The Fourteenth Tribeca Film Festival ended April 26 after handing out awards for both narrative and documentary films. Winning for Best Documentary Feature was Democrats, a step-by-step account of politicians in Zimbabwe trying to draft a constitution from Danish director Camilla Nielsson. The audience award went to TransFatty Lives, Patrick O’Brien’s firsthand look at his struggles with ALS.
Other noteworthy documentaries included the intensely bizarre family study The Wolfpack, opening June 12 from Magnolia Pictures; Uncertain, set in a Texas border town and winner of the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award for Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands; and Gored, discussed in depth here by FJI writer Rebecca Pahle.
Tribeca also spotlighted strong examples of advocacy journalism, efforts by filmmakers to directly address unjust conditions. Ironically, two of these dealt with Missouri, a state whose police tactics have come under increasing scrutiny after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Directed by Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, (T)ERROR is an unprecedented look at an FBI counterterrorism operation, told from the point-of-view of “Shariff,” a paid FBI informant. As Sutcliffe points out, “The vast majority of the terrorist plots ‘discovered’ by the government were, in fact, created by paid FBI informants. On a political level, I found these cases incredibly problematic.” (T)ERROR will open in theaters this fall.
Equally troubling is dream/killer, directed by Andrew Jenks, which examines with chilling precision the case of Ryan Ferguson, a Missouri youth sentenced to forty years in prison after a trial built on false testimony and no physical evidence. Ryan’s father Bill Ferguson works for ten years trying to free his son, as Jenks shows viewers how easily our criminal justice system can be twisted out of shape.
Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle looks at the Taser, a police weapon that has become nearly ubiquitous over the past decade. Marketed as a worry-free alternative to stun guns and pepper spray, Tasers brought their own complications to law enforcement.
First-time director Nick Berardini started working on the story over six years ago. He reported on Stanley Harlan, who died after being Tasered in the chest when he was pulled over for speeding by Moberly, Missouri, police.
“I entered into this project believing the police officers were at fault, a clear-cut misuse of force,” Berardini says, pointing to a history of police violence in Moberly. “But I made a decision that in a movie like this, the main characters are the ones with the most at stake. And while I didn’t exactly understand what was going on at Taser, I could see they had the most at stake.”
Berardini talked his way into an interview with Steve Tuttle, a Taser International vice-president, and a tour of the company headquarters in Arizona. He then put together archival footage, sales materials, and video depositions to follow the careers of brothers Tom and Rick Smith, who licensed the Taser technology from inventor Jack Cover.
With the company facing bankruptcy, the Smiths made the fateful decision to increase power in their Taser units, assuring customers that the new models were completely safe. They ended up making millions. “It’s the American dream,” Tuttle says walking through a headquarters Berardini describes as “Orwellian.”
Much of Tom Swift details the legal maneuvering to determine who is at fault for injuries and deaths attributed to Tasers. Berardini includes chilling footage from police dashboard cameras and airport security showing the final moments of victims. As the movie unfolds, viewers must choose between the Taser executives and their stonewalling and the product liability lawyers trying to bleed them dry.
“I wanted to treat everyone with humanity,” Berardini says. “The Smiths had relatively noble intentions, but they also set out to be successful entrepreneurs. I think the movie’s title speaks to that. Tom Swift was this adolescent, idealistic inventor, a good guy who’s inventing something to solve a problem. My film is a cautionary tale about the rush to technology. We become so enamored with simple solutions that we don’t think about the hypotheticals.”
The Taser story is still unfolding, just as new examples of counterterrorism operations emerge. Without documentarians like Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix Sutcliffe, Andrew Jenks and Nick Berardini, the public might never know how fragile true justice can be.