A follow-up to his acclaimed, Independent Spirit Truer than Fiction Award-winning film The Waiting Room (Independent Lens, 2013), Pete Nicks’ The Force is part of a trilogy of films he’s making which are ostensibly about Oakland, where he’s based, but in a much larger sense are also about wholly American institutions — a hospital emergency room (and the problematic institution of health care) in The Waiting Room, and a police department in The Force. Winner of the Documentary Directing Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Nicks’ film takes us deep inside the embattled Oakland PD as it struggles to confront federal demands for reform, a popular uprising following events in Ferguson, Missouri, and then, unexpectedly, an explosive scandal.
“The result, unusual in a documentary involving the police and the public,” wrote Kenneth Turan in the LA Times, “is a film that does not advocate for anything but the truth, one that aims to show what happens on both sides of an issue rather than coming down in favor of one or the other.” Adds the SF Chronicle‘s Peter Hartlaub, “Nicks doesn’t deal in heroes and villains – the police and the community activists all get nuanced portrayals. But when mistakes are made, no one gets off the hook either.”
Nicks also wanted to emphasize how much this film was very collaborative between himself and his producing partners Linda Davis and Lawrence Lerew, whom (as you’ll read in this interview) were with him every step of the way. Here Nicks talked to us in a phone conversation about how he managed to embed himself with a police department going through upheaval, what “access” meant, controversies within the community, and how this film can spark conversations we as Americans need to be having about the way police work (and don’t work) in our communities. [The film premieres on Independent Lens on PBS January 22 at 10 pm; check local listings.]
What inspired you to make this film, and how does it fit with The Waiting Room? Why was the police in particular what you wanted to tackle next for subject matter?
Pete Nicks: Yeah, it was fairly obvious in terms of looking at the next public institution that it would be the police, because of everything that’s been going on in the country, with increasingly polarized relationships between our police departments and the communities in which they serve. Here in Oakland [the] department has a long history of problems in the community, civil rights violations, and it’s where the Black Panthers started so it was fortuitous that they were going through an active process of reform.
The value proposition of the film was: let’s get access to this police department and see what that reform process looks like, from a non-judgemental standpoint — that’s a very important distinction, in an era where there’s a lot of very pointed investigative journalism out there that can sometimes border on activist-driven journalism.
So we wanted to go in there in an observational way, which is also we did The Waiting Room. Just kind of immerse people in this department for what ended up being two years. And let them decide what this place meant and how it was operating, as we try to understand this question of what kind of reforms are needed. What does community safety mean in our communities? What does reform mean?
And you really do go to great lengths to show the complexity of these situations, humanize the police and the communities affected by the police. Have there been reactions to the film where some were unhappy with that nuance? Could you talk about how you approached trying to be fair and why that was important in telling the story?
Well there’s no such thing as fairness anymore, people have such strong points of view now that what is “fair,” what is “true, depends on who you’re talking to. So all we could do was go in there and turn our cameras on, get access and show people a view of this institution — at a moment we’re all trying to have conversations on where we’re going as a culture and where we’re going in terms of criminal justice policy.
So it’s to be expected that the film has generated lots of different reactions both in the press and on social media and the court of public opinion. As we talk about the film and put it out there we do try to remind people of our process and method and that it’s not going to be an investigative process, it’s a process of observation, and that it’s also not just one film, but a series of films, it’s telling a grand narrative. The films need to exist on their own, but we’re also telling a much larger narrative.
It’s really about poverty in our communities and consequences of poverty in our communities, the impact it has on our ability to provide health care, education and criminal justice in our communities.
Can you talk about what that next film in your trilogy will be?
We’re exploring a film about education, though I’m going to step into that very cautiously because there’s been a cultural shift in some degree driven by social media that has exacerbated very divisive conversations that have replaced meaningful dialogue in our culture. As a storyteller I want to think very carefully about how I’m going to approach my work going forward. [So] the jury is still out on what the next film will be, and right now we’re focused on taking The Force out, build curriculum around it — that’s actually the next bit of work I’m going to try to be doing is curriculum around this film to take to high schools, and hopefully to police academies.
That leads to my next question which is, what conversations would you like to see audiences of all perspectives have after they watch the film on PBS?
This goes back to what I said before about how the underlying theme of the film is around poverty. People want to talk about different things when they see the film, sometimes those things are far afield from that underlying theme, and the reality, at least from where I’m sitting, is these sort of generational imbalances in communities–whether it’s achievement gap, income inequality, access to healthcare–these have been persistent with us across generations.
