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10 Lessons on Making Movies from Brave New Films’ Robert Greenwald: A Decade of Speaking Truth to Power

by Steven Rosenfeld for AlterNet Democratic:

Lies before waging war in Iraq. Deconstructing Fox News propaganda. Profiling Walmart’s culture of greed. Outing bloody wartime profiteers. Introducing America to the Koch brothers. Revealing why whistleblowers matter. Profiling innocent drone victims. 

Exposing Americans to the uncomfortable truths about these headline-grabbing topics has been at the center of eight investigative documentaries made since 2004 by Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films. Greenwald, 71, spent 20 years making commercial movies before deciding early in President George W. Bush’s first term that he needed to make documentaries because the mainstream media was neither connecting the dots nor laying out the big picture for the public and policymakers.  

AlterNet readers will recognize many of his targets and his films. But what you probably haven’t heard is the back story to producing an impressive and influential body of work. Behind every film were different challenges and difficulties to find the story, capture it on film, make the storyline compelling, and try to make an impact, changing policy and politics while drawing millions of viewers in America and across the globe. 

Here are 10 of the most difficult challenges—and the solutions to those challenges—from a decade of documentary filmmaking.

1.Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004). Greenwald, who had been involved in political projects for years, knew that politicians were fabricating the reasons to make war. But after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the U.S. was gripped by a pro-war fervor. “One of the most challenging things was how to reach people who were critical of the reasons the administration was giving us to go into war—CIA, former CIA, Ambassador Joe Wilson, some think-tank people,” he said. “We had to find them, because we knew without them we had no credibility. We had never done a documentary like this before. And the country was in a mood to slaughter and burn at the stake anyone who was critical.”

Greenwald put together a series of experts with strong credentials, creating a narrative that countered the mainstream media. “The sum was greater than the individual pieces and the film showed, without any question or doubt, whether you were in favor of the war or against the war, we were not being given accurate and truthful reasons for the war,” he said. “And what I think that film did, and in retrospect what we did with many of the others, was to connect the dots for people, give everyone a way to understand policy and politics. And then many of the incredibly important groups, elected officials and think-tanks used it, almost as a roadmap” to turn the country against the war and the Bush administration.

2. Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (2004)The idea that documentary films could be used to help frame the way the public and policymakers talk about an issue led Greenwald to take on Fox News in a way that challenged the narratives about Fox News. Until the film was made, the national political establishment considered Fox to be a legitimate news organization, reporting the news based on facts and then offering its commentaries. What Greenwald did was show how Fox’s pro-GOP bias worked from the inside out, and flowed from the executive suite to the newsroom.

The first challenge was figuring out how to record and catalog Fox broadcasts. “We had volunteers watching all over the country and sending us through faxes of times of when it [pro-GOP statements] appeared,” he said. “We were using old-fashioned VCR recording machines to record the different episodes, and we would go back, rewind and find the statements on the recording....it was an arduous undertaking.” 

“Putting together the team and knowing what patterns to look for was very important,” Greenwald said. “You know, the patterns of ‘Some people say Kerry is French,’ or the repetition of one of their key talking points like ‘John Kerry is a flip-flopper.’ There was also a important break when I was given, almost like in a movie, somebody met me in a hotel and gave me the infamous Fox [editorial staff] memos that had never been seen before.”

There was also the legal challenge of being able to use excerpts of the actual clips under fair use. “Fortunately, we had Larry Lessig advising us, and although Fox attacked me vocifierously when the film came out, they never instituted a legal challenge because I think calmer heads at the network knew they might lose.”

3. Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005). For more than a generation, anyone driving through rural America could not help but notice how Main Streets in small towns were dying after Walmart built nearby superstores. Greenwald wanted to tell that story, but as part of a larger narrative about the evils of unfettered capitalism. Finding people who were willing to talk about their community’s most powerful and influential employer wasn’t easy at first.    

“One challenge was finding people who worked at Walmart who would speak up,” he said. “People were really terrified about talking to me. I knew that I did not want this film to be driven by experts, facts, or figures. It had to be driven by personal stories that put a face on Walmart’s policies, whether it was a worker, or a homeowner, or whether it was somebody in a foreign factory being exploited. So finding those personal stories was probably the hardest part.”

The next challenge was not turning those testimonials into a litany of petty grievances, but making them illustrate larger points. “I didn’t want it to be a film about what I call bad bosses,” Greenwald said. “Everybody has had a bad boss. I wanted it to be a film about the way that Walmart systematically exemplified the worst of American capitalism with no regulations, no worker protections, and had nothing on its mind except greed, greed and greed.”

