At Tribeca, Documentaries Dig Deep Beyond the Headlines

Frank Wuterich, Sandra Bland and Rachel Dolezal captured the attention of the country for weeks, sometimes months, only to eventually be eclipsed by fresher faces in the news.

But documentary filmmakers couldn’t forget their stories – or those of other news makers. So they decided to investigate further, peeling back the proverbial onion on stories that had once been under a short-term microscope. The result is seven documentaries at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival that explore the truths, the lies and the aftermath of stories we thought that we knew.

Michael Epstein got the idea to make “House Two” 12 years ago when he read about the 2005 Haditha, Iraq, massacre, where U.S. Marines killed 24 unarmed Iraqi men, women, and children — some of them at close range inside a small bedroom.

“I began working on this film when the massacre was a part of media diet,” Epstein says. “I thought I was making a behind-the-scenes portrait of the headline that everybody had already seen.”

At the time, he had no idea the Haditha massacre trial wouldn’t start until 2012 – seven years after the crime — with Wuterich, a Marine staff sergeant, playing a pivotal role. Despite the delay, the case became the largest, most expensive criminal investigation in Marine history. But by that time, according to Epstein, the media was disinterested.

“Everybody had moved on,” he says. “But it wasn’t a small trial. It was a case that shifted Marine Corps training.”

Epstein, who self-funded “House Two,” found the news media’s absence from the trial more frustrating than the lack of resources he had to make the film.

“It struck me as endemic of the larger media problem that we have today,” he says. “Which is that everybody is focused on a shiny object for a little bit and then they move on.”

Unlike Epstein, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner had funds via HBO from the outset for their docu, “Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland.” Bland was pulled over and arrested for failing to signal a lane change in Texas, in 2015. Three days later, she was dead, having apparently committed suicide while in police custody. Davis and Heilbroner began filming 10 days after Bland died.

Like Epstein, the co-directors considered themselves investigative reporters/documentarians while making the film.

“News outlets don’t always have time to research stories in detail,” Heilbroner says. “And not everybody has the resources of a HBO, who can afford (to fund) two years of research.”

Davis says that spending 24 months exploring the issue allowed them to give the story a certain depth.

“By taking that time we could really peel back a lot of layers of this story,” she explains. “We were able to shed light on different perspectives and shocking bits of information that the public otherwise wouldn’t otherwise know about.”

Laura Brownson has a similar goal with “The Rachel Divide.” The Netflix documentary explores the story of Dolezal, who became infamous in 2015 when she was unmasked as a white woman living as the black head of her local N.A.A.C.P. chapter.

“Regardless of how we feel about Rachel, there is relevance in the telling of her story,” says Brownson. “I dug deep into what motivates her, but even more important for me was finding a way to bring to the screen and give a voice to the anger, resentment and hurt people felt and still feel about Rachel, and unpack those reactions.”

Instead of concentrating on a specific person, Nancy Schwartzman spent four years trying to understand how peer pressure, denial, sports machismo and social media played into the 2012 infamous Steubenville, Ohio, rape case. The result is “Roll Red Roll.”

“It’s an easy story for those people who just skimmed the headlines to think, ‘Wow! That town is so backwards,’” says Schwartzman.

But what the director uncovers is just how relatable and timely the case is.

“When we hear about rape it’s so often about the victims’ narrative or actually just begging people to believe the victims,” she says. “I wanted to try and understand the other side. At the time, no one was talking about, why does this happen? And, who is doing this? So I wanted to focus on the boys [in this case] and the thought process of putting everything on social media.”

Social media, specifically Twitter, led Liz Garbus to her four-part Showtime docu series, “The Fourth Estate.” The two-time Oscar nominee saw a tweet from then President-elect Donald Trump in which he referred to the “failing” New York Times and a so-called canceled meeting with the media outlet, which eventually occurred.

“I thought about what it would be like to be a fly-on-the-wall at that meeting,” Garbus says. “And all of the sudden I thought, ‘I wonder if I could be a fly-on-the-wall on a meeting like that?’”

Although she didn’t record that specific meeting, Garbus was able to capture the first year of Trump’s presidency through a behind-the-scenes lens at the New York Times.

“I realized in a Trump presidency, where lives would be swung about with abandon, having a free and trusted press, while always important, was more important and more urgent than ever,” Garbus says.

Among the other Tribeca docus that go beyond infamous headlines: Aaron Lieber’s “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable” about the surfing champion who was bit by a shark at age 13, as well as Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s “McQueen” about fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who committed suicide in 2010.

The filmmakers saw an opportunity to tell a more thorough story with nonfiction film.

“There was an awful lot of sensationalistic stuff written about [McQueen’s] lifestyle,” says Ettedgui, who wrote the documentary, with Bonhôte serving as director. “Some of it is true, some not true and some of it is exaggerated. It was important for us to start from the point of view of his work and then unpack his life through that.”

While they aren’t necessarily considered journalists, Tribeca programming director Cara Cusumano stresses how important doc directors are in the current U.S. media landscape, where truth is continually under attack.

“While Tribeca celebrates documentary filmmaking as an art form, we also recognize its powerful potential as journalism,” says Cusumano. “Particularly in today’s climate of ‘fake news,’ thoughtful, character-driven storytelling adds a needed dimension to our understanding of major news stories and hot button issues.”

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