Becoming a Big-Time Activist with a 20 Buck Movie Editing Program

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  • Source: UncoverDC
  • 09/19/2023

In the article "Defending Yours When Local Authorities Begin to Target," I profiled possibly the most challenging person I've yet interviewed, and I don't think I've interviewed anyone less than a textbook example of "individual." Lauren Kunz is the kind of person you run into, like a fictional character, who if you stick by them might leave you in jail by the end of the night, and possibly wearing an outfit that will cause you to be taunted by other men in the holding cell, such as a rodeo clown's outfit, or perhaps a wet-suit. At least that's the sense I had of her, that she was a semi-loose cannon itching for a brawl with authorities. Kunz acted as a researcher of sorts for the article "New York Interview Leads to National Mask Propaganda."  She'd collected Facebook posts from a person involved in a newsworthy incident before the person had a chance to scrub them. Between copies of those correspondences, additional video taken by Kunz at school board meetings, and Kunz's take on events, she delivered the meat of a story.

Kunz proved to be a great "what if" in my mind. She illustrated a way for the amateur activist to protest beyond the apparent avenues of contributions to a politician's campaign or standing along a roadway holding a sign. Kunz delivered a straightforward narrative through the conversation she offered and the evidence she presented, and her narrative did make the rounds. I was only one of the news sources to benefit from her documentation and activism.

This brings me to documentary films. Someone like Kunz, considering that most of what she'd collected was visual—video and captured posts—was inches away from cutting me and others out of the loop. She could have presented the story herself. All she'd been short was a narration track and a video edit. For this article, I interviewed accomplished documentary filmmaker Erik E. Crown about his film Phosphate. In the article about Kunz, I'd hoped to inspire others to rebel in the same way Kunz had. In this article, through the presentation of advice from Crown, I hope to provide a push to become filmmakers to those who long to spit in the face of the legacy media.

Documentary filmmaker Erik E. Crown

If I were a talent agent, Crown is a guy I'd hype as a major talent in the making. And he is. As the narrator of his film Phosphate, he has a polite disposition and an expressive face that makes him as watchable as a guy can be talking cancer, toxins, and birth defects. I could easily see him as host of a video series in which every episode he tackled some new environmental catastrophe. Until that time, however, we have this film. If you're unfamiliar with his documentary, think real-life Hollywood disaster film. Think major sinkhole appearing in footage shown on tonight's evening news/network helicopters hovering above the sinkhole while filming/a hole burnt into the earth by what had been a pool of toxins now burrowing its way down to your city's water table.

Crown has a personal history that is an obvious set-up for success in film. His father was a CBS news editor, and Crown attended NYU to become an editor himself. Before continuing with an account of Crown's career, Crown's father during his working life had run-ins with history that may be worth noting. Crown recounted:

"He was in the news business so he worked for CBS and then ABC, and interesting side note, he was covering the president the day that Brady was shot. He was on the scene working a crew and was part of, you know, almost got shot. And then I believe he was in the Oval Office for Reagan's resignation speech."

After his college years, Crown, like his father, was employed in the industry. His credits include being a field producer on TMZ TV and working in the production office for the television show "Scrubs." However, where he trips back into an arena that any amateur might understand was a diagnosis he received of hybrid cancer due to environmental factors. From that diagnosis began a personal journey to document environmental pollution. For his film, Crown played the role of the one-man band as the film's producer/director/cameraman/editor. It is in that capacity as a one-man band that I hoped he could offer advice to fledgling filmmakers.

Our interview began talking about music. I read online that Crown had worked on a documentary about reggae. Coincidentally, a fellow in my neck of the woods had written and recorded a commercially-successful reggae-sounding track before the genre existed. I informed Crown about Ersel Hickey and the song "Bluebirds Over the Mountain." Crown then got around to a political observation about Bob Marley that, though it's a bit off-topic, is certainly interesting:

"There's a guy named Roger Steffens who has the world's largest reggae archive, and he's trying to return them to Jamaica, but Jamaica doesn't want them. We were actually at the National Library of Congress there, we went to the University of West Indies, archivists, all these people, and they all want it, but the government won't allow it back because in the end, although Bob Marley's popular, he's also the voice of revolution. And it's a voice that they do not like to celebrate."

Crown is a very pleasant guy, and his style of investigative interview holds to that. In his film, I appreciated his very polite approach to the sort of interview Sixty Minutes was known for, where the interviewee is somewhat blindsided on the street with questions. Crown, in those instances, didn't fire off questions Sixty-Minutes-style that could be read as accusations. Instead, he was cordial to a fault. If the interviewee told Crown, for instance, that he wasn't allowed on-premises, Crown would thank the person and immediately leave. Of course, Crown didn't often have his questions answered with that approach, but neither would the reporter firing questions like bullets. And what Crown's approach did was create a rather negative impression in my mind of the subject of the interview who, in contrast to Crown, often seemed tight-lipped and tightly wound. Crown had this to say about his style of interview:

"When I was working at TMZ, they always wanted us to be confrontational because what sells is reaction, right? So, you say 'hey, this and this' just to get a reaction from them, and even if they look at you for a second that's what sells. I tried to change that in documentary because my feeling is if you allow people to be comfortable they will sometimes let information out. They'll let their guard down a little bit. But also I think it's really important that we always remain respectful of people because we don't 100% know their story."

