After two years of preparation, the visual journalism wing of The Intercept goes public this month, led by an episodic series directed by Intercept co-founder Laura Poitras (Academy Award-winning director of Citizenfour) that offers a dramatic firsthand chronicle of the events that led Julian Assange to seek asylum in London, set to premiere at the New York Film Festival on September 27. During this calm before the storm, Poitras was joined by her two collaborators — fellow filmmaker AJ Schnack (Caucus, We Always Lie to Strangers, co-founder of the Cinema Eye Honors) and Charlotte Cook, until recently the director of programming for Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto — to talk about their vision for Field of Vision, the glories of working in shorter forms, and the richly fertile ground between cinema and journalism.

Where did the idea for Field of Vision come from, and what was the motivation behind it?

Laura Poitras: In 2013, when I was reporting on the Snowden material, Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and I decided to work together. What I wanted to do is use visual journalism in a different kind of way. I proposed a structure where we had a really small team that would commission work that would expand the language of visual journalism. I was in the process of editing Citizenfour, and when I finished that I reached out to Charlotte and AJ to see if they wanted to build this unit with me. I’ve known them both for many years, and in terms of their skills and knowledge of the documentary community, both have such vast experience. Field of Vision is very much a collaboration.

Why open this up to a wider community of filmmakers instead of taking the standard TV news tack of working with a fixed crew?

AJ Schnack: It seemed like a great time to engage the community in a way that was different from the ways that they tend to be engaged. For a lot of people, the notion of doing something in the short form and also quickly responding to something that’s happening in the world is something that, as both an exercise and as a way to create a piece of art, is somewhat new. Not just have a team of five filmmakers who will constantly churn stuff out, but instead to say — here’s an event happening right now in the Pacific Northwest, and there’s a filmmaker who would be perfect for it. Let’s call them and get them in the field next week. That was something that was really interesting to us, as a way of getting a bunch of different perspectives, as well as different people’s styles of nonfiction.

Poitras: We’re trying to be creatively exploratory. We’re very much approaching this as filmmakers and creative people. We are interested in intersections between visual storytelling and newsgathering, and how writing and video journalism can work together. When we think of things that inspire us, it’s like Life magazine, which was such a great platform for photography and print, or World In Action, a British series that was responding to events as they were unfolding in very cinematic ways.

Charlotte Cook: Traditionally, art hasn’t been seen as having a place within journalistic filmmaking. But Laura and AJ’s work shows this isn’t the case — that it can have a place. We’re really excited about pairing very artistic filmmaking with journalism.

Schnack: We also like the challenge aspect of it. Laura and I worked together, along with a bunch of other filmmakers, on a film called Convention, and it was in many ways an exercise. It was like, here’s your camera, here’s your assignment — go.

Poitras: With Convention, AJ invited filmmakers that he trusted to work in a verité style to film the 2008 Democratic Convention. We had less than a week on the ground — we didn’t have time to prep. We’d all go out and shoot and then at the end of the day we’d debrief. It’s an experience that’s scary, but it’s also creatively exciting — not doing just what you know, what’s safe or predictable. It’s also great because oftentimes working in long form is really tough. It’s like a marathon. We don’t get to use our chops as much as we want to. So to be on the ground, trying to do things with a quicker turnaround, we can respond to the world around us more quickly, and also the life cycle of the creative process is accelerated.

Cook: The beauty of this form is that it allows filmmakers to play with the craft. They’re not putting three years into a feature, they’re doing a short film, and they can think about perhaps different ways that they’ve never told stories before. We’re keen on looking at things from a different perspective, whether it’s a story that people are familiar with, or something that perhaps hasn’t been covered properly. And then being able to work with different kinds of artists, photojournalists, and data-literate journalists, to really see how people think visually about topical stories.

Poitras: We’re also excited about working with other journalists at The Intercept. For instance, Jeremy and Glenn do incredible reporting, let’s assign filmmakers to work with them.

We’re interested in visually driven storytelling. It doesn’t need to be verité. It could be data visualization. How do you communicate about the world through the tools that are available to us, as people who work in a visual medium? How can we understand the world differently through images? We’re going to have different interests among us, and I’m interested in a journalism component, a news component, in being responsive. I definitely have a leaning towards that, as opposed to something that’s just purely poetic and visual. I want that news edge, that journalism edge. But I don’t want it to be all that either.

Do you see it as potentially a news-breaking outlet?

Poitras: Absolutely. If people come to us with something that’s breaking that’s visual, we’d be really interested in doing that. Yet everything we do has to have relevance beyond the news cycle. We’re not interested in just feeding the news cycle — we want things that have resonance beyond that.

With the long process of making a feature film, there can often be a stage of, ok, that didn’t really work so let’s go edit for another three months. That would seem harder to do here, considering the quicker turnaround and timeliness of some stories.

Poitras: We’re not going to publish anything that’s not ready. There’s one particular filmmaker working on access right now, and this was a film we had hoped would be ready early, but we’re just going to be patient because we all know that access is worth being patient for. We understand the filmmaking process, and that sometimes things can’t happen quickly. But we also like the idea of working with a faster turnaround — that is very exciting to us.

Cook: That’s why World In Action has been an inspiration for us. They had many ongoing productions at a time, so they weren’t bound by, “We must have something tomorrow.” Some will take a little bit longer, others will happen very fast.

Are you mainly pursuing filmmakers with stories or will they come to you as well?

Poitras: It’s everything.

Cook: We’ve led the story so far, but it’s going to be fascinating to see what comes in once we launch. To see the hive-mind of the filmmaking community look at what we’re doing and interpret it in their own way.

