Nobody Speak

Scene from Nobody Speak film

It seems fitting that perhaps one of the most important First Amendment cases of our time revolves around the publication of a sex tape featuring renowned former WWF superstar Hulk Hogan sharing a bed with the wife of his best friend, Bubba the Love Sponge. That’s the kind of stuff of which good First Amendment cases are always made. In his enthralling new documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, director Brian Knappenberger paints an unsettling picture of the changes taking place in our media landscape, the increased levels of distrust in journalists and scrutiny of the press and how the long arm of capitalism may inevitably step in to quash what it does not deem financially worthy.

As anyone with a passing interest in journalism and press rights knows by now, Gawker Media and its founder Nick Denton were sued (and subsequently bankrupted) by Terry Bollea (Hogan’s real name) and his legal team for publishing portions of the sex tape that had been making the rounds of the upper echelons of various tabloid publications for years. Though the case was initially rejected by a Florida federal court, the judge there ruling that blocking the publication of the video would constitute a First Amendment violation, Bollea found himself more successful in Florida state court in St. Petersburg, where the Hulk Hogan character is a local treasure and most people have never even heard of Gawker, let alone had much sympathy for its corrosive style and brash attitude about exposing the dirtiest details of people’s lives. The extent of the damages awarded to Bollea was particularly disturbing, $140 million in total, exceeding by several multiples the typical payout for even the most egregious wrongful-death suits. Despite its lurid nature, the case has raised important questions about privacy in an age of immediate public broadcast, about when private relations become public matters and, most importantly, about how far an independent publisher can go without the support of a millionaire behind the scenes.

The story behind the story here though is the funding of this litigious assault by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, a man who has had a personal score to settle with Gawker Media for years. Gawker published a piece discussing Thiel’s sexuality back when doing so in Silicon Valley was decidedly unfashionable, along with publishing several scathing reports about the financial state of his various companies. Though often harsh, Gawker dogged Thiel the way it dogged any Silicon Valley resident claiming to be forming some sort of Libertarian technology utopia. As Gawker itself puts it in a piece titled “This Is Why Billionaire Peter Thiel Wants to End Gawker,” it was “creating a counter-narrative to the mythos of the free-market, death-destroying, Randian Übermensch that Thiel and his friends were peddling.” While Thiel is fully within his legal rights to put his full financial support behind any lawsuit he pleases, it is an undeniably chilling reminder that the free press only works when the people in control of the money want it to work.

Nobody Speak ad

Netflix ad for Nobody Speak

Knappenberger juxtaposes the story of this case and Gawker’s demise against that of the secret 2015 acquisition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by wealthy, uber-conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, undertaken arguably to control the paper’s coverage of him and his various enterprises based there in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Review-Journal was largely considered a standard-bearer among Nevada’s news media, often publishing things Adelson and his family found unsavory about them and their business practices. Adelson had previously sued the paper’s star columnist, John L. Smith, for $15 million for libel over several relatively benign passages Smith had written about Adelson in a book about the history of Las Vegas and its historical figures and hotels in the development of the Vegas casino industry. Adelson even offered Smith a six figure sum large enough to cover the medical bills of his child fighting brain cancer at that time, as long as Smith acknowledged that he had intentionally defamed Sheldon Adelson with his publication. Smith refused, and Adelson ultimately relented and withdrew his suit.

The identity of the paper’s new owner was initially kept secret from its reporters, forcing them to turn their investigative skills inward to find out whose interests they were truly serving, and forcing the paper the break the details behind its own mysterious buyout. Once the Adelsons finally admitted that they were behind the purchase, existence in the newsroom grew grim. Smith was ordered to cease writing about Sheldon Adelson, his family or its businesses. Smith subsequently resigned. Following him was a large chunk of the newsroom, including all three journalists who had helped uncover the hidden identity of the paper’s new owners. The purchase demonstrably took between 20 and 100 people out of the newsroom who might have revealed something Sheldon Adelson didn’t want in the public eye.

Nobody Speak is a warning, a grab by the shoulders and a stern shake. We have entered one of the most intense periods of media distrust and scrutiny in recent memory. What becomes of reporting that uncovers the misdeeds and the abuses of power by the elite and wealthy when the powerful become powerful enough to bend the coverage of them and their world to their will? The state of strong adversarial journalism is a precarious one; it’s fragile and it can disappear before we know it.



Picture of Gerald and Gay

Gerald Foos (l) and Gay Talese (r) in Voyeur

When Myles Kane and Josh Koury were looking to distribute their film Voyeur, they had a lot of interest in the documentary. The pair had spent three and a half years working independently on the film, and wanted to make sure to find the right place for it.

Enter Netflix.

While the directors had offers from traditional distributors who were offering big theatrical runs and all the chances of success and glory that comes with that sort of distribution, ultimately they decided that Netflix was the right fit for the film.