After taking the time to find and talk to people, Greenwald said people who were victimized—homeowners, small businesspeople, employees—felt it was important to speak up, despite fears of negative consequences. “And they were of all political persuasions too, which I think was one of the film’s other accomplishments,” he said. “We reached many, many people who might not agree with us on any other issue but agreed with us about the impact of Walmart on them and their community. It was a way for people of all political persuasions to understand that when you let capitalism run free, this is what you get. It stomps over everyone.”

4. Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers (2006)It’s one thing to go after lying politicians or America’s largest retailer. But going after private companies that make bundles as contractors inside the Pentagon’s war machine and want to remain anonymous presented other difficulties.

“The challenge with Iraq for Sale was, how do you make war profiteering into an issue that people care about?” Greenwald said. “What we found, and what we went for, was people were literally dying because of the profit motive. People were being killed in Iraq and profit was a huge driver of what was happening.” This film featured Blackwater, the private mercenaries hired by the Pentagon, and companies like Halliburton, where Dick Cheney was the CEO before joining George W. Bush’s political team.

Greenwald reveals the back story to making documentary films that connect the dots.
“People hadn’t heard about Blackwater. They didn’t know their role, their impact or how dangerous they could be—or Halliburton,” he said. “Or the fact that there were private contractors who were taking a key role in the torture at Abu Ghraib, which we also investigated in the film.” He relied on his research staff, whistleblowers and journalists who heard about the film and approached him with stories.

Greenwald asked people who saw his previous films for the funds to make Iraq for Sale. “We did not have the money to do the film and we went out and asked our supporters. It hadn’t been done before. Kickstarter [a fundraising website] didn’t exist....And I thought we would never succeed because we were asking people to give us money for a film they hadn’t seen yet, but they did.”      

5. Rethink Afghanistan (2009). The next documentary came as many of Brave New Films' supporters were thrilled that Barack Obama was elected president. “We fundraised to fly me to Afghanistan to interview and film right after Obama was elected,” he said. “It became clear very quickly that this was a horrific civil war, that we had put ourselves in the middle of it, and we were doing almost everything wrong. It was not going to make us safer or more secure. It was not going to help the Afghan people—they were paying a terrible price. The American troops were paying a terrible price.”

Greenwald came back and put together a film showing that, but then something unexpected happened—his pro-Obama supporters turned on him. “We took tremendous attacks from people who were partisan supporters of the president and felt that we should not be critical of him under any circumstances,” he said. “We had funders cut us off. We had people unsubscribe from the email list. We got a lot of vociferous attacks. No death threats like I got when I was doing Uncovered around the Iraq war, but many people were not happy with us. But I believe passionately and strongly in this project. Brave New Films has played an important part over the years, which is to look at the issues systemically, to connect the dots, and to not be hemmed in by a narrow, partisan, political viewpoint. And this was an important story to tell. It was wrong policy. And taking on the president and military-industrial complex is critical.”

Greenwald said he was blindsided by the criticism, but after going to Afghanistan he was more determined than ever to share what he found there.

“I was naïve in terms of the criticism from liberal supporters of the president,” he said. “I assumed the military wouldn’t be happy. But I didn’t expect that so many people would be making excuses or telling us to go quietly into the night. I learned in Afghanistan and again in Pakistan that it was important to go to these countries and learn for myself what is happening. These stories would not have been told if we weren’t talking to the people, interviewing, and filming. It gave me a sense and understanding on the issues that would have been impossible had I not gone there.”

6. Koch Brothers Exposed (2012). It’s hard to believe that only a few years ago, the billionaire libertarian industrialists, Charles and David Koch, were not known outside of elite political circles. Greenwald wanted to profile two of America’s most influential right-wing partisans, to investigate and alert the public about the world of dark political money. But he said it was hard to find a captivating way to tell the story of two unknown brothers.

“When we started the Koch brothers film, we spent two months in the office saying, ‘How are we ever going to get people to care about these two brothers who nobody has every heard of? Literally, other than Jane Mayer’s brilliant piece in the  New Yorker, people didn’t have a clue,” he said. “And the problem from a storytelling point of view, from a narrative point of view, from an organizing point of view, how could you get people to give a damn? If you, just again, went for the numbers, it was too abstract. So we made the Koch brothers film a hybrid. We had Bernie Sanders talking about the numbers on [cutting] Social Security. We had some other facts and figures, but we also brought what we had learned from the other films and we made sure we had human stories at the center of the film.”