Schnack: We’re less interested in someone who’s already made a film giving us a piece of it, or riffing on that. We’re not a film fund, and we’re not here to help people get their development money for their feature. But maybe somebody’s in the middle of working on a project — let’s say the film itself isn’t going to be out for four or five years — and there’s some piece of it that really should be told right now.

Cook: Or there’s a sideline story that doesn’t quite fit into their feature that they’re desperately trying to get out there. Every filmmaker I’ve ever met has told of stories they would love to have made, but that just didn’t work as a feature.

Schnack: As filmmakers we have ideas all the time, but a lot of our challenge is determining, “Is it an hour? Is it 90 minutes? And what’s the commitment that’s going to be made to figure out what that is?” And you know if it’s a feature, you have to raise a bunch more money, because you have to be able to do a lot more shooting. I think it would be freeing if you thought there’s an interesting story happening and maybe it’s only a 5-minute film. Maybe it’s 10. There’s not really a process that exists in our world where you can say — there’s a story happening next week and I want to go out and shoot it, and these people over here are interested in making that film with you. A lot of the system that’s been set up is more related to, “Oh that sounds good — go film it and then come back to us and then we’ll talk about it.”

Of the first batch of films you’ve commissioned, there’s a variety in terms of length and structure. What do you envision in terms of form?

Cook: We really want to experiment. We’re very free in that we’re not bound by a broadcast schedule. We’re not bound by deadlines. We can choose when we go.

Schnack: We’re also really excited about episodic, multipart or thematic storytelling. Some projects that grow into something that should be a little longer, others can be told over two parts, or over a week of episodes, or via an episode each week. How you tell stories is one of the great things we’re all wrestling with right now. So how great to not feel bound by it needing to be this one thing. It could be 13 episodes, or it could be three parts. It could be five different filmmakers with different takes on an idea or event.

Poitras: Or it could be a project that’s one shot. I’m not sure that it should always have an arc. Maybe it only has a beginning. And there’s no middle or end. Or there’s only Act 2. I’m really interested in not always arcing things out, not having a resolution at the end. An episodic approach can be an example of that — the end is handing off to something else. This is something that will grow as we try things. Some things are going to work and some things aren’t. We’re going to be open to saying you know that film’s not quite working, and that’s fine. But what we want to do is take risks. Let’s think differently about how structure can work.

Cook: It could even be a moment — something that really makes people think in one moment. We’re open to everything from 30 seconds to full episodic.

Poitras: I also want to reach out to fiction filmmakers to work on nonfiction. Mix things up and see what people come back with.

Laura, can you talk a bit about your upcoming series about Julian Assange? It’s my understanding that you hadn’t necessarily conceived of that footage as an episodic series.

Poitras: After finishing Citizenfour, AJ, Charlotte and I started talking about the things that excite us in terms of the storytelling form. We all really love episodic as a way of telling stories. Where it’s like reading a novel — you put it down and go about your life but it’s still in your head, and then you return to it. So we said let’s look for stories that can be told in an episodic way, or that could be linked thematically. Afterwards I began thinking I have this really incredible narrative with Julian Assange that I’d filmed, which led up to him seeking political asylum in the embassy in London. The first assembly of Citizenfour included Snowden’s story and Julian, but in editing it became clear it was a separate film. In many ways it foreshadows Citizenfour. My experience of watching how Assange handled the release of the information, how he partnered with all these different media, etc. So then I emailed Charlotte and AJ and said I have this idea. What if we do a series about Julian?

Cook: That email kind of blew our minds. AJ and I were chatting online and we were like, is this for real?

Poitras: The experience we have with episodic storytelling is unique, it’s a different type of experience for the audience than long form. I’m a huge fan of House of Cards — you can’t stop watching it. It’s really exciting as a storyteller to work in that form.

Laura, you’ve worked on several occasions with The New York Times on their Op-Docs short film series. What was your experience with that, and how do you see this enterprise as distinguishing itself from what they do?

Poitras: What Jason Spingarn-Koff did at the Times was really fantastic — bringing in independent filmmakers and raising the dialogue and sophistication around nonfiction storytelling. It really does inform this. And it also informed me as a creative person, to be able to tell a story quicker, to be able to work within a shorter creative life cycle. On Death of a Prisoner, I combined new footage with footage I’d shot in Yemen in 2007, and it was published on the 11-year anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo. As an American I want to keep reminding people Guantánamo is still open. But how many long-form films can you make about it? So let’s do short form. And so this is very much informed by that. But we also want to do something different. We want to do original stories, new works.

How are the three of your working together on this? Do you have separate emphases and approaches, or are you all doing it all?

Poitras: We’re co-collaborators. We’re working under the umbrella of The Intercept — the fact checking and the final editorial will be through that. But we have the ability to greenlight projects within our unit. In terms of the process, with rough cuts we all weigh in to the filmmakers and give our individual opinions. So they have to wrestle with that, to decide what resonates and doesn’t, and deal with sometimes contradictory opinions. But then we give notes on the final edit in a collective way.

Cook: It’s very important that two-thirds of us are filmmakers. Because there’s no other unit right now doing this that’s filmmaker driven. That we’ve set this up so that Laura and AJ can keep working and making films is incredibly important. That leaves me with some time to look for talent and start bringing people in. Traditionally my background is journalism, and programming kind of came out of the blue. This pairs both of those things really nicely. We’re in a vacuum as programmers, so being able to build things and look at exhibition in a different way is exciting.

Laura and AJ, in terms of your own filmmaking, how will you determine what to work on for The Intercept, and what to pursue outside of it?

Schnack: We’ll both have ideas that will feel right for this project. But there will also be ideas that are definitely features, and those won’t be part of this. I’m going to keep doing some of the political work that I’m doing, and that won’t be part of Field of Vision. There will also be ideas that we’ll get to assign to other filmmakers. I think the reason why it makes sense for the three of us to do this is not only our love of documentary film but also our love for making connections within our community, being available to filmmakers and encouraging young talent.

Have you tried to structure things in a way that’s supportive to filmmakers?

Cook: From the moment Laura came to us about this it was agreed that it has to be filmmaker friendly. We have to make sure they have a good experience and feel like it’s nothing but beneficial to them.

Poitras: We’re licensing the work itself that’s coming to us, but the rushes, the footage, the copyright, stays with the filmmaker. Filmmakers can devote a decade to a set of themes or stories, so we’re just licensing that particular work — we’re not trying to restrict what filmmakers can do in other ways. We’re open to working with some projects that could potentially become long form, but we are not a development fund for features.

Cook: It’s more like something that organically comes out of a story, rather than somebody having a feature in mind and us supporting that. Also we’re very conscious of making sure to pay what these cost to make.

Poitras: We’ll agree on the budget, and they’ll allocate how they see fit.

Schnack: We’re not expecting filmmakers to donate their time to make these films. If it takes them a month of their lives, then their expenses for the month should be covered in the work. That’s another thing — as filmmakers, a lot of time people think they’re doing you a favor by providing you a platform. It’s important to us that we don’t have that perspective. People need to pay the bills.

How do you think about this enterprise in terms of audience?

Cook: I think about audience all the time. Audience has been my obsession for my entire career. I’ve been one of those creepy people who stand at the back of every screening I can get to. You know — what are they laughing at, what are they responding to, who’s coming to this screening? It’s been interesting seeing how documentary has evolved, and how filmmakers are having to adapt to the online space. We really have to. Because as much as filmmakers love traditional distribution — and I think that we should always protect and fight for that, because it’s incredibly important — we also have to think about where the audience is right now. And a lot of it is online. So to be able to have filmmakers play with this is going to be really interesting. Hopefully we’re bringing art into this space, and maybe broadening the audience for that kind of filmmaking. Which is the most important thing for me. The kinds of people who watch visual journalism online probably aren’t going to be used to our approach. We’re opening a different kind of visual medium, and that’s only going to benefit the documentary community at large.

You don’t feel obliged to meet the traditional expectations for visual journalism?

Cook: No. I think people always underestimate audiences for documentary. It’s something I’ve heard from broadcasters and distributors — that there isn’t an audience for this. And that’s not my experience. People are desperate to see interesting, beautiful content, and it’s just very hard to find. So hopefully by having this amazing platform, we’re going to actually give people what they want.

Schnack: In nonfiction storytelling, the thing that people always seem to respond to in the biggest way always seems to be the thing that a month prior everybody said no one’s interesting in consuming or viewing. Then all of a sudden it’s like, oh, we need that. We should do that kind of thing.

Cook: The audience is always ahead of those people who say there’s not an audience for documentary. We’ve heard that so much, and it’s just not true. The moment people are aware of what’s out there they go and see it. Because they’re always looking for interesting filmmaking that makes them think and makes them look at things in a new way. They are there. It’s a myth that they’re not.

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Director Yi Seung-Jun and producer Gary Byung-Seok Kam are the dynamic filmmaking duo behind In the Absence, a World Press Photo award-winning short about the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea.

In the Absence begins on April 16, 2014, the day the MV Sewol, a passenger ferry carrying over 400 people—including school children—sank near Jeju Island. Over 300 people lost their lives that day. In the wake of this horrific incident, people across South Korea, including those whose loved ones had perished, sought transparency and accountability from national authorities. Years later, these families and their supporters are still fighting for answers for what happened on that fateful April morning.

In the Absence, which began production in 2017, combines intimate interviews with victims’ families, survivors, and rescue divers with breathtaking archival footage and audio recordings obtained from the South Korean authorities. The result is a compelling yet compassionate story of the people whose lives were forever changed by this tragedy.

In the Absence premiered at DOC NYC in 2018, where it won the grand jury prize in the festival’s shorts competition and later screened at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). The film also took home first prize at this year’s World Press Photo Digital Storytelling Contest for Long Form. Shortly after, The New Yorker published In the Absence on its website and YouTube channel, where it has garnered over 1 million views. You can also watch the film on our website here.

Yi and Kam recently spoke to Field of Vision about choosing to make this ambitious and galvanizing film, how the conversation around Sewol has changed in the last five years, and much more.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you decide to make a film about the Sewol ferry disaster?

Yi Seung-Jun: It was a Wednesday morning in 2014 when I first heard through the media that a ferry was sinking. At first, it seemed quite serious. Most of the passengers were high school students on their school trip. I was wishing that no one died or got seriously hurt. Soon, a news report came out that all the passengers were rescued, which turned out to be not true.

In the afternoon of that day, I watched TV news, which said more than half of the passengers were still trapped in the ferry, which was already under the water.

Since then, we heard about the ferry sinking every day, and many of the students seemed to be dead. It was really shocking and sad. My colleague directors visited the harbor closest to the site. They thought there must be something [suspicious] regarding the government’s reaction, and that something was being hidden by the government as well as by the mainstream media.

I was suggested by one of the directors to join the team, but at that time I was busy editing my feature documentary. Moreover, I did not think that I could press the record button in front of the enormous sorrow and fury of the victims’ or missing students’ families. When I saw any teenagers wearing school uniforms in a bus, on the street, I burst into tears without realizing.

From October 2016 to March 2017, there were a series of Candle Protests in South Korea, calling for the resignation of then-president Park Geun-hye. Millions of people, including myself, took part in the protests.

It was at the end of 2016 when Field of Vision contacted me, asking if I was interested in making a short, cinematic documentary about any story related to the protests, or the then-current situation. I talked with my producer, Gary, and we suggested the story of the Sewol ferry disaster to Field of Vision, how the disaster was connected to the protest, and why people were so angry about the handling and attitude of the government about the disaster.

It’s been almost three years, but still the victims’ families and the civilian divers were living in pain, with the truth still not revealed. However, some people made those arguments: we should not talk about the disaster anymore, the victims’ families have got enough compensation, let’s forget about it, do not make use of the disaster politically, and so on.

I came to think that if there is still broadly rooted pain in there, then we need to go back to the time when the pain had begun. We need to look at it and find out what caused the pain, and where it had started. That is why I decided to make this film.

Gary Byung-Seok Kam: I had this weird experience about six months before the tragedy happened. I got an email from an American producer who was ready to make a documentary about a mysterious photographer called Ahae. He described himself as a sportsman, post-structuralist photographer, artist, and nature lover. I was really, really curious about him. So I started to do some research. Later it came out that he was the owner of the ferry company.

The next year, in April, actually, while I’m still doing research, I actually booked [the Sewol ferry] with my partner. It is the only ferry from Seoul to Jeju Island. But the last page [on the website] was all broken. The next day, one of my friends said, "Oh, why bother to go all the way by motorbike? You can just send the motorbike [via airplane]."

So I had second thoughts. I just booked an airplane. The next day, before I went out, I saw news that the ferry was sinking. For a moment, I had goosebumps all over my body. I realized that that was the ferry that I booked.

You're saying that you were almost on that boat? But by some chance happening, you weren't?

GK: Yes. Only two people among the victims’ families know this. Because I could never tell them that I was lucky and didn't get on. After that moment, I always felt that I needed to do something.

First of all, I didn't like the way the media treated the tragedy in general. Three months before Field of Vision approached [the film’s director Seung-Jun Yi], actually one of the victims’ family members contacted me, asking if I'd be interested in looking into all this.

So we had a talk. I just told them, “I'm sorry, I'm not capable of finding out the truth, not at this moment, but I will find out.” The government definitely deserves the criticism, but I just want to take one step back and see. It was just too emotional.

[The victim’s family member] liked the idea. We kept developing the idea, not in a hurry. Then Field of Vision contacted Seung-Jun, so Seung-Jun and I discussed. He knew that I had started thinking about a Sewol documentary. We had a long talk. The Candle Protest itself is a great subject, but it's too deep for a short documentary. So we both thought that the Sewol case could also be a strong subject as it was one of the main issues that brought people to join the Candle Protest.

The film is very, very meaningful for, and also to the victims’ family association. Even though it was a really tragic story, they are very happy that the story gets to be shared with a global audience, a bigger audience.

I actually wanted to touch a bit on that. So the film has been shown at several festivals. It's now online at the New Yorker and also on our site. So what has it been like to share this particular story with a larger international—and now digital—audience? What has that been like for you, for Seung-Jun, for the families?

GK: First of all, the victims’ family association—the families—they are very, very happy. I met them right after the New Yorker’s YouTube video hit more than a million [views]. So I told them that happened. They were very, very happy. And they were very surprised. It seemed that most of the comments were written in English. I was sitting with them in a café, and I read the comments. They were moved, and they were pleased to find that the comments were from all different countries, and are actually not so different from what they have gotten from Korean audiences. They were glad that the pain they are going through, the tragedy caused by the incompetence of parliament could be actually [communicated] well with a bigger audience. It's not that they want to be an object of pity. They want people to know what happened.

Any innocent, ordinary citizen of any society could fall victim to tragedy. That's what the [families] want to tell [the world]. That's why every citizen [should] want to show more interest in the safety and regulations for the society, any society. That's what they wanted. They wanted to convert the tragedy into a platform for every society.

Do you think that public discourse around the Sewol atrocity has changed in the last five years? If so, how?

YS: As far as I know, public discourse has not changed a lot. I mean, there were already people who disliked to talk about this issue. Most of them were supporters of the then-government, the then-president and the ruling conservative party. And politicians put a kind “scarlet letter” on anyone, any media, any group, any politician who supported the victims’ families, who criticized the government’s reactions. The yellow ribbon is the symbol of the slogan, “Do not forget the day: April 16th, 2014.” People used to put a yellow ribbon sticker on their cars. I also used to put a yellow ribbon sticker on the rear window of my car. Once, a man asked me what it was and he said it’s better to take it down. I asked why, and he just said, “Well… it is not good to put this ribbon on.” That was it. I was lucky because he did not keep asking. However, there have been people who insulted the victims’ families or were aggressive with people who support the victims’ families, the civilian divers, etc. Their attitude has not changed at all.

But the media has changed after the power shift, I mean, after the then-president, Park Geun-Hye resigned from her office, and the opposite party candidate became the new president of South Korea.The attitude of media has changed. Most of the mainstream media were with the then-government. They did not report the issue well. They wanted to hide as much as possible. But due to the power shift, mainstream media began dealing with many kinds of stories related to the ferry sinking disaster. This project was supported by the governmental fund, and I applied for the fund after the then-president resigned from her office. It would not have been possible to get funded if it were under the previous government.

GK: We cannot treat this as a car accident. We have to find out who's still [accountable]. At this moment, only one person [has been charged]: the captain of a patrol boat. So the families, and those who support these families, they demand justice. Not as revenge, but without setting a good example of punishment or taking responsibility, there won’t be a first step to be a better society in the future.

In the Absence features a lot of archival footage and audio from a variety of sources. There's stuff from broadcast TV, conversations between government officials, and the crew on the ship, cell phone videos from school children on the ship, and so on. Can you tell me about the process of finding those materials and then deciding which pieces of footage or audio to use? Because it seemed like there was such a large set of data that you were able to pull from.

YS: As I said, some of my director colleagues had been filming the situation after the ferry sinking, establishing the 416 Documenting Group. The aim of the group was not only to make their own film or TV program related to the disaster but also to support other directors making documentaries regarding the issue. I talked with them about this project, and they eagerly decided to support this project. They’ve already got tons of footage, some were filmed by them, some were obtained with the help of media, congressmen, et cetera. We were provided with all of that footage. And the cell phone videos provided by the association of the victims’ families, with their permission.

When I looked through all of the footage, I first decided to make a timeline of the incident itself, to make the audience feel what was going on on that day.

GK: The most important thing was to secure the footage from the actual Coast Guard choppers, the patrol boat footage, and also all the conversations among government agencies. Actually, that was only distributed to major broadcasters, just for some parts for the news report. As independent filmmakers, it was extremely difficult for us to secure the footage, but the family association really helped us in contacting one of the congressmen. He was a very well known human rights lawyer. He represented the family association for a long time, and later was elected as a congressman.

Through his office, we could secure the footage and the government recordings. We contacted the broadcasters, and they refused to share footage with us. So the only possible way was to have someone in parliament help us clear that copyright issue. The government will never raise any questions with copyright issues to Congress. So that's how we secured most of the footage.

I wanted to transition into asking you about the film having these really incredible moving interviews with the victims’ families as well as a few of the divers. What was it like to film with them? How did you gain their trust?

YS: The association of the victims’ families decided to support this project officially. We always discussed what to film and whom to interview with the association. One of the most important rules of mine on the shooting location is to try not to [impose]. I just let my characters be there, stay as they are, move as they want. Then I just keep observing them, capturing important moments or emotions as they are. Through this process, characters do not feel bothered, and I do believe that it helps me to gain the characters’ trust.

GK: At the time, many family members were about to go to an island very close to where the ferry sank. There are no hotels or anything, only several private residents of fishermen. It's only two kilometers away from the mainland. We were allowed to join, not knowing where to stay, what to eat… And we ended up staying on a floor, and spent two days on the island with many family members.

It was really depressing, first of all, to watch them because—especially the fathers—no one could sleep without drinking. Some were drinking two liters of Korean vodka [each night]. At the same time some were very hostile to journalists—any camera. They felt they had been betrayed by journalists for many years, for almost three years.

When the Sewol ferry was brought into the port [at Jindo], we once again stayed three days [with the family]. We did the same thing. We didn't ask anything.

The family members took turns watching [the port] because they didn't trust the government [to not remove evidence]. They set up a watchtower. At least three to five people, family members, were always on the island at once for three years.

What was it like for you and Seung-Jun to be around so much grief and pain throughout this whole process? How did it change your perspective on the incident and in general?

GK: I am sure that Seung-Jun had a more stressful time, but for me, I have this strong feeling of responsibility to do something for them, and making a film and making their story into a documentary was the only thing I could do for them. And also watching their grief, anger, and frustration, actually, as a filmmaker, it was a great lesson. That makes me think again about how we as filmmakers should treat the people in pain, when we hold the camera or when we want to make stories; to be respectful and hold that distance. Seung-Jun was the only independent filmmaker the family allowed to get in [to the port]. After a family member managed to get a personal look at the salvaged ferry and then came out of the gate, this TV cameraperson ran to her and put the camera right in her face. One of the fathers shouted and swore at camera, "Are you happy? Are you happy that you could shoot this woman crying and in pain? This is what you want?"

When the mothers came out of the gate, Seung-Jun just [fell] back. We moved aside just enough to get the whole scene.

What do you hope future audiences will learn, gain, or feel when watching this film?

YS: We, human beings, are vulnerable to “time.” As time goes on, we forget many things. Time makes us dull. It is like a black hole absorbing our [emotions]. Isn’t it scary to become dull? I want people to remember the day, remember what happened on that day and what was going on, what we told each other. And I hope people do not forget that if some system fails to operate correctly, it results in terrible pain in the end. The pain might not be curable. Please wake up and keep your eyes on [those responsible].

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François Verster and Simon Wood are South Africa-based filmmakers and the directors of Scenes from a Dry City, a new Field of Vision short about the water crisis in Cape Town.

The film looks at the terrifying march towards “Day Zero,” when the city’s water taps will be turned off due to prolonged drought, from a variety of perspectives, including: car washers, anti-privatization protesters, Christians praying for rain in a mass service, and well-to-do golfers on a lush private course. These vignettes are juxtaposed with images of a drought-stricken reservoir and the network of canals that carry an ever-decreasing trickle of water to Cape Town. Though “Day Zero” has reportedly been postponed, the core issues explored in the film—namely race, class, access, and privilege—remain relevant.

Scenes from a Dry City premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2018 and later screened at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where it won the Mini-Doc Award. Verster and Wood recently spoke to Field of Vision about their award-winning film, what it was like to blend their filmmaking styles, and what they hope audiences will glean from their work.

What inspired you to make a film about the water crisis in Cape Town?

François Verster: Simon and I both live in Cape Town. At the beginning of last year, the public were suddenly receiving warnings that the taps may be turned off, and predictions were being made, ranging from exploding sewerage pipes to typhoid epidemics to social insurrection. Many wealthier Capetonians actually left the city for Johannesburg, the supermarkets ran out of bottled water after panic ensued, people started stockpiling, and there was a general sense of simply not knowing how life would proceed should there be no water. The government issued photos of water distribution points, which would be controlled by the army and would mean queues of tens of thousands of people every day. The public was asked to befriend elderly neighbors and to assist them when the time comes. Schools issued warnings of possible closure.

We were both intrigued by the way hidden social dynamics were coming to the fore in the process, and we both saw a great opportunity for a film that looked at Cape Town through the vehicle of a crisis that went across the board. I had made a film called Sea Point Days that consisted of vignettes of life in a specific part of the city, and Simon had made a film called Orbis, which uses powerful single visual scenes as a medium for storytelling. And we both felt that the situation presented a golden opportunity to deliver a highly creative insight into the bigger societal issues we have explored in our other films. I was in discussion with various people about doing something, and when the opportunity to do something for Field of Vision came up it totally made sense, both because of the urgent timeline and because of being able to contain a very big subject in a tight, limited form.

Simon Wood: Every man and his dog wanted to make a film about Cape Town being the first major city to run out of water last year. Most of these films were expository documentaries positioned around a sensationalist armageddon. I am not and never will be an environmental impact, social justice type of filmmaker. I saw an opportunity to use water as a lens to explore societal dynamics in a place which is rife with inequality. Thematically, I was interested in nature’s indifference to man, which allows the film to use water a neutral device to travel though Cape Town’s surreal maddening at the hands of a disinterested mother nature.

How did this collaboration come about? Had you worked together before?

Verster: We have been consulting on each other’s films and also developing a film called Zephany: The Hidden One together for some time. Because of the urgency involved in doing something on the water crisis, and because there were so many facets to cover, it made sense to try to work with another director. We at one point considered making a longer film that involved different directors from different parts of Cape Town, but in the end the short documentary form worked out very well for us.

Wood: François is South Africa’s greatest observational filmmaker, so I was obviously really keen to work with him! My films have been driven primarily by a strong visual aesthetic and less concerned with narrative, so I thought if we collaborated it would be an interesting clash of documentary personas, and by God it was! Oddly, I think the film works best when it intercuts between our separate styles: the golf scene in the empty canal, filmed by me, blends really well with François’s observation of the protest march. I hope these contrasting styles, opinions, ideas lead to something unsettling that connects with a broader idea around perception and reality.

You discuss showing not only the environmental impact but also the social and economic impact of the drought. Why did you think it was important to show those aspects as well?

Verster: I am primarily a social documentary filmmaker, so the human side, which is of course inseparable from environmental issues anyway, was always the entry point for me. As mentioned, the threat of water running out had a profound impact on Capetonians’ existential sense—it was as if society had been prodded in such a way so as to reveal both its fault lines and, perhaps also, its strengths and positive characteristics. In many ways Cape Town’s spatial geography is a monument to Apartheid planning, and now municipal resources are applied highly unequally across the city’s population. What was also illuminating was how many wealthier people would, for example, vocally complain about how car wash operations in the poor townships were wasting water, without any acknowledgement of the fact that in many of those areas a single tap could be serving an entire street. Or of the structural economic advantages involved in being able to dig well points or boreholes to keep gardens and swimming pools going in the wealthier areas. The water crisis cost the region over 30,000 jobs in the agriculture and tourism sectors, and of course the poorer employees were the first to go. The cost of municipal water itself shot up, and this was of course much harder for poorer households to accommodate. In the wealthiest areas, some house-owners continued watering their lawns as before, opting to pay the hefty fines—because they had the funds to do so—rather than saving water. On the other hand, there was also a very positive sense of people pulling together across race and class barriers towards a common cause.

Wood: I guess because people from privileged backgrounds, myself included, love to bang on about the environment, whilst for the majority of people in South Africa the main concern is how they will be able to provide for themselves and their families on a daily basis. These raw realities are somehow ignored and rarely discussed.

What was the process for gaining access for the ride-along with a member of local law enforcement that is featured in the film?

Verster: We had a very good relationship with Cape Town’s city police and had filmed with them a number of times before filming the chase sequencer in the film. The city was fairly open about what they were doing and the police in general, to our mind, seemed to want to cooperate with both the media and with the bigger debates that were going on. Yet it felt very strange and unsettling to be driving around in a police car filming people being booked for washing cars or watering their gardens, particularly in a place that has so many massive other societal problems.

Wood: I had been on several water operations with the police before I shot the car washer chase scene. It was fortunate that I was interviewing the officer in the car as the situation unfolded: the police officers in front of us were in an unmarked car and pulled up to the illegal car wash and all hell broke loose as they jumped out and tried to arrest the guys. It did feel fairly surreal to put so much effort into chasing men who were trying to make a day’s wage by washing cars. Everyone felt fairly deflated after the guys were arrested. But I think the film offers a not impossible view of a future where water is a precious entity and governments will fight to control it.

Were there any scenes that were particularly difficult to shoot due to issues of access, timing, et cetera?

Verster: We were hoping to film more of the excessive use of water by certain richer Capetonians. For example, we had planned to film how farmers—who have water concessions from government—deliver water by truck to private swimming pool owners. In an area close to where I live, a massive multi-apartment complex that boasts fourteen brand new swimming pools has just been constructed, which seems crazy given that the general understanding has been that private pools are no longer a luxury Cape Town can afford. Even municipal pools have been threatened with closure. But because of the sensitivity around this kind of abuse of privilege it was not possible, in the time span we had, to arrange access to filming this.

Wood: The film uses water as a vehicle to travel though Cape Town, so it was really important to me that this journey had a strong aesthetic. I spent a lot of time searching for strong compositional moments in different landscapes: I filmed in underground water tunnels, dams, rivers, under bridges, and obviously underwater. When the golfer got into the empty canal to play the shot, I hadn’t taken a weekend off in two months. It was a Sunday, and my partner Meghna was pissed off that I decided to spend the afternoon filming in an empty canal. I had been wandering around that space for two hours when he nearly hit me with his ball. It’s a rare moment where a really bad golf shot landed in an amazing location whilst the sun was in the right part of the sky, and the right lens was on my camera creating a beautiful compositional observational moment of which I am very proud and makes the many weekends and pissed-off wife all seem worth it. Annoyingly, because it’s a beautiful shot, people think its staged or fake, I promise you it isn’t.