I had several questions for Crown about the mechanics of making documentary films, the first one of which was: If someone had only a couple of thousand dollars to invest in equipment, how should that money be spent? Crown's answer took into account his style of filming, which is very active. He said of his style of filming,

"I don't like to shoot sit-down kind of boring talking-head interviews. I prefer being in the field or doing stuff on the fly."

With that in mind, this was his answer as to the type of equipment a documentary filmmaker should consider:

"I have a small camera that has what's called a floating lens, which means it has an auto-correct inside; it's got its own kind of gyroscope, so that's what I used for Phosphate. When I'm running or getting into weird areas the lens will not shake so much. You can use your cellphone, but then you have to go get a piece of equipment from Best Buy, and suddenly you have this gigantic piece of gear, and I think maintaining a low signature, maintaining a low profile is very important when you're going into communities, and you're not sure who's who. So to me, that is really critical. In my work, the same camera also has night shot so I can go out at night and use infrared."

I'd picked up on some drone footage in Crown's film. Where I sometimes feel drone shots are a distracting addition to a movie, I don't think Crown could have illustrated the extent of the problem phosphate mining presents without a survey of the landscape. Crown said:

"Drones are critical these days for getting access to stories that you're not allowed to get. You saw in Phosphate we were able to really show the scale of what we had. I tend to use one where I don't have to register it when I travel to countries."

Crown also said, regarding obtaining footage from private or restricted areas:

"You can shoot any private buildings from a public space. That's your right. So you can stand on the sidewalk and take a picture of any building that's within your view, but the moment you go onto a private property area you do lose your right to use that footage unless the property owner gives you permission."

Crown had included some film clips in Phosphate from network news broadcasts, tourism films, and promotional materials from phosphate producer The Mosaic Company. I asked him to explain the law regarding film clips not his own. Considering how critical the film was of the company, I couldn't imagine that Mosaic would have been happy about lending Crown any film, promotional or otherwise. Crown's answer:

"As long as you're using it in what's called fair use, and fair use is a problem because fair use has no standardized legal definition but what fair use's intention is that you can use any pre-existing material as long as you do not alter it, and it shows a context within your story, and you don't directly make money from it. For example, I used it to highlight, obviously, the discrepancies between what they say and what the citizens experience. So it had a context, you know, like I couldn't put a piece of video over top of their words, it has to be their original video. And I would be violating their copyright if I were to go and just release it, you know, "Mosaic's Greatest Hits," so you have to be really cautious. Generally, the law allows for 20 seconds to a minute before they go, 'Hey man, you're just ripping off somebody's work.' So you really do, you have to use fair use, and it's always a very difficult thing to know, so you just have to try to limit yourself to 20 seconds, maybe 40 seconds at the most, and just make sure it's unaltered, and it is part of the context of the scenes in which it's used."

One takeaway from our interview was how difficult it was to get financing for a professionally-made documentary, which I read optimistically as "If dedicated amateurs aren't going to make an investigative documentary, the film might not get made." We talked about why making documentary films within the Hollywood system was so hard. Crown's view:

"I primarily decided I wanted to walk away from sort of the Hollywood model because there were so many restrictions on audience and restrictions on message and so I thought the type of topics I wanted to cover—like environmental pollution and environmental cancers, animal rights and things like that—those would never be allowed to be told in a traditional fashion because a lot of times the main problem stems from major corporations. Like when I was in the Amazon, and we were doing illegal logging, or the illegal pet trade, busting poaching rings, all of it comes down to the market."

A consistent thread that runs through my articles is intimidation by authorities, sometimes including the little dollop of whip cream on top that is the threat of violence. For example, Jeremy Kappell was character-assassinated by the local paper, and that after he had already lost his employment over a mispronunciation. Shannon Joy's children were terrorized at the family home by contact tracers accompanied by police who banged on her front door and then swung around to the side of the house to continue their pounding to deliver an order of quarantine. And I've written about others. I asked Crown about his most dicey moments while shooting films.

As illustrated in his film Phosphate, as Crown tooled around Florida to conduct interviews and take water samples, he received calls from friends back home to warn him unidentified persons were making inquiries about him. When those warnings came, Crown was also being tailed by white pickup trucks, a type of vehicle used by Mosaic's security firm. I asked Crown if that was the worst the intimidation got. He said:

"It definitely gets worse. With Mosiac, I received threats. You get fake Facebook accounts, and you get a lot of threats. When I was in the Amazon (for a film other than Phosphate), we would be attacked, working in the field I've been shot at, I've had to avoid knife attacks on me. As a matter of fact, my partner, when I was doing that thing in the Amazon, my partner went to Brazil and was stabbed and had to come home. And the guys tried to come after me, and I was able to avoid them. I got lucky. It was a little bit of an old-school movie chase."

Crown brought up his cancer concerning this part of the conversation. He said:

"So anytime you're messing with businesses or what they see as a threat to their profits, it can get you in either legal issues, or it can lead to violent reactions, and I've faced both. But the thing is, I mean with my cancer, it's not that I don't care but, you know, I don't mind the threats because also, I mean every now they come true, but for the most part, people are just bluffing because if they're going to do something, they're not going to tell you (laughs)."

Crown very much fits the bill of "the happy warrior" and, considering he was undergoing radiation treatments even when we spoke, he is an all-too-obvious call to the rest of us to get out of our chairs.

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