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Picture of Emperor Penguins

Emperor Penguins

Arguably one of the best-known documentaries of the last 20 years is March of the Penguins, the beloved nature documentary. Anyone who has watched it can remember the scene when the baby penguin is taking its first steps. Layered on with Morgan Freeman’s sagely voice, audiences can hear the light steps on the snow and feel like they are in the moment. But what if what you’re hearing is just merely the sounds of household items?

The film was a commercial and critical success, bringing the world the thrilling journey of emperor penguins. Nature documentaries are one of the most common types of documentaries in the world, and rightly so because nature documentaries are very popular.

The thrilling content about Antarctica’s natural environment is tremendously heightened by the film’s sound effects. The documentary relies heavily on what is being heard to truly give an immersive experience to a viewer.

Unknown to many viewers, a substantial amount of the sound effects heard in the film were added later in post-production. Many of the sounds are recorded by Foley artists. Foley artists are the people who provide any necessary effects for the sound of movements and other actions in a film. Typically, they are used in fictional projects but often assist in nature documentaries.

“Producers use sound effects to mimic the noises made by real animals,” said Robert Mendick and Edward Malnack of the London Telegraph. The two mentioned methods including, “adding custard powder to a woman’s stocking, which is then squeezed to sound like polar bears skidding on ice.”

Many of those very subtle sounds such as a koala chewing on leaves or a monkey rustling branches were all created by Foley artists.

Picture of a Foley artist

Foley artist

This is a common practice in wildlife documentaries, but there is a controversy surrounding the use of “enhanced” sounds. BBC’s natural history unit has faced a backlash recently for broadcasting scenes that had fabricated sound, a practice that is not uncommon in the nature documentary world. Sir David Attenborough, one of the most renowned nature documentary filmmakers, has admitted that he has altered footage for his films.

Though many people find the use of enhanced sounds in wildlife nonfiction films an ethical gray area, there are good reasons for doing so. One of the reasons cited is the increased demand with the advances in technology.

“The soundtracks accompanying the BBC’s natural history films…have been enhanced in recent years to meet the demands of cinema-style home viewing systems,” wrote Adam Sherwin in the Independent.

Obtaining clear and crisp audio in an open outdoor area is immensely difficult. Even though it is easy to use a camera with an extremely long lens to get tight shots, it does not directly translate to audio. There are very few audio recording devices that can individually record a specific sound that can be later audio engineered. Those that can do so are very expensive and are not always a guarantee.

“Good audio requires a microphone close to the source of the sound, which can be difficult and dangerous,” wrote Emmett FitzGerald on the podcast 99% Invisible. There are many situations where ascertaining good audio would require disturbing the wildlife subjects and potentially put the crew in danger.

Using Foley artists is not an uncommon practice amongst nature nonfiction filmmakers because of the constraints of budget, resources and safety. By leaving most of the audio to post-production, there is more creative and cinematic freedom to produce stellar content.  In other words, this is the most practical and logical route despite the possible inauthenticity.

This practice of Foleying in sound for nonfiction wildlife films is not going to stop despite its controversy. It is necessary to create the kinds of cinematic tension or drama for an enjoyable experience for the viewers. So even though the sounds of horses galloping may just be two coconuts being clicked together, it is essential to create that full immersive experience of enjoying the beauty of nature brought to you on the big screen.

Confession Tapes poster

Poster for The Confession Tapes

Streaming giant Netflix has cemented its position as a leading documentary platform in 2017, releases nearly 30 original documentaries docu-series. One of the most recent docu-series to hit the Netflix site is The Confession TapesThe Confession Tapes is a seven-episode documentary series about murders throughout the United States that resulted in convictions based on taped confessions. These confessions are usually secured by investigators after grueling interrogations of the suspects, and are often coupled with little to no physical evidence to support the suspect’s guilt. Each episode has a similar structure: a murder happens, chaos within the town ensues, the easiest/first suspects are apprehended and then interrogated for hours until they break and confess to the crime. The Confession Tapes is another crime-related documentary series being produced and released with a modern, yet eerily retro “Forensic Files” feeling.

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Picture of Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog

He arrived via Department of Defense and Highway Patrol escort, to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas to do a Q&A after his film Grizzly Man and teach a two-hour master class. However, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog almost immediately undercut the idea of the master class, pointing out that he could not teach us anything except how to forge documents and cut through barbed wire fencing, explaining with his often-told story of forging a document to get through Peru and film Fitzcarraldo. This led him to speak about creativity and how the biggest threat to it is bureaucracy and the only way to beat bureaucracy is to feed it paper so as to distract it.

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A sign that says Psychic

Psychic sign

“The aliens are always with me.”

