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Documentaries Made in the Aftermath of Crime Tread a Careful Path

Addie Morfoot

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Every year, documentaries that examine crimes are made. Some, such as Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America,” Joshua Rofe’s “Lorena” and most recently Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s “The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park,” study a single crime decades after the fact in hopes of establishing a greater clarity and understanding of traumatic events.

But some crimes against humanity deserve immediate dissection and magnification, including mass shootings, sexual abuse and data-mining manipulation. Each is an offense that has directly and indirectly affected millions of Americans in recent years and each is an offense that continues to play out in our society. In these cases, documentarians take on crimes that need immediate absorption and contemplation.

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Just four days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman traveled to Parkland, Fla., on assignment for ABC’s “Nightline.” Initially the duo planned to produce a segment about the shooting that left 17 people dead, but once they started interviewing students who endured gunfire and parents who lost their children, the directors realized that they needed a different home for their content.

“Fairly early on we experienced this openness from the kids about having us stay and making sure that their stories weren’t going to fade from the spotlight,” Taguchi says. “We would also hear about things like the first basketball game [after the shooting] and we would think this might not fit into a traditional ‘Nightline’ piece, but this feels really, really important to document.”

Their footage turned into a 92-minute feature doc produced by ABC Documentaries. Filmed over the course of the spring, summer and fall following the mass shooting, “After Parkland” doesn’t focus on gunman Nikolas Cruz or how he carried out his crime. Instead the docu tells the story of yet another school shooting and its aftermath, which involves plenty of bipartisan grief and resilience and not enough policy change.

“We were there for big public events where we saw students stepping up on stage to demand [gun control] change and have their voices be heard,” Lefferman says. “But I think equally powerful were some of the intimate moments that we captured. Moments like the parents who lost their son attending what would have been his graduation, and the father of a [victim] having the strength to see his dead daughter’s friends off to prom. These were people putting one step in front of another and that strength mirrored what was happening on a national scale.”

But capturing that strength proved difficult. Taguchi and Lefferman were dealing with families who had just experienced horror. One wrong move could feel exploitative, so the directing team moved with caution, willing to walk away if the moment proved too painful. One subject, Brooke Harrison, witnessed classmates die in front of her eyes.

“We feared re-traumatizing Brooke,” Taguchi says. “We looked for any signs of reluctance when speaking with her. But soon, Brooke’s father told us that each time we returned, we were ‘getting the poison out.’”

For HBO’s “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal,” director Erin Lee Carr also had to walk an emotional tightrope when it came to subjects. The doc, about the 2017 USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal and the people who enabled and covered up Dr. Larry Nassar’s abuse of hundreds of young women athletes for decades, features first-person interviews with women Nassar abused.

Carr found it “tremendously difficult” to initially persuade those women to speak with her.

“It was a very slow moving process,” Carr explains. “It wasn’t like anyone was immediately saying, ‘Oh, I want to be a part of this project.’ They were vetting me and seeing if they ultimately felt comfortable sharing their story with me.”

To persuade subjects to go on camera and talk about the abuse they endured, Carr found it necessary to “add a layer of radical empowerment” to her film.

“I wanted these women to feel like they had a platform to describe what happened to them,” the director says. “But also my thinking was that these people are not victims, they are survivors; human beings whose entire identity and future does not have to be tied to abuse. I think that message was one that a lot of people really wanted to embrace.”

The teenage victim/survivor of the infamous 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, high school rape case does not appear in Nancy Schwartzman docu “Roll Red Roll.” But what happened to her is painstakingly revealed in the doc about male entitlement, rape culture and social-media’s impact on empathy.

Justine Nagan, American Documentary executive director and POV’s exec producer, selected “Roll Red Roll” as POV’s 32nd season opener last June in part to “wake people up.”

“This is a type of film that we think can en­­cour­­age people to have difficult conversations,” Nagan says. “It forces people to look internally and understand the role that they’re playing around gender and gender violence.”

Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim are also hoping to wake people up with their Netflix docu “The Great Hack.”

The film follows the story of Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based political consulting firm that played a critical role in Donald Trump’s campaign by using data from Facebook to target persuadable voters. “The Great Hack,” which took four years to complete, was originally intended to be a documentary about another cyber break-in, the 2014 Sony hack.

“The thing that was fascinating about the Sony hack was the way in which [Guardians of Peace] released information,” Amer says. “It was a targeted way to have a certain effect, which was unique and different. That was interesting to us and we wanted to understand that more.”

But Amer and Noujaim ran into problems when they approached people affected by the Hollywood hack.

“We couldn’t convince people to go on the record,” Amer admits.

So the directing duo, still compelled by the hacking of data, shifted the film’s focus during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election when they noticed that data was having an effect on America’s political landscape.

“We started looking at this word ‘hack,’” Amer says. “And we realized that the hack that was more interesting was not the physical hacks happening to infrastructure, but actually the hack of the human mind.”

Amer says the doc, which argues that data is being used to polarize society, is urgent in part due to the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

“Data rights, privacy rights, data used to manipulate — people are refusing to address [them] as a nonpartisan issues,” Amer says. “But they are very urgent issues that have a debilitating effect on our free and open society.”

Lefferman also describes his “After Parkland” as a film that desperately needs to be followed by a constructive, non-partisan conversation.

“It seems like when an act of violence like a school shooting happens we all really tune in, and then a couple of days later the news cycle moves on and people forget except for those people in that community,” he says. “But for people in Parkland or in Newtown or Santa Clarita, it’s never going to go away. And so while these [shootings] keep happening, what we want people to understand is that every time you get that news alert on your phone about another shooting, remember some of the human stories that we told in our film because if we are focused on humanizing the people who are part of these tragedies, maybe that can encourage constructive dialogue across the aisle.”

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