Those stories included the brothers' father being a member of the John Birch Society; how their corner of the gas and oil industry was tied to cancer spikes; and how groups they bankrolled wanted to resegregate a southern school district. “It was that balance that enabled people to feel the human piece and to understand the facts and figures in a different way.”

7. Taking Documentaries To Their Audience

Many independent filmmakers are content to have their work seen at a few festivals and consider that a success. But Greenwald wanted a mass audience and realized he could not rely on Hollywood’s traditional distribution model, even though he came from that world (he has made over 60 commercial films, miniseries and movies for TV and cable). It was simply too slow and not conducive to real-world political organizing.  

“Early on, with OutFoxed, it was suggested by MoveOn that we do house parties—the first time anybody did that,” he recalled. “Then with Iraq for Sale, we put short clips on this new thing that people hadn’t quite heard of at the time: YouTube. With each film more and more potential outlets were available, so we continue to find ourselves spending more and more time on how to reach a specific audience."

8. War on Whistleblowers (2013). Today, almost anyone who reads the news knows who Edward Snowden is and how conscience-driven individuals working inside government occasionally tell the press and public about the way the political system really works. However, before Snowden told the world about the national security state’s abilities to track virtually any online activity or mobile communication, Greenwald said the Obama administration’s treatment of whistleblowers was deplorable and worsening.

Again, finding the right storyline was the toughest challenge.

“The whistleblowers have a clear narrative storyline, which is they saw something bad and they spoke up. But that wasn’t going to be enough for our movie because again we are always trying to connect the dots and make it systemic,” he said. “So what we did with War on Whistleblowers...was we had the whistleblowers who told us their personal stories. But then we connected to the fact that they could not get any attention to their story.”

That was where the documentary took a dark turn. “What did they do? They went to the press. We then found each of the journalists they went to. And then what happened was the Obama administration tried to silence the press. So we took people through these steps, again, in an effort to make clear how really critical the silencing of the press is, and what and how the whistleblowers rely on the press to get the word out there. And that was hard, but I think we were able to do that and help set the groundwork for what Snowden and others have done so bravely and so importantly.”

9. Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013). Making a film about the victims of the country’s secretive overseas assassination program posed many difficulties, Greenwald said. He had to find people overseas who would talk, and then put out a film in a country that didn’t want to hear about it. 

“The hardest part was finding the drone survivors, interviewing them and coming face-to-face in the very profound way that death and destruction was coming from my country,” he said. “And then coming back and figuring out how to make a film that would be able to reach people. I felt an enormous amount of responsibility. After each drone survivor interview, through the interpreter, they would say, ‘Please tell President Obama I’m not a terrorist’—as if I could do that."

Greenwald decided that making the film was not enough; he had to find a way to get the public and policymakers to pay attention. “The piece that was as important as the film—it was a part of it—was bringing over the [surviving] family from Pakistan for the first time,” he said. “We were releasing it online, for free, at the same time that the family was testifying in Congress [at a briefing arranged by a sympathetic congressman] and doing press rounds.”

Only five congressmen attended the briefing arranged by Rep. Alan Grayson, D-FL. “I didn’t expect a lot of people to show,” Greenwald said. “I looked at it as here’s a subject that a lot of people didn’t want to talk about. If the situation was reversed and this was a Republican president killing innocent people, over 230 children in a foreign country, there would be thousands of people in the streets. But that wasn’t happening.

“So what could we do and how could we do it,” he asked. “I thought we could make an important step by humanizing the situation, by making the film and profiling these people—a school teacher, a grandmother killed. You can’t believe for a second that this grandmother was a terrorist. And a 16-year-old boy killed in a signature strike.”

All the films have built a growing audience of supporters across the country as well as political insiders, Greenwald said. This in turn leads to other projects, including short pieces they are now doing on mass incarceration and inequality.

10. Making documentaries is getting easier, while fundraising is getting harder. While it’s never easy to raise the money to make films, Greenwald said that there are some positive trends. On the production side, costs have fallen as cameras and editing tools are less expensive. Also, after a decade, Brave New Films has a record of accomplishment and a range of donors who are willing to invest in documentaries.

“We have been able to get foundation support for some of the work, which has been incredibly helpful,” he said. “We do have some large donors who have specific issues they care about, or care about making sure that Brave New Films survives. And then we have the amazing 20,000-25,000 small donors who give us from $5 to $15 to $100. It’s not cheap. It’s not free. But it’s not the millions that it used to cost to make a film.”          

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