What was your first thought when you read that line above? Typically, when working with subjects that have unique lifestyles or beliefs, an audience’s first reaction is to write them off or laugh at them. Unless you are making a film that’s sole purpose is to make fun of someone — which I highly suggest you don’t do– then you are going to want your subject to be respected. The more bizarre the beliefs, that harder this becomes. Here are some ways to battle this during production and post production.

First, give your subject any due credibility. If your subject has big claims, people may start to write off most of what she/he says. Putting any credit where it is due will ground the subject in reality for the viewers. Research is going to be vital. Look into what your subject says, go to the places of which they speak and show as much as you can to support your subject’s views. Of course, not everything is worthy of “proving,” but if you think it will ground your character, it is worth a shot.

Next, If your subject has “out there” beliefs and loves to talk, remember to give your subject breathing room in the edit. Documentary filmmaker Lana WIlson suggests showing your subject doing typical everyday things after the audience hears one of these big claims such as running errands or interacting at work. This reminds the audience that, despite your subjects views, she/he is still a person worthy of respect.

If you are following a person who says some outwardly shocking things, you are bound to get laughs. The decision here is, do you want them? If you want to cut down on inappropriate laughter, documentary filmmaker Eric Hynes suggests holding your shots longer after the statement. Many times, subjects will humanize themselves if you give them the room. Something as simple as a thoughtful look, an uncomfortable laugh or a remark about what was just said could make all of the difference.

Until Arcturus scene

Scene from Until Arcturus

Sometimes your subject may need a little more help after her/his statement is made. If you feel holding the shot did not do quite enough, director of the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism Stacey Woelfel suggests addressing the potential for judgement with your subject on camera. Many times, subjects are aware of how other people view them. Having them attest to this can give the audience more sympathy or respect. Your subject will become more relatable to the viewer.

Audio can do a lot for your subject. Documentary sound designer Lawrence Everson says that building an audio environment will bring your viewer into the situation instead of them being a disconnected spectator. It is something very subtle with a huge impact. Building an audio environment consists of getting room/environmental tone and adding in specific sounds from things the viewer is seeing like finger tapping, water splashing in a fountain or a cat purring. If the audience is within the environment, it is easier to understand where the subject is coming from.

Through all of these options, never forget to allow your subject to be funny. Overprotecting your subject can cause just as many problems as you are trying to solve. The whole point in the end is to allow your subject space to be themselves. Just because someone’s mind may work a little bit differently does not mean that person cannot be funny like anyone else. In the end, filming a subject who is vulnerable to crude judgement is a balancing act of personality and respect.

Editor’s note: Author Abbey Reznicek is working with a subject on her current film, Until Arcturus, who believes she is an alien living on earth in human form.

Poster of One of Us

One of Us poster

“Wikipedia is a gift from God.”

These are the words of Ari Hershkowitz, an ex-Hasidic Jew who has decided to break away from the only way of life he’s known. He says these words with a smile, leaning up against the brick of his drug rehabilitation center as he takes another pull from his e-cig. While he is trying to be funny, his words still carry a lot of weight. Wikipedia is a gift in his eyes.

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slate graphicWith films from the first graduating class of the Murray Center starting to enter the public sphere and be accepted into film festivals, the center and its alumni have officialy entered the distribution and festival circuit.

Though I’m a current Murray Center student myself, I’ve been working for a distribution company for more than a year now and interned at a company that hosts three film festivals a year on top of weekly screenings. These professional experiences have allowed me to learn a little bit of insight on film marketing, distribution and the nuts and bolts of programming.

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Poster from The Departure

The Departure poster

What if individuals were given the chance to experience death before dying? What if the sensation of losing yourself became so profound there was nothing left to feel or love in the world? What would happen if there were a death trial run that had a stronger effect than a near-death experience and had a greater effect than any video stimulation or medical stimulations could? In filmmaker Lana Wilson’s latest documentary, The Departure, she follows Buddhist-priest Ittetsu Nemoto on his career of helping suicidal people find reasons to live. Giving answer to the question that creeps into everyone’s existence: “What is the point of life?” Nemoto’s journey helps others ask: “What makes life worth living?” Guiding suicidal people on the path of finding their will to live, Nemoto is searching for his own answers in life. Everyone in this film is on a journey of trying to understand life and death.

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Headshot of Dana Carvey

Dana Carvey

If there was ever comedy deemed ahead of its time, it might be The Dana Carvey Show. Such is the premise of the new Hulu documentary Too Funny to Fail, about the ill-fated 1996 sketch series. The film tells this story through the use of archival footage and interviews. Some may say the show got cancelled because it was dumb—the very first sketch had Bill Clinton nursing a dozen kittens with prosthetic nipples. But the documentary dives deeper into what makes a show succeed or fail—and it’s a lot more than just the jokes.

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