Watching the Detectives

Recent technological advances have put video cameras in almost every citizen’s pocket, but the stakes of turning the camera against the police remain high. Although narrative cinema and television have dramatized law enforcement since their inceptions, offering audiences the vicarious experience of detection, pursuit, and justice, the American justice system too often remains opaque to real-life scrutiny, a challenge which documentary filmmakers take on in this series. When it was released, it was dangerous just to attend screenings of Red Squad (1972), which shows a group of anti-war activists attempting to counter-surveil the NYPD and FBI. Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist (2016), on the other hand, astonishes not only because of its urgent footage of protests against the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, but because the filmmakers also gained impressive access to police departments eager to show off their growing stockpiles of military equipment. In Jamie Meltzer’s award-winning new documentary True Conviction, a group of exonerees-turned-detectives fight to overturn unjust convictions. Instead of oversight, these films all propose forms of what we might call undersight, exploring the possibility of using a camera to police the police from below.

True Conviction

Thursday, May 3, 2018 7:00 PM FREE
(Jamie Meltzer, 2017, USA, DCP, 84 min.)

Praised by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the founders and directors of the Innocence Project, Jamie Meltzer’s award-winning documentary explores the U.S. criminal justice system from a unique perspective. Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey, and Steven Phillips had collectively spent 60 years in prison before being exonerated. After their releases, the trio formed a Dallas, Texas-based detective agency, focused on assisting others they believe to be wrongfully convicted of crimes. Meltzer chronicles the endless, mundane tasks necessary to unearth new leads; the wrenching, maybe-true-maybe-not stories of prisoners looking for help; and some unexpected moments of drama, as the three men, led by Scott, work to free others who were caught up in a system that too-often settles for resolution rather than justice. A “surprising and profound experience”—Meredith Alloway, Filmmaker Magazine

Co-sponsored by Northwestern University’s MFA in Documentary Media program, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, the Social Justice News Nexus at Medill, and the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. This event is co-sponsored by the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities.

In Person: Jamie Meltzer and Christopher Scott

Red Squad + Tearoom

Thursday, May 17, 2018 7:00 PM FREE

Red Squad (Steven Fischler, Joel Sucher, Howard Blatt and Francis Freedland, 1972, USA, 16mm, 45 min.)

Tearoom  (William E. Jones, 2007, USA, digital, 56 min.)

Both of the films in this program focus on historical examples of police surveillance, but in radically different ways. Red Squad was produced by Pacific Street Film Collective, formed by long-time friends Fischler and Sucher three years earlier, and the four filmmakers were all recent NYU film school grads. The film’s subject is the New York City Police Department’s Bureau of Special Services, known as the Red Squad, and the surveillance activities they undertake against perceived radicals (African-Americans, leftists, students, activists, and others). The filmmakers become part of their own story when the Red Squad and the FBI begin to target them as well. Filmmaker and artist William E. Jones’s film Tearoom is an act of appropriation and recontextualization. He takes a film shot by the Mansfield, Ohio, police department in 1962, and presents it unaltered (excepting one small intervention). The film, shot in a public restroom through a one-way mirror, was used as evidence to prosecute men engaging in anonymous sexual acts. Jones’ reclamation of this footage, and his ironic retitling of it, recasts it from an official record of “deviancy” to a bittersweet look at gay desire.

Do Not Resist

Saturday, May 19, 2018 1:00 PM FREE
(Craig Atkinson, 2016, USA, DCP, 72 min.)

This riveting documentary, a Grand Prize winner at the Tribeca Film Festival, looks at the increasing militarization of police departments across the country in the years following 9/11. Director Craig Atkinson gained first-hand access to those central to the issue, police officers and equipment and technology manufacturers and dealers, at police conventions, equipment expos, and on the ground, including by embedding with several SWAT teams. He chronicles the new state of law enforcement, one that finds it increasingly easy to acquire military hardware, powerful computer tools, and ever-more-deadly weaponry, and that then must make use of them. Reality intrudes on the unparalleled and surprising cooperation Atkinson received with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; his contacts no longer are as forthcoming, but the incident becomes a stark example on a larger scale of the very issue Atkinson is documenting. “An eye-opening experience.”—Dexter Filkins, New Yorker