This year’s Sundance featured two documentaries that were as timely as they were sobering, while focused on the war against journalism. Matthew Heineman and Brian Knappenberger turned their experienced eyes to parts of history that haven’t been as covered, both leading to excellent, harrowing work.
Brian Knappenberger’s “Nobody Speak” is a tribute to freedom of speech in journalism, and also its eulogy. Featuring footage from Trump’s inauguration, the movie looks at a time before “alternative facts” weren’t a thing, and fake news wasn’t such a boon on society. It focuses in large part on the trial of Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker, providing an in-depth look to how a snide website had to account for hosting Hogan’s sex tape on their site, and then lost.
Interviews with Gawker people, including Nick Denton (who seems to be grinning to keep from crying), paint a vivid picture of a juggernaut that had no idea what they were up against, as absurd as this trial became. When billionaire Peter Thiel was revealed to be funding the prosecution personally, the game changed even more. Knappenberger’s film soaks up the craziness of the trial, along with its poetry of seeing a self-declared “real American” on-stage, and makes for immediate, unsettling viewing. Every time Hogan says the name of the man who secretly filmed the sexual acts, Bubba the Love Sponge, you’ll want to laugh before remembering how devastating this case became.
In a curious choice, Knappenberger doesn’t stop there, and goes to a second story also involving a white billionaire in power, trying to control the news as they saw fit. Though his focus suffers for it, Knappenberger goes deep into the story of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, its secret acquisition by Sheldon Adelson and the chaos that came from it. Still, Knappenberger’s doc is focused on the reporting that came from this crises, with writers speaking this side of “Spotlight” about the hard work they put into investigating what became many of their own demise.“Nobody Speak” is an important film, if just for the way it puts into a little context the recent battle against critical thinking, or even facts, by those in power.
Matthew Heineman’s “City of Ghosts” shows the heroic work of journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, who help gather footage to show the true state of the Syrian city of Raqqa, under ISIS control. While staying in safe houses in Turkey and Germany, they become part of a new battle about facts, while struggling for the world’s attention. We follow different members of the group, intelligent young men with iPhones and laptops sitting in silence; we watch them plan their coverage about the latest revelations, which will put many, including themselves, in danger.
Featuring an incredible amount of footage from the reporters and also of them in action, “City of Ghosts” (the title referring to Raqqa) is also a comprehensive look at the rise of ISIS within such locations. There’s even an in-depth look to the marketing that ISIS uses to recruit people, their production style looking more like a Hollywood movie or video game than regular propaganda. Heineman pulls no punches on showing the brutality that is enacted by the radical group, and it makes for an extremely effective doc with such a personal core. It's a movie that establishes awe and compassion for people who are doing, and experienced, certain things we can only imagine. Their unbelievable vigilance is given a complex portrait in Heineman's film.