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‘Copwatch’ Reminds Us We’ve Been Here Before (Column)

The online We Are One film festival’s late-add 2017 documentary about a group of men armed with cameras monitoring the police isn’t perfect, but it is timely — and telling.

Copwatch

Camilla Hall’s debut documentary, “Copwatch,” wants viewers to know these names: Dave Whitt. Ramsey Orta. Kevin Moore. Not because these men of color have been lost to police violence but because they documented it.

Ramsey Orta trained his cellphone on the arrest of Eric Garner as NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo applied the lethal (and banned) chokehold that killed the man from Staten Island, N.Y., in July 2014. Onetime Canfield Green Apartments resident Dave Whitt began recording on his phone in the immediate aftermath of police officer Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9, 2014. Kevin Moore grabbed his cellphone when his dad — hearing distressed screams from the street — shouted for him to come; Moore documented the arrest of Freddie Gray, who died in Baltimore police custody in April 2015.

Last week, the We Are One online film festival added the doc — which Variety reviewed when it premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival — to its final day lineup, streaming for free on the festival’s YouTube platform on June 7. (It is also available on demand and on streaming platforms.) Although the 10-day event was launched in response to Covid-19, the late inclusion of “Copwatch” speaks to the nimbleness of digital fests and to the curatorial agility of the people in charge when it comes to reading the room.

The doc’s three featured activist-witnesses are members of We Copwatch, a small organization founded by East Bay guerilla filmmaker Jacob Crawford to provide training and equipment in order to videotape interactions between citizens and the police. At a time when George Floyd’s final moments — not just the rending visual image but the sounds of his pleading with Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin — are burned into the national memory, “Copwatch” underscores the vital role video witnessing can play.

Is “Copwatch” more compelling than watching (or more essential than participating in) the events that have continued to unfold on America’s broad avenues and small-town main streets daily? Not even close. But “Copwatch” reminds viewers that there were large protests (and violence) after the killings of Gray, Brown and Garner. Garner’s lament “I can’t breathe,” too, became a chant heard in gatherings from New York City to Atlanta to Paris. Seeing those protests may alert viewers to how quickly the culture-at-large — those beautiful multiracial coalitions — can lose steam.

This is the filmmaker’s debut, and in crafting and interweaving the stories of the three protagonists, Hall skirts a broader context at times. Where does this small tribe of We Copwatch videographers figure in the history of citizen groups watchdogging the police? (A network of citizen monitors, under the Cop Watch banner, has existed since 1990.)

After introducing Crawford, the We Copwatch organizer stays on the margins of the movie for the most part — raising funds, buying equipment and training his crew in First Amendment rights. “Copwatch” is really about Whitt, Moore and Orta. While each has experienced repercussions that it would be hard not to associate with their video work, collectively they make a varied — and sympathetic — band of brothers. (Seek out BET’s slicker, activist-centric 10-episode docuseries “Copwatch America,” also available on YoutTube, for tales of female “watchers” wielding smart phones.)

Hill has the journalistic bona fides. She was a Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times and Bloomberg News. But in making this character-driven doc, she’s seems to have muted some of her more hard-nosed skills. Her handling of accusations that Orta sold drugs or that he was allegedly involved in a domestic violence dispute with girlfriend Bella Eiko isn’t entirely satisfying. (The trip the two are able to take to Las Vegas before Orta begins his prison sentence could use explanation.) Even he says on a selfie-style video in which he appears teary, exhausted and haunted, “I haven’t been an angel, but I’m not a bad guy.” Spotlighting the men’s heroism doesn’t require them to be untarnished heroes.

Moore, a circumspect and appealing figure digs deepest into understanding the responsibility his amateur video thrust upon him. His anger at Baltimore’s chief prosecutor Marilyn Mosby for not being able to win convictions of the cops she indicted for Gray’s death is pointed. But it is the tears streaming down his cheeks as he talks directly to the camera about the biological father who tormented him as a child and the dad who raised him — the one he hopes to make proud with his Copwatch endeavors — that breathes a kind of life into this doc.

The three (with Crawford laying low) make a driven brotherhood. Moore takes a bus to New York City, a plastic bag as his luggage, to support Orta. Toward the end of the movie, Orta and Moore join Whitt and Crawford in Missouri. In a scene late in the movie, the three engage a black Ferguson police officer in a zesty — if familiar — back-and-forth about crime and community, cops and video monitoring.

“Eventually the guns, the badges, the cop watchers … everything is going to have to be set aside and we are going to have to come together and try to figure out what’s going on, man,” says Moore.

“I think I have a solution for that, too,” The officer responds. “It’s the coffee shop conversation.” He smiles and reaches out his hand. They all chuckle, sort of. The cop’s white partner stands nearby mum.