Documentarians Turn their Cameras on Protests, Despite Dangers

    19 June 2020

    Christopher Frierson was not expecting to be hit with tear gas at a recent protest in Brooklyn, New York. The documentary filmmaker has covered many protests, but he has never experienced that kind of reaction by police to a peaceful protest. His camera recorded it all.

    Frierson returned the next day to talk to the officers who had released the tear gas.

    He is one of several documentarians who have brought out their cameras to record the historic nationwide protests. Other filmmakers include Steve James who made the film Hoop Dreams and Alexandra Pelosi, the maker of Outside the Bubble.

    The documentarians, like the protesters, risk exposure to COVID-19 and other dangers at the demonstrations.

    "When there is something happening in your environment, you have to shoot it," said Frierson. His latest film, Don't Try to Understand: A Year in the Life of Earl ‘DMX' Simmons, was supposed to be released this spring.

    "If you have a camera, you got to shoot it," he said.

    James agrees. He had shown his latest film City So Real, about Chicago, at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah as the coronavirus began to spread in the U.S. But when it hit Chicago, James started shooting again, to add to City So Real. Then came the protests in Chicago over the police killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minnesota.

    James got his camera out again and began shooting the demonstrations. He may rework the movie to include this latest film.

    James knows that shooting protests can be dangerous.

    "I'm being very careful about what takes us out to film," James said. "Normally, I would have been out doing a lot more."

    Demonstrators lie on the pavement facing the White House during a rally north of Lafayette Square to protest police brutality and racism, in Washington, June 7, 2020.
    Demonstrators lie on the pavement facing the White House during a rally north of Lafayette Square to protest police brutality and racism, in Washington, June 7, 2020.

    Pelosi decided to film a protest outside of the White House last week. She was there the day security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protestors to force them to move. They acted to clear a path so the president could walk to a nearby church and have his picture taken.

    "I couldn't see for like five minutes because I got shot by this thing," said Pelosi, the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

    Filmmaker Ashley O'Shay was finishing up her documentary Unapologetic, about the group, Movement for Black Lives, in Chicago when the Floyd protests began. Unapologetic centers on two young women who are queer and black.

    O'Shay said debated whether to go out to shoot the protests because of COVID-19.

    But, she decided she must.

    "It's important for me that we have black artists, people of color artists, behind the camera to capture these stories, to make sure that the people closest to the community are the ones that are deciding how the story is told."

    O'Shay said she probably will not use her latest recordings in her film Unapologetic. But, she says she hopes the footage can be useful as a historical document.

    Few of the filmmakers have definite plans for how to use their new material. But, James expects there will be several documentaries about the protests. He said there were many filmmakers already working on the shutdown caused by the coronavirus, as well as exploring issues of race and equality.

    Who gets to tell the story of the moment is a sensitive issue for some. Firelight Media official, Stanley Nelson, spoke about that in a recent interview with Indiewire. Filmmakers of color should tell their own stories.

    "It's incumbent on white filmmakers to help them do so," he added.

    Documentarian Steve James agrees.

    "We always need more opportunity for black and people-of-color filmmakers to be telling stories," James said. "But this is also a story of America writ large and what needs to change in America writ large. And for that, we kind of need all hands on deck as far as I'm concerned."

    I'm Susan Shand.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    documentarian – n. someone who makes a film that captures real events

    footage - n. the video that is taken of an event

    queer - n. gay, someone who prefers parties of the same sex

    moment - n. instance

    incumbent - adj. having responsibility

    opportunity - n. a chance to do something that may not come again

    all hands on deck - exp. everyone must participate without exception