Before directing Field of Vision’s latest film, “Duterte’s Hell,” with Aaron Goodman, Luis Liwanag worked as a photojournalist for local and foreign press in the Philippines. In the following essay, he reflects on his transition from taking still photographs to filmmaking, and what it was like to capture the horrors of President Duterte’s “war on drugs.”
I discovered photography when I was 11. My family did not own a single camera, but our neighborhood sorbetero [ice cream vendor] had a twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera and would take our family photos for us. I remember we had so many that when I opened my mother’s closet, dozens of photo albums would cascade down from the shelves. My dad, an artist and illustrator, kept stacks of old National Geographic, Time, and Life magazines tucked away in his filing cabinet. I bought my first camera at age 12: a Kodak Instamatic. I guess you could say I was destined to be in this line of work.
As a kid, I would just snap pictures of my friends in school. As an adult, being a photographer has given me the power to make observations about daily life in my country and voice my opinion on certain issues.
When President Rodrigo Duterte came into power, the rampage of extrajudicial killings started. My fellow journalists were covering the night shifts at the police headquarters. Reports would come in—either from radio dispatch or via Twitter—and they would travel to crime scenes in convoys. It was only a matter of time before I decided to started going with them, to see the effects of Duterte’s war on drugs for myself.
Shooting this and other documentaries has been transformative experience for me. When working as a hired photojournalist, I didn’t really set up my shots—I just filmed whatever is happening right in front of me.
And as I witnessed the aftermath of the slayings, I felt like I was reconnecting to my old self. I was a police beat photographer at the onset of my career, but later shifted to more varied issues and mainstream news coverage. I became focused on issues dictated by the editorial policies of media entities that employed me.
Now, as a freelancer—and particularly with this film—I’ve had the leeway to choose stories that I feel I can interpret better visually. And although the nightly spate of killings numbed me in some ways, I felt for the people directly or indirectly affected by them.
A couple of months into photographing the killings in Manila and its surrounding metro area, Aaron Goodman, an educator and video journalist whom I had worked with previously, saw my images on social media and asked me if I was interested in collaborating with him on a video documentary about Duterte’s drug war.
While filming, we had to maintain a low-key lighting style, and only expose for the midtones. I wanted to be unobtrusive and invisible while shooting the events so that we left as few traces of ourselves as possible.
We had a limited amount of time to set up each shot. When you’re filming events as they unfold, you don’t really have control over what is going to happen. You have to visualize the image in your mind’s eye beforehand, and shoot whatever occurs in the moment.
While filming, we were very attuned to the sounds, textures, emotions and details of each scene. My approach was to linger in a single framed shot as if it was a single image and slowly transition into another well-composed frame and capture the entire story happening between those frames.
Although I am an advocate of still photographs and what photography great Henri Cartier- Bresson calls “the decisive moment,” I have discovered that video, though more fleeting, can be equally powerful in stringing together single images to make a powerful statement.
See Goodman and Liwanag’s film here:
To see more work by Luis Liwanag, visit his website here. To see the work of Aaron Goodman, visit his website here.
For his latest film, A Night at The Garden,two-time Academy Award nominee Marshall Curry used archival footage of a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden to tell a story that is painfully relevant to today’s political climate. Here’s how he found those haunting images—and what he hopes audiences will take away from his latest project.
Q: How did you discover this event?
A: A friend of mine told me about it last year, and I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of it. When I found out it had been filmed, I asked an archival researcher, Rich Remsberg, to see what he could find. It turned out that short clips had been used in history documentaries before, but no one seemed to have collected together all of the scraps of footage—there was some at the National Archives, some at UCLA’s archive, some at other places. So he gathered it, and I edited it together into a short narrative. When Charlottesville happened, it began to feel urgent. So I sent it over to Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cook at Field of Vision and said, “Have you ever heard of this event? Would you be interested in supporting the film?” And they jumped on board.
Q: What struck you about the footage?
A: The first thing that struck me was that an event like this could happen in the heart of New York City, a city that was diverse, modern, and progressive even in 1939. The second thing that struck me was the way these American Nazis used the symbols of America to sell an ideology that a few years later hundreds of thousands of Americans would die fighting against.