Both liberal and conservative administrations have overseen these continued inequities, and one of the things that we’re trying to allow the film and the series to address is that ongoing reality. And these issues were certainly not solved by the Obama administration either. So in terms of justice, in terms of race, in terms of the moment we’re in culturally, there’s lots of different ways to approach this film.
Of course there’s a scandal in it which is radically different from where we were going with the film initially; talking about use of force and accountability and things of that sort shifted into something more akin to the conversations we’re having now about sexual impropriety in our culture. It’s incredibly complex… to frame the film.
But the reality is, just as I can’t tell my kids who to be friends with, people are going to talk about this film in ways in which they want to talk about. We as storytellers can’t control that. We can try to frame it, but you have to make decisions about what that framing looks like, what the study guides will look like and all that. So it’s an ongoing process.
Can you talk about the process of making this film in such immediate, “vérité” style? How did you manage to embed yourself with the police, and get their trust to let you ride along with them? Must have been a very small crew, for one thing…
Yeah it was me shooting, and Lawrence Lerew who also edited the film, doing sound, and Linda Davis, our producer, was with us for the most part, and we had associate producer Sean Havey, so it was roughly a crew of four, or at the least two of us at all times. Sometimes it was just me, with radio mics, and sometimes it was even zero people–we just had a camera mounted inside a patrol car.
We negotiated access with the city, and the department wanted to tell their story, that’s why they gave us access. They felt they were making progress at the time we began and didn’t feel that story had been fully told. That being said, we didn’t get access to everything. This is why the East Bay Express got pissed off, they were like, “you guys were embedded for two years, why didn’t you uncover this thing?” But that wasn’t our job, we weren’t going in there in investigative framework — we were there to observe and step back to try to understand how this department was trying to reform.
The reality is you don’t get access to everything. You have people who are controlling your access at every turn. We had more access than anybody; I don’t think anyone else, any journalist or citizen in the Bay Area, had the intimate connection with the OPD that we had, so we had really deep insight into this department that not many others have, though the film only captures a fraction of that. Partly because the scandal broke out and we had to change the whole film.
I have to say, the department doesn’t get enough credit for the efforts to bring transparency in, they let us in at great risk. They’re aware of this problem culturally within the department and they’re aware of past violations in the department, but they nevertheless brought us in, so I think they should get credit for that, that they didn’t get from activists because there’s such anger and such mistrust. That really defines how people see this department. And vice versa, too, for a lot of people inside the department there’s mistrust of the community as well. That reveals this cycle that we can’t seem to get out of.
So we did the best we could to get into situations, did a lot of ride-alongs, which are relatively easy to get access to. The harder stuff was internal meetings and command staff meetings, stuff like that. For the most part, [for] what we had access, you see on the screen.
There are some intense, even harrowing sequences in The Force in some of those moments when you are right alongside the police as they work. Did you ever fear for your own safety? What was that experience like?
Basically wearing bulletproof vests every day for two years. I have two kids and shootings can happen. But we were never in a situation where there was gunfire, a firefight. The most dangerous stuff was probably at the protests, rocks and bottles being thrown by anarchists, and there was a lot of anger directed at police. We filmed nothing but protests for a couple of months. And then riding around with police, you never know what’s gonna happen. There’s situations where you feel like things could go sideways any minute and there’s nowhere to go, you’re there, stuck, trapped. So that was an eye-opener for sure.
But you’re there doing a job, and having that job to do, and being behind a camera lens, to some degree shields you from that mentally. A lot of war photographers talk about that, there’s something about being behind the lens — it’s actually kind of dangerous because it can put you in situations that are too dangerous. But you know, it’s Oakland, it’s not Iraq, so we want to keep that perspective. It wasn’t crazy. But there were definitely some times where we afraid for sure.
Was there any particular moment that stands out for you as especially unforgettable in your experience making the film?
There was a moment early on where we almost died in a head-on collision. [laughs] That was close. We [in police car] had to go after somebody and there was a car coming that the driver of our patrol car just didn’t see. That was probably the most memorable. But there were other moments when we were in areas that were known as violent areas or violent individuals were circulating in the area, where you feel like you’re out on your own, even though you’re with a cop, that that’s not enough. There’s situations where cops get shot. Like one here in Oakland where two cops were killed at a traffic stop. You kind of have that stuff in back of mind, but try to push it away because you have a job to do, and the same is probably true for the police.
What else did you learn or maybe were surprised by, about the police, as you made this film? Or what other challenges came up?