Why did you choose to make a short film instead of a feature-length film about this particular subject?

Verster: As before, this was largely because of the time factor involved and also because the opportunity to make a piece for Field of Vision offered something altogether new for me. I have not made many short documentaries before and have generally tended to be skeptical about them in the sense that one cannot be immersed in a world or in a process in the way I usually associate with the documentary films I value. Yet once we started working, the relative freedoms allowed by the form became a source of genuine joy. I was amazed at how one can combine elements without needing the same amount of exposition, development or even justification. Switches of mode or tone can be made very rapidly. For example, when we get back to the car washers, the real sound environment is cut out and we move to a trickling-water sound, which we thought of as the “essence” of water in auditory form, accompanied by a bass rumble. The film somehow completely changes into something else right there - and we look at subsequent scenes very differently. My idea of documentary is that its value lies exactly in being able to combine different realities, modes of looking, even modes of reality in one space, and the short film somehow makes doing so a lot easier.

Wood: To quote Werner Herzog who combatively believes we must divorce documentary from mere investigative journalism and that the “fly-on-the-wall” approach is for “losers,” he puts it eloquently when he states: “Only by imagining and by creating and by fantasizing and bringing in deep dreams, all of a sudden puts you into a position where you start to see something deeper. You notice something that stays within you forever.” This is genuinely what I strive for, and I believe it’s far easier to take chances, present dreams and fantasies within a short film than it is a feature where we often slaves to narrative devices and economic pressures.

What do you hope people gain from watching Scenes from a Dry City?

Verster: I hope that the film works on various levels. Firstly, we would of course like to draw attention to the crisis itself, and to the social issues that are brought to the fore by it, and to how what is happening here might be a harbinger of future situations elsewhere in the world. Cape Town does have a specific set of circumstances, but it does seem as if what we experienced last year is going to become commonplace around the world. The debates around political responsibility, alternative water sources—such as desalination plants—socio-economic rights, privatization and so on are by no means resolved, and it would be good for different centers to engage on how problems are or are not being resolved. But the film also aims to work at a more existential level. One guiding idea we had was to try to think through what it would mean to see things from the perspective of water itself, one that is indifferent yet central to existence and binding everything together. The hope was that this would then also open up a different kind of look: one that is visual, emotional, perhaps at some level philosophical—at the very tough debates on race and economics raging in the country over the past few years—in a way, both the harsh divisions as well as the connectedness of Cape Town’s human population are revealed. And then of course, we wanted all of this to function partly through the cinematic qualities of the film, so that people have an experience of aesthetic beauty, or at least power, which allows a different—and possibly, at a push, deeper—kind of political engagement with reality at hand.

Wood: Beautiful! I’d like to end the interview by saying I agree with François.

Watch Scenes from a Dry City on Field of Vision.

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Field of Vision announces today a new fellowship and its first-ever artist-in-residence. 

The Field of Vision fellowship is a year-long, collaborative program designed to support filmmakers in achieving their long-term artistic goals. The four 2018 Field of Vision fellows are: director Garrett Bradley (AloneBelow Dreams); director, actor, and activist Michelle Latimer (RiseChoke); filmmaker Charlie Lyne (Fish StoryBeyond Clueless); and Lyric Cabral, director of the Emmy-winning documentary (T)error.

“We are establishing this fellowship program to support filmmakers beyond project-based commissions, and to invite artists to collaborate in our editorial process," said Field of Vision executive producer Laura Poitras.  

The first year of fellows were selected from filmmakers who had worked with Field of Vision over the last three years. In addition to creating a framework for idea development, creative support, and a grant, Field of Vision will conduct workshops throughout the year in the areas of digital security, research, and legal issues. Fellows will also be invited to participate in Field of Vision’s editorial process, from identifying urgent stories to offering filmmaker feedback and guidance.

“We have wanted to support filmmakers in as many ways as possible since the beginning of Field of Vision,” said executive producer Charlotte Cook. “We are so thrilled to create these fellowships to be able to collaborate further with these incredible artists, all of whom are visionaries whose work is at the forefront of exploring the ways of combining art and storytelling and expanding the form.”

In addition to the four fellows, Field of Vision and First Look Media are jointly supporting data artist Josh Begley as an artist-in-residence in 2018. On staff at The Intercept since 2014, Begley has regularly collaborated with the publication’s co-founder Jeremy Scahill on multiple projects, including The Drone Papers. Begley’s first project as artist-in-residence is Concussion Protocol, a short film made with footage of all reported concussions sustained in the NFL this season. It has been viewed over 1.6 million times. 

January was a landmark month for Field of Vision. Yance Ford’s Strong Island, made with support from Field of Vision, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, marking the first nomination for an openly transgender director. 

Five Field of Vision-supported documentaries also screened at Sundance Film Festival, and three received special jury awards: Steve Maing’s Crime + Punishment; RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening; and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Our New President

Founded in 2015, Field of Vision has funded over 70 shorts and provided support for 10 feature documentaries. Field of Vision is the recipient of the International Documentary Association’s Best Short Form Series award and a News and Documentary Emmy nomination. 