It really illustrated that the tactics of demagogues have been the same throughout the ages. They attack the press, using sarcasm and humor. They tell their followers that they are the true Americans (or Germans or Spartans or...). And they encourage their followers to “take their country back” from whatever minority group has ruined it.
Q: Why do you think that most Americans have never heard of this group or this event?
A: The footage is so powerful, it seems amazing that it isn't a stock part of every high school history class. But I think the rally has slipped out of our collective memory in part because it’s scary and embarrassing. It tells a story about our country that we’d prefer to forget. We’d like to think that when Nazism rose up, all Americans were instantly appalled. But while the vast majority of Americans were appalled by the Nazis, there was also a significant group of Americans who were sympathetic to their white supremacist, anti-Semitic message. When you see 20,000 Americans gathering in Madison Square Garden you can be sure that many times that were passively supportive.
In a part of Fritz Kuhn’s speech that isn’t in the film, he applauds Father Coughlin whose radio shows praising Hitler and Mussolini reached audiences of 30 million. Henry Ford and Charles Lindberg expressed anti-Semitic beliefs. And press magnate William Randolph Hearst declared, “Whenever you hear a prominent American called a fascist, you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a loyal citizen who stands for Americanism.” (In a small ironic twist, we licensed some of the Bund footage from the Hearst collection at UCLA.)
These were ideas that, if not universally accepted, were at least considered legitimate points of view. But two years after this rally, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on the US, and at that point this sort of philosophy became unacceptable. When the Nazis began killing American soldiers, we started erasing the fact that any Americans had ever shared their philosophy.
In the end, America pulled away from the cliff, but this rally is a reminder that things didn’t have to work out that way. If Roosevelt weren’t President, if Japan hadn’t attacked, is it possible we would have skated through without joining the war? And if Nazis hadn’t killed American soldiers, is it possible that their philosophy wouldn’t have become so taboo here?
Q: Who was the guy who ran out on stage and got beaten up at the rally?
A: He was a 26-year-old plumber’s helper from Brooklyn named Isadore Greenbaum. When he ran on stage to protest, he was beaten up and had his pants ripped off as he was thrown from the stage. He was also arrested for disorderly conduct and fined $25.
There was a debate at the time over whether the Bund should be allowed to have a rally, which – like so many things about the event—seems eerily contemporary. Greenbaum explained to the judge the day after the rally, “I went down to the Garden without any intention of interrupting. But being that they talked so much against my religion and there was so much persecution I lost my head, and I felt it was my duty to talk.” The Magistrate asked him, “Don’t you realize that innocent people might have been killed?” And Greenbaum replied, “Do you realize that plenty of Jewish people might be killed with their persecution up there?” (New York Times, 2/22/39)
But in TheNew York Times, the American Jewish Committee argued that although the Bund was “completely anti-American and anti-Democratic... because we believe that the basic rights of free speech and free assembly must never be tampered with in the United States, we are opposed to any action to prevent the Bund from airing its views.”
Mayor LaGuardia, for his part, ridiculed the event as an “exhibition of international cooties,” and said he believed in exposing cooties to the sunlight.
Q: What happened to this group after this rally?
A: The German American Bund, who held the rally, had a significant presence in the 1930s, with training camps in New Jersey, upstate New York, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and a huge march down East 86th Street in Manhattan. But their mainstream appeal was reduced by their leaders’ German accents and culture. As Halford E. Luccock famously said, “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism.'”
The group’s leader Fritz Kuhn was eventually arrested for embezzling Bund funds and sent to prison. He was stripped of his citizenship and, after the war, deported to West Germany where he died a few years later. The Bund disappeared soon after the start of World War II.
Q: How did you decide on the editing approach?
A: At first I thought I’d make a traditional documentary—with an explaining the background of the group. But when I started cutting the footage together, I realized there was real power in just watching it unfold, without explanation. When most people watch it, at first they are puzzled: “What is this?” They see George Washington and American flags and hear the Pledge of Allegiance (notably, before the phrase “Under God” was added in 1954), but then they see swastikas and people giving the Nazi salute, and it’s really unsettling.
So I decided to keep it pure and cinematic and unmediated—as if you are there, watching, and wrestling with what you are seeing. I wanted it to be more provocative than didactic—an icy splash of history tossed into the discussion we are having about White Supremacy right now.