Running a police department in a city like Oakland is an incredibly challenging task that requires the leadership in the city to reconcile or navigate the cultural realities of the place, with the history it’s had, that’s been under federal oversight, that is in some ways a symbol of what is being asked nationally this conversation around accountability. And so despite that, you saw what happened in the film, it just speaks to the incredible challenge of dealing with some of these cultural issues in departments and also some of the environmental situations that lead to a lot of these conflicts, whether its violence or moral transgression, these are similar to national conversations we’re having about sexual impropriety.
It raises the question of, “Where do we go from here?” So much of this stuff is connected to human nature, whether it’s racism or implicit bias, or sexual harassment. It’s a very difficult question and for that reason it’s been a difficult film for some people to hold and make sense of.
Going back to what we talked about earlier, is having conversations around this film a first step in figuring these things out? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
Like I said I think discourse and dialogue on this issue has been so distorted that between law enforcement and communities, it’s become difficult for those two groups to have a meaningful discussion, but that’s absolutely what’s required at this point. It’s just a matter of, are there frameworks that you can create to allow for that conversation to happen?
Part of what we try to do at [Nicks’ non-profit media organization] Open’hood is to allow all people into the story with their power and their voice in a way that at least gives them respect so they feel inclined to hold a difficult truth that may be contrary to their personal views or values. That’s the real challenge, because the things the cops want to talk about are gonna be different than the things that activists want to talk about which are gonna be different than things people in the middle want to talk about, people in the community may want to talk about things that are different than what journalists want to talk about…
I’m not an abolitionist or an activist or an apologist, I’m someone who wants to understand all the perspectives on a very complicated issue. With social media and the media itself these days it’s increasingly hard to do that. That makes me pessimistic about the short term but in the long term I think there’s a lot of signs for optimism given the transparency and engagement that a place like Oakland, whatever you think about them, there’s a lot of openness at least, even if for some it’s not enough. So that’s where you get radically different narratives. It’s difficult to suss it all out.
But we’re not trying to please everyone, we’re trying to give everyone an experience that lays the foundation for hopefully dialogue or communication that can bring people together rather than driving them apart. Ultimately, at the end of the day, that’s our goal.
Could you name some documentary filmmakers or films that were or are especially influential to you, that you have in mind when shooting a film like this?
Fred Wiseman, even though my films are so different. His are so clinical to me, they’re kind of vacant of emotion on some level. He was revolutionary in the ways he went into institutions, really geeked out on some of the minutiae. Ultimately that’s not the kind of film that I love but I can’t deny that he was an influence, in terms of observational approach, I love that. I love going in and taking you somewhere you’d ordinarily wouldn’t go. Wiseman does that.
But I also love [Martin] Scorsese’s work, that has an authenticity, immersiveness, a visceral-ness, that’s just raw. So it’s kind of a combination of those two things, with a touch of [HBO’s] The Wire thrown in there. In these works there are flawed characters, humanizing in full three dimensions. And that’s what we’d promised the OPD, that we’d humanize them—and it’s a reminder that humans are flawed.
That’s a truth on all sides. We get into these battles of moral righteousness, who is more morally righteous, the activists or the cops, liberals or conservatives, and I think that’s missing the point of some of the underlying truths that exist in the human condition. My artistic process is to use that belief as the foundation for exploration in storytelling, and that’s what I attempt to do with my films.
As a resident of Oakland, did making this film change how you see the community there?
It was difficult, because we were attacked by some in the community, and some in journalism there. Unfairly in my opinion, but that’s life, there’s nothing that says I can’t be criticized. But I was surprised by it. Doesn’t discourage me necessarily, because I understand why people were upset in this particular instance, it’s not me per se, it’s due to the complexity of the issue and we stepped into it knowing that we were stepping into one of the more divisive issues of our day. Maybe it wasn’t fair but it’s part of the deal. It’s a responsibility and a reality that accept.
I just hope we get to a place where people in the community can at least recognize some of the good things happening over there, while at the same time hoping the establishment of the police department and the police union, the collective culture of that department, can get closer to understanding the pain that is in this community, and how some of the narratives that have led to that pain that goes back generations.
And I don’t think there’s been a full reckoning and understanding of that from within not just Oakland PD but police departments around this country who really fail to recognize fundamental narratives that have led people to this perspective. These are generational, very deeply embedded beliefs that drive how people see the police and I don’t think the establishment of police recognize that. It has to change as well.
And we’re hoping our film can play a small role in helping to do that.
Listen to Pete Nicks’ interview on NPR’s All Things Considered: