BEADIE FINZI:“ These are complicated times to be telling difficult and dangerous stories. Whatever the opposition is, whether they’re corporate or government, they have a lot more tools, really easy tools, to be able to watch us, listen to us, look at our information. There’s that broader perspective for people to think about more deeply. And think does it really apply to me? “
As I start this piece, the Chris Wylie – Cambridge Analytica story has just broken. There’s some discussion about the backlash to Facebook’s granting of access to its users’ personal data to CA, and the way that data was used during 2016’s tumultuous elections, and continue to be used to manipulate people in ways we haven’t begun to understand.
One of the first things to go through my mind was I wonder what’s going to happen to Wylie. Followed by what happens to anyone, at any stage of a documentary, who do projects that piss people off?
Documentary is nestled in a weird little space between film and journalism, with the benefits of neither. When a filmmaker decides to tackle a dangerous story, there’s virtually no protection for them, their footage, or their characters.
Safe+Secure, a new initiative from DocSociety (the organization formerly known as BRITDOC) is on a mission to help creators better deal with issues of physical, digital, and footage security. Like the Impact Field Guide, it’s not A solution, but an arsenal of resources to help creators to better plan for the eventualities of anything from filming in conflict zones to safely getting their footage out of sensitive areas.
Beadie Finzi, Doc Society’s UK foundation director, and Sara Rafsky, the Safe+Secure exexcutive in New York, were at CPH:DOX as part of the Conference, specifically the RISK conference. The day was dedicated to discussing exactly these questions of security of all aspects of a production
BF: The biggest single thing that’s changed in the last 10 years is digital surveillance. Every single one of your digital devices from your phone to your computer to your SLR camera, is a microphone and a tracking device. And so you have to have that added degree of awareness and responsibility for where you are, who you’re filming, who you’re with, and the fact that it (surveillance) is so easy.
P: Not just for your safety but for the safety of your subjects. Ok, let’s say I’m Laura Poitras, I’ve got Edward Snowden, and I decide to do a film. Afterwards he had to go to Russia and can probably never go back to the US, and Poitras probably still gets trolled as anti-American and so on. But they both decided to make the film. He decided to be a whistleblower. If you were to rewrite that production, where in that world would Safe+Secure come in? At what point could you be involved?
BF: As early, as quickly as possible. In Laura and Ed’s case, that conversation of “what does this mean” in particular for ED, was front and center from the very beginning of their conversations. I don’t think Ed wanted necessarily to end up in Russia. That wasn’t the plan. But he wanted to NOT get caught by the American authorities and end up in… Know what I mean? And they had to take a series of measures to ensure that. But yeah, that central question of what is it going to mean if I film you, to you, to your friends, to your family, to be thinking about precautions and safe-houses moving country, for a while or permanently; absolutely the sooner you get into that the better.
SARA RAFSKY: And that’s the perfect example, that’s been so widely discussed. I mean Glen Greenwald famously lost Edward Snowden, because he didn’t know how to use digital security. Snowden reached out to him first, he realized that Greenwald had no idea how to use any of the security software, decided it was too much of a risk and he left. And then Ed started talking to Laura, who taught Glenn how to do it. But I think Snowden was hyper-aware of the risks, and was actively working to protect himself. What if you’re dealing with someone who’s not as aware, and you have to take more responsibility to protect them, and don’t know how to do it? That’s a problem with encryption in digital security. If you start at the half-way point it’s better than never, but if it doesn’t start at the beginning then you’re already exposed. So if you know how to do it then you can implement it sooner, and the safer you’ll be.
P: So if I’m a filmmaker and I meet somebody who’s got a great story, and I kind of have some idea that there’s some risk involved but I can’t put my finger on exactly what; like it’s not as obvious as an Edward Snowden, but there’s something there. Is there a trigger I should look for that’s going to tell me when I should speak with you guys?
BF: Given where we are at this point with surveillance, I would say that anyone who’s beginning a conversation with somebody who’s got something private to say, you need to be doing it in an encrypted way. A lot of people don’t know how to use encrypted email. But frankly, take your conversation to The signal platform. It’s pretty great for email and for texting, you can send documents, share; it’s so easy, it’s such a low bar. You can download it, it’s beautiful, it’s free, it works really well. For me just begin there.
SR: And I will say that anyone in the Ukraine (where I was going to give a workshop) should probably be using encryption.
P: Did you say anyone in the UK?
SR: In Ukraine.
BF: And definitely in the UK! It’s the worst of all.
SR: One thing; when you said should they be calling you, we’re not an SOS service. I don’t want to set up an unrealistic expectation. If someone’s in trouble we can’t swoop in and save them. That’s not what this is. If you’re in an emergency situation there are other people to call, who do casework. This is about providing resources to empower people to think about these things themselves. There is a whole list of organisations who do deal with emergency cases, but I don’t want anyone thinking we can medevac them out of somewhere.
I’ve workshopped documentary filmmakers’ projects from around the world, and over the last couple of years there have been more and more that come out of the Crimean front, or on the periphery of Syria. In 2015 I got to work with the first Russian project to tackle Oleg Stensov’s imprisonment, at a time when Russia has less patience for critical examinations of how the state operates. I get an itch when I listen to their pitch, partly fearing for their safety, but also because there’s a powerful sense of purpose in tackling injustice. Usually folks can tell right from wrong, but it takes a particular character to decide I have to tell this story.
P: Let’s say I’m Joe-Blow filmmaker, and I’ve got a film idea that’s happening in Kurdistan right now. And I don’t think twice about going to film.
BF: Of course not! That’s the beauty of our beautiful community, right? “I’ve got a camera, I’ve got a knapsack; let’s go!” That’s who we are. And we’re not trying to fundamentally change that instinct or desire of this is a fascinating person or story. Let me just go cover it, see what happens. That DNA is what makes our work so particular and so special. But, unlike journalists we tend to take off on those trips without a major funder behind us. Usually, to get things going, it’s just on our own credit card, not afforded any kind of protections from any journalism organization. Not covered by the Guardian, or the New York Times, or BBC news. We just go. And when things get dicey, who you gonna call? Who’s even watching? And then there’s the economics of it. We often set off on these amazing journeys, and then we think I probably should get insurance but I can’t afford it. And have you done a risk assessment? Did you go the extra mile?
In the community of storytellers we know, journalists have this stuff down pat. They have amazing procedure of protocol, you can find incredible resources for them. But it’s not the same for independent filmmakers, and often they slip between the gaps. All the risk is on the filmmaker, with a tiny production company of 2, 3, 5 people who carry all that responsibility. So the community are special, deliciously so. They’ve gotta go where they’ve gotta go, they won’t be stopped they won’t be told. But, in conditions which in general are becoming less favorable for filmmakers to work in, legally, from a safety perspective, certainly from a surveillance perspective, we need to up our game a little bit.
For six years we ran the only documentary journalism fund in the world. So by definition we were attracting higher risk projects. We’ve mainlined and met with so many amazing filmmakers working all over the world. All of those factors compelled us 2 years ago to come together and go right, I think what could be really useful right now would be to pull together a set of resources that are specifically for independent documentary filmmakers and the way they think and the way they work, rather than trying to fit ourselves into a journalism paradigm and context that doesn’t actually fit.
P: So how do you go about that?
BF: It’s so goddamn simple. We did all the work so you don’t have to. That’s the idea. We spent a year researching and talking to people : legal experts, digital technologists, PR specialists, to everyone in the ecosystem. And we did two things from that: one was to pull together a handbook of resources and further reading, highlighting some of the organizations that are out there that specialize in what’s needed. And then the really… the thing that I love the most is the protocols. Think of it as 100 great questions you should sit down and chat about. Because if you walk through that protocol as a team, or your funder (we’re encouraging funders to adopt it), that series of questions is triggering the conversation: do we have a vulnerability in these areas? How sorted out are we?” It takes a couple of hours to do it properly. It beautifully flushes out where there may be a weakness. Maybe you can identify where to seek some advice, maybe you can get a little specialist training. We want to get people thinking more broadly about what risk even is, expand and deepen that definition, and provide a really easy to use tool, wherever you are, to have that conversation to find out where you’re vulnerable ahead of time.
P: Are those questions formulated in such a way that a filmmaker in say Bangladesh with different concerns can use them?
SR: They’re pretty broadly worded I think for that very reason. There are some things that are always going to be region-specific and we know that the legal stuff right now is US/UK-focussed, but I think the documents so far are for creating a cultural shift rather than a specific mechanism. What we don’t want is for people to go through the protocol and then say we’re done. That’s not how it works. The whole point of this is starting the conversation, getting people to think about what they need to do. And if we’ve done our job that leads to them having more conversations about their specific contexts.
BF: And it’s really important that we piloted with the filmmakers themselves. It’s meant to be by the community for the community. Filmmakers from all over helped us devise the questions, they told us what was working and what wasn’t, and we’ve since been testing with people working with teams. And it’s not regional. Wherever you are there will be sections of the protocol that don’t apply to you. Because that’ not an issue. Do you see what I mean? It’s not location-specific, it’s project-specific. What’s your story? What’s the environment you’re filming, whether that’s Bangladesh, or New Jersey. That’s the question: in this context do you need to be thinking about additional security? Do you need to up your game on X Y Z?
SR: And about the filmmaker from wherever; I almost feel it’s more important in those circumstances. If you’re an international filmmaker I think the idea is institutionalized that ok, if I’m going to a conflict zone I need to have a security protocol in place. But really it’s people doing films about risky subjects in their own countries who have to stay there and during and after filming that are more at risk, and we know that. There might be less inclination to think about it because they live there, and they know everyone and think I know how things work in my country. But if we get them thinking they might be able to say well there are some real risks. What sort of powers am I going to be irritating? And if I can’t get out afterwards what do I do? Or if I get out and my family’s still there…
P: So instead of taking things for granted you want to actually empower filmmakers so that they can fight back when shit hits the fan.
BF: And ahead of time. Not when the tsunami comes and eats you.
P: But there will always be the filmmakers who don’t know that tsunami is coming until it’s too late.
BF: Of course. And I… Yeah. 100% To pick up Sara’s point; we want to encourage a culture shift. Amongst the independent filmmakers, but also with the community of funders. To initiate them to lead on that, to be a bit more responsible.
P: The funders?
BF: Yeah. You know how independent films are financed. You get 10 grand here, maybe 20 grand six months later. Maybe 50 grand six months after that. These piecemeal grants that give you just enough to piece together that hopefully give you enough to make your movie. It’s an amazing model in one regard because it gives the filmmaker freedom. That’s the greatest advantage of this fragmented model: no one owns the movie. That’s why documentary filmmaking is so fucking awesome. The filmmaker has all the power. But with that, they get none of the protections. So that’s the downside. They’re kind of on their own. And we’re having those conversations with the leading documentary funders saying could we encourage you to incorporate the safe and secure protocols and thinking into your granting process? And if necessary and where evident increase a grant to include… maybe it’s a vital piece of training, or a vital piece of equipment, I don’t know.
P: Or just money?
BF: Absolutely, it could be. But don’t let’s pretend… Don’t be sending filmmakers into the field with a tiny little grant, and not ask the questions about where are you going and how’s that going to be.
SR: And I would say that they kind of have to, that really is a responsibility. The schpeel I give everyone is that I’m coming from the journalism security world. That’s what my background is in. And the pivotal moment in that community was in 2014, when the first ISIS beheadings happened. Those were all independent journalists that it happened to, and there was a feeling in the community that there were freelancers going into Syria with very little institutional support. There was a convening of journalism outlets where they decided that you know what, they do have a responsibility when it’s the independents that are still going to Syria. We have to really step up our game. We could argue about how effective that’s been because it’s always a struggle, but all the conversations happening in the journalism world also apply to documentary film. And the reason why it needs to be talked about is because the funding is so fragmented, the moral imperative is absolutely there.
P: It’s more accentuated in documentary film than in journalism, whose built in mantra is journalistic responsibility: get the story to the public. Documentary is by its nature more filmic; it’s not just that you see a great story, you want to make a great film to tell it.
BF: And also a lot of documentary filmmakers do not think of themselves as journalists. Call them a journalist and they go um… no. And that’s ok. One of the things that’s so wonderful about our tribe is that people are making films from pure artistic backgrounds. They don’t spend their careers breaking journalistic stories, but they can suddenly realize oh. This thing is happening, and I’m on it.
P: I like the idea of having the filmmakers ask the question as early as when they’re asking for funding. When I applied for the Sundance / Skoll Stories of Change grant, one of the questions was how do you plan to offset the project’s carbon footprint? I thought that was a pain in the ass at the time, but brilliant. And when it comes to responsibility not just for your own safety but the safety of the crew… For example, watching Of Fathers and Sons, I couldn’t help but reflect on it. Talal Derki says that when he went to the village he claimed to be a supporter of their jihadist movement. That’s how he gained access, how he got his interviews with everyone. He makes his film and he puts it out in the word and he tells a very important story. But does he put his subject at risk by putting it out in the world, and is he justified in doing that, no matter how important the film?
BF: Huge questions. We find that when we get into rooms with filmmakers and begin having these conversations about responsibility, people can’t shut up. They’re hungry to talk about it and explore it, and relate it to their own projects that might be about to start. We think the conversation is essential, and it hasn’t been had explicitly. A lot of classical security analysis is about shooting in the field, going to a war zone, those few days we’re in a particular city. No. It’s about sitting in your bedroom and your computer has just been hacked. Or a year after your film has been released and you or your subjects have become the subjects of some really unattractive trolling or attention in their home country. I mean you’ve long since move onto the next film; that’s their life. And they’re there. So that’s how we want to extend the framing of when and how to think about those questions. In your basement, or your bedroom, or in the field, sure, that’s obvious. But then right the way back up, outside.
It’s paranoid age. Assuming that any state has anyone’s best interest’s at heart, or even that they have a heart, seems deliriously quaint. The go-to position for a lot of people is that government is corrupt and protects the 1%. Or that anyone who doesn’t toe the line is probably a target. I remember more than one person predicting Obama’s assassination when he was elected, simply because his platform of “hope” seemed so deeply at odds with what we’ve come to see as the state’s bottom line. In the Trump age I’ve seen desperation, apathy, resignation, and pure, unadulterated fatalism. I’ve felt it myself, and there are times I wonder if I’m not living in a Phili K. Dick novel.
P: I already get disturbed when I go to Amazon and they have a whole list of books I would probably be interested in.
BF: Everyone could really benefit from upping their game. After Edward Snowden I kept meeting people who’d say I’ve got nothing to hide. Well I hope after this weekend that’s just gone by with Chris Wylie on Facebook and Camridge Analytica, you understand it’s irrelevant. Irrelevant that you have nothing to hide. The fact that you like cat videos and Kitkat and maybe 98 other data points is enough for other people to start manipulating you. Your privacy is your privacy is your privacy. Protect it. Look after it. Look after your stuff. Look after information. Let that be your default, I think. Given the times we’re in. Between the responsibility towards your team both at home and in the field, the things we care about the most, I would hope that everyone has great digital hygiene; that they’re thinking about improving the baseline security on their computers. There’s 2factor authentication; Go for it. Go for your life. It’s free and easy to set up, and then your computer can’t be messed with.
P: The manipulation is so sophisticated. I was having a conversation with a Danish colleague yesterday. He was talking about Trump and wondering aloud: is he… accomplishing what he wants? Is his tactic of being vulgar and bullying and alienating the world working to his advantage? I said it depend on how Trump measures it. And Chris Wylie put it well: if you want to change a society the first thing you have to do is break it. If I was to put a label on what Trump and the people around him are trying to do it would be to break that culture so it could be reformed into something closer to his ideal.
BF: Closer to Bannon’s anyway. Bannon’s the intellectual behind it all. He’s the one with the vision, and he says explicitly I want to break the system. And he wants to see it broken everywhere. I’d say they’re doing a great job of it. I’m really hoping we’re going to see a shift in understanding that’s going to make us all a hell of a lot more thoughtful. Not paranoid, thoughtful: how we use our phones, our devices, how we store our rushes, how we run our edit suites, all of the above. I just hope it doesn’t make filmmakers say; for fucks sake, it’s already hard enough to raise the money and release the film and get distribution, and you’re adding on another set of layers of challenge and responsibility. And the answer is kind of yes, but it’s also just a swivel and a pivot. You know? And it’s ok. We can handle this. This shouldn’t dissuade folks from following fascinating stories and subjects. Same for funders. Don’t be afraid of risk, let’s manage it. Let’s take all the smarts from all the people around the world specializing in this stuff, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to see what’s clever and appropriate to us. And this program can parcel it up and deliver it on a plate, so it’s not quite as hard. Because it’s hard enough already.
P: That’s a good frame: you know bad shit is coming, so let’s manage it instead of being afraid of it. Do you have different concerns on your side of the Atlantic?
SR: There are of course vast cultural differences between the UK and the US, and certainly with legal regimes there are differences. But no, since we’re talking about a cultural change I think the concerns are the same. It’s not just the UK and and the US, it’s Europe, Bangadesh, Mexico; The context and legal system might be slightly different, but the overarching vision we have is the same. And for those who are resistant to taking this on, we already know that people are telling their stories. This isn’t a hypothetical situation. People know there’s a need and an audience for these stories. But we have to be doing it better, and if you don’t want to do it for yourself at least for your subjects.
P: Any asks for the creators?
BF: We love to react and be responsive and be led by what people need, what they’re worried about.
SR: I come from the journalist world, and documentary film needs are different. If you’re making a film for 10 years it’s very different than if you’re making a piece for the New Yorker, and everyone knows that but articulating those differences is important. So I always keep my ears open for those specific examples.
BF: and if anyone has any recommendations for fantastic trainers they’ve worked with, or information resources they’ve been super impressed by that are region-specific; we want that. We are voraciously collecting, but we want things to be recommended to us. We’d love to know that you used it, and you thought it was brilliant. So we would absolutely welcome any ideas.