About the Fellows:

Garrett Bradley

Garrett Bradley is a New Orleans-based filmmaker. Her debut feature documentary,Below Dreams, premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Her work has been exhibited in several prominent venues, including the Getty Museum, Hammer Museum, Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Festival du Nouveau Cinema Montreal, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Rooftop Films, New Orleans Film Festival, Hot Docs, and SXSW. Her short film Alone (Sundance 2017), which was released as part of the New York Times’s Op-Docs series, won a Sundance Jury Award and was shortlisted for an Academy Award. She has received fellowships from the Sundance Institute, Ford Foundation, and Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Garrett is also the co-founder of Creative Council, an artist-led afterschool program that helps high school students develop strong portfolios and applications for college. She currently teaches filmmaking at Loyola University.

Recent Field of Vision films: Like (SXSW 2016), The Earth is Humming (to be released)

Lyric Cabral

Director Lyric R. Cabral creates investigative work that exposes new information for the public record. Cabral’s directorial debut (T)error won an Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Documentary and was hailed by Variety as "a vital exposé.” (T)error has screened at more than 50 film festivals worldwide and is now available on Netflix. Lyric is a recipient of the International Documentary Association’s Emerging Filmmaker Award and has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. A current Rockwood/ Just Films Fellow, Lyric is a former Sundance Women in Film Fellow and a veteran of Sundance Institute’s Edit Lab and Creative Producing Lab. Prior to making films, Lyric worked as an editorial photojournalist; her photography was recently on exhibit in Gordon Parks: The Making of An Argument at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.

Recent Field of Vision film: The Rashomon Effect (in production)

Michelle Latimer

Michelle Latimer (Métis/Algonquin) is a Toronto-based writer, director, activist, and actor. Her body of work includes Choke (Sundance 2011), which received a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Honorable Mention in International Short Filmmaking and was chosen as one of TIFF Canada’s Top Ten in 2012; The Underground (TIFF 2014); Nimmikaage (Oberhausen 2016); the feature-length documentary ALIAS, which was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award; and the Viceland docuseries Rise (Sundance 2017). Michelle is currently working on her first dramatic feature The Freedom Project, adapting the bestselling novel The Inconvenient Indian (HBO/NFB) for screen, and being the showrunner for the seriesRed Nation Rising, which is in development for Sienna. She has programmed for ImagineNATIVE, Hot Docs Film Festival, and the Dawson City International Short Film Festival.

Recent Field of Vision film: Nuuca (TIFF 2017, Sundance 2018)

Charlie Lyne

Charlie Lyne is a filmmaker and film critic, best known for the essay films Beyond Clueless and Fear Itself. He has also directed a number of shorts, including the award-winning documentary Fish Story, and the 10-hour protest film Paint Drying. His work has screened at festivals including Sundance, International Film Festival Rotterdam, and SXSW.

Recent Field of Vision film: Personal Truth (IDFA 2017)

About the Artist-in-Residence:

Josh Begley

Josh Begley is a data artist and app developer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the creator of Metadata+, an iPhone app that tracks U.S. drone strikes. Begley’s work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic, The Intercept, The Guardian, New York Magazine, and at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.

Recent Field of Vision films: Best of Luck with the Wall (Doc Stories 2016, True/False 2017), Concussion Protocol

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American football is a beautiful sport. There’s a tremendous amount of grace that goes into it. For a moment, men can fly; the highlight reels are spectacular.

It can also be horrific — like watching someone get hit by a car.

Since the season started, there have been more than 280 concussions in the NFL. That is an average of 12 concussions per week. Though it claims to take head injuries very seriously, the National Football League holds this data relatively close. It releases yearly statistics, but those numbers are published in aggregate, making it difficult to glean specific insights.

I have been tracking these injuries all season. Using a variety of methods, including reviewing daily injury reports from NFL.com, I have created what I believe is the most complete dataset of individual concussions sustained during the 2017-2018 season.

The resulting film, “Concussion Protocol,” is a visual record of every concussion in the NFL this year.

This film does not make an argument for ending football. Rather, it invites a set of questions. In the spirit of Saidiya Hartman, I am interested in “defamiliarizing the familiar.”

When we watch American football, what are we seeing?

By cutting together only these scenes of injury — moments of impact, of intimacy, of trauma — and reversing them, I hope to open up a space to see some of this violence anew.

In his recent book “Black and Blur,” Fred Moten asks, “What is it to rewind the given? What is it to wound it? What is it to be given to this wounding and rewinding?”

Representing this series of collisions in reverse — and in slow motion or “dragged time” — I hope to make strange what has for many of us become normative: the spectacular, devouring moment of a football hit that knocks a player out cold.

Rather than making a film about concussions with a flurry of hard hits, however, I am interested — inspired by Hartman — in looking elsewhere. How might we see the totality of this violence without just replaying the violence itself? “By defamiliarizing the familiar,” Hartman writes in “Scenes of Subjection,” “I hope to illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle.”

In a moment when black athletes are being chastised for kneeling in protest of police violence, it should not be lost on us that calls to “get back on the field” or “stick to football” are also calls for players to subject themselves to the slower forms of violence the football field contains.

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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:

Kansas City

https://drafthouse.com/kansas-city/show/american-assassin

https://drafthouse.com/kansas-city/show/it-2017

https://drafthouse.com/kansas-city/show/kingsman-the-golden-circle

https://drafthouse.com/kansas-city/show/mother

Yonkers

https://drafthouse.com/yonkers/show/3-d-rarities

https://drafthouse.com/yonkers/show/solaris-4k-restoration

San Francisco

https://drafthouse.com/sf/show/ingrid-goes-west

https://drafthouse.com/sf/show/beach-rats

https://drafthouse.com/sf/show/infinity-baby

Brooklyn

https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/zardoz

https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/dunkirk

https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/good-time

https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/mother

Austin Lakeline

Austin Mueller

Austin Ritz

Austin Slaughter

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/mother

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/grindhouse

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/stronger

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/the-big-sick

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/brads-status

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/tough-guy-cinema-repo-man

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.

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