journalists. The report describes many independent filmmakers’ lack of familiarity with procedures like risk assessment or crisis response planning, highlighting recent cases in which filmmakers found themselves facing lawsuits or public relations attacks from influential corporate groups. In surfacing the experiences and recommendations of professionals working across journalistic and filmmaking communities, the report points to resources that independent filmmakers, who often work without the support of media institutions, can access. These resources include guides to common procedures and lessons from previous litigation, as well as organizations that offer support and training. The study’s findings and the next steps recommended by interviewees indicate a need for shared resources and ongoing conversation between the investigative journalism and independent filmmaking communities in support of those who speak truth to power.