Q: What do you want the audience to take away from the film?
A: The film doesn’t have narration or interviews to clearly underline the takeaways, but I think most audiences will find lots to chew on.
To me, the most striking and upsetting part of the film is not the anti-Semitism of the main speaker or even the violence of his storm-troopers. What bothers me more is the reaction of the crowd. Twenty-thousand New Yorkers who loved their kids and were probably nice to their neighbors, came home from work that day, dressed up in suits and skirts, and went out to cheer and laugh and sing as a speaker dehumanized people who would be murdered by the millions in the next few years.
This point is less an indictment of bad things that Americans have done in the past, than it is a cautionary tale about the bad things that we might do in the future.
When the protester is being beaten up there’s a little boy in the crowd who I zoomed on in the edit. You can see him rub his hands together, doing an excited little dance, unable to contain the giddy excitement that comes from being part of a mob. And when the protester is finally thrown off stage, there’s a long slow pan across the crowd that is laughing, clapping, cheering, like they’re at a World Wrestling Federation match.
We’d like to believe that there are sharp lines between good people and bad people. But I think most humans have dark passions inside us, waiting to be stirred up by a demagogue who is funny and mean, who can convince us that decency is for the weak, that democracy is naïve, and that kindness and respect for others are just ridiculous political correctness.
Events like this should remind us not to be complacent—that the things we care about have to be nurtured and defended regularly—because even seemingly good people have the potential to do hideous things.
For more information on A Night at the Garden, visit ANightatTheGarden.com, where you can find links to New York Times articles from the time, audio files of the speech, and transcripts of other speeches from that night.
Field of Vision is debuting their new film, A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN by Marshall Curry.
A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN (Dir. Marshall Curry)
In 1939, twenty-thousand Americans rallied in New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism – an event largely forgotten from American history. A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN uses striking archival fragments recorded that night to transport modern audiences into this disturbing gathering. With chilling resonance in light of events in Charlottesville and around the country, the film is a reminder about the power that far-right ideology once had in America and a wakeup call about the importance of to addressing it today.
From Field of Vision Co-Founders:
Laura Poitras: "When Marshall approached us with the film two days after Charlottesville, my first thought was, 'we need to put this film in cinemas,' and release it like a newsreel."
Charlotte Cook: “When Marshall first showed us this footage we were stunned. We felt that due to this political climate it was essential to get this film out fast, but also that to do so we needed to try a different style of distribution. By playing in theatres across the country first we hope this the film will be able to reach beyond our usual audience, and into a range of communities and cities around the US. Creating a conversation around the film from the ground up. It’s extremely exciting to be able to do this with Marshall, a filmmaker we’ve been wanting to work with for a long time. And this film is so incredibly well, and thoughtfully, made. We can’t wait for people to see it.”
On Sunday September 24, the film will be shown across the country at 22 screens in Alamo theaters in:
The film is also playing at the IFC Center in New York until Friday playing before the 12:30pm showing of “The Unknown Girl."
The film will be part of a special event at the NYFF, and more festivals to come, along with an online release.
About Marshall Curry: MARSHALL CURRY is a two-time Academy Award nominated documentary filmmaker. His film, “Street Fight,” follows Cory Booker’s first run for mayor of Newark, NJ and was nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy. His follow up documentary, “Racing Dreams” tells the story of two boys and a girl who live in rural America and dream of one day racing in NASCAR. It won numerous awards, including Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, and aired on PBS and the BBC. His third film, “If a Tree Falls, a Story of the Earth Liberation Front” peels back the layers of a radical environmental group that the FBI called the number one domestic terrorist group in the United States. That film won the award for Best Documentary Editing at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to be nominated for an Oscar. Marshall was Executive Producer and an additional editor of “Mistaken For Strangers,” a comedy rock-doc about indie band, The National. Most recently Marshall directed and edited “Point and Shoot,” a documentary about a young Baltimore native who set out on a 30,000-mile motorcycle trip through Northern Africa and the Middle East and wound up joining the rebels in Libya fighting Gaddafi. It won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival and was released in theaters and aired on PBS and the BBC. Marshall is a graduate of Swarthmore College where he studied Comparative Religion and has been a guest lecturer at Harvard, Duke, Columbia, NYU, and other colleges. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children.