Filmmaker Q&A

The backs of two men wearing winter coats, one holding a camera and another wearing a knit hat, looking at a large, colorful building with striped and patterned towers and domes

Filmmaker Cal Skaggs shares a close call he and his crew faced returning to Israel from Gaza.

Scary, dangerous, yet funny, like a roller coaster ride: We’re in Gaza, on a one-day permit. If we tried to spend the night then return to Israel the next day, we’d be detained by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). Certainly we’d never get back into Gaza for the rest of our work. But Amira Haas wants us to have one good meal at a seaside restaurant in Gaza City. It’s 8:30 PM. Amira thinks the Erez Checkpoint back to Israel closes at midnight.

Overhearing our talk, a waiter tells us the rules have changed: Erez closes at 9 PM. We’re at least 45 minutes from Erez. We jump into our beat-up van with our driver. He drives 50-60 mph through urban streets with few streetlights. He never stops for a sign or an intersection. He honks all cars and people, even goats, out of the way.

At nine, on the dot, we reach Erez. There’s no other person or car in sight. After we lug our equipment through the block-long barricades, the gates go down for the night. We’re hysterical, exhausted, yet we’re laughing. Because we’ve kept the IDF gatekeepers waiting, they toy with us. They require us to break down more equipment than we’ve ever done before. At least a half-hour later, we exit the checkpoint on the Israel side, where our Israeli driver still awaits us. Relieved, totally drained, and still hungry, all three of us fall immediately asleep.

Director Cal Skaggs talks about the surprises, challenges and moments of true danger that he, his crew––and the journalists they followed––faced while filming.

What led you to make DEMOCRACY ON DEADLINE?

I’d been thinking about the nature and role of journalism for many years and working on the subject since 1998 for the PBS series Local News. I knew I wasn’t finished. When I began in late 2001 to focus on what became DEMOCRACY ON DEADLINE, I was also convinced that we as a country were headed for some tricky times and American journalists weren’t asking the hard questions necessary to help us through those times. So my first motive was to hold up courageous journalists in other countries to contrast with the rather comfortable work and working conditions of American journalists. During the process of making the film, the original motive thickened—as it usually does during development.

What were some of the challenges you faced in getting this film made?

As always, the first was getting someone to believe in it enough to help fund it. Second was doing the enormous research necessary to find subjects for the film. (We had a very small staff.) Third was choosing the journalists and getting access to them. Fourth was getting PBS to put it on the air.

Did you encounter much resistance to your filming in some of the more volatile locations? Did you worry about your safety?

The government assigned us a “minder” in Nigeria, whom we were able to shake for only three days of filming there. It is a very repressive place, and robbery is so commonplace in Lagos that our hotel maintained a security guard on every floor. In some ways, we felt less threatened in war-devastated countries like Afghanistan and Sierra Leone than near checkpoints in Israel, where once we were told, “Put down the camera or we’ll fire,” even though we were 200 yards from the checkpoint. Or in Moscow, where a gas leak forced evacuation of only one floor in a four-story building, the floor containing the newspaper office where we were shooting. But we worried about our safety everywhere, except for Mexico and the U.S.

How did you select the reporters followed in the film?

We were juggling and choosing countries and reporters at the same time. We once planned to work with radio journalists in Eastern Europe, for example. Once we narrowed our country search, we were looking for journalists in each country who were working against the grain, who faced unusual obstacles, who consciously saw their work as furthering democratic freedoms, and who were doing quality work. We spent days on the phone, days on the Internet, and in a few places, like Sierra Leone, made our final choices only once on the ground.

Of all the stories pursued by the reporters, is there one that particularly moved or surprised you?

Getting into the female burn ward in Kabul was a huge surprise. I was moved not only by the suffering there (cultural as well as physical), but also by Carlotta Gall’s careful peeling of the journalistic onion in the scene.

What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?

We began in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in April 2002, and finished in Washington D.C. in early 2005. Most of the shooting was done in 2003-04.

What material was the most difficult to edit out of your film?

Following Reforma newspaper reporter Marcela Turatti through a desperately poor area outside Mexico City or Anniston Star reporter Matt Korade as he probed the defects in the new Stryker military vehicle, defects causing deaths on the battlefield, despite his community’s economic dependence on the military plant. These are only two heartbreakers.

What are your feelings about the current state of independent journalism and where do you think it’s headed?

There will always be independent journalists—true journalists, not just bloggers—who think for themselves and probe sensitive subjects. But their outlets are shrinking despite the Internet. And a larger number of people don’t want to hear what they have to say.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

The opportunity of earning a living by learning new things and sharing them with people.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I hope it will be like cold water in the face—to refresh those who know and wake up those who don’t know, showing them that the democratic freedoms we all desire, imagine, and sometimes experience cannot exist without journalists collecting and conveying truthful information and confronting the powerful every day of the week.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

Public television has traditionally allowed the most serious analysis of complex ideas and issues with the least editorial interference of any television outlet. I hope this remains the case.

What are your three favorite films?

My favorite documentary of the last couple of years is The Staircase. “Top tens” vary from decade to decade, but Welles’s Citizen Kane, Renoir’s Rules of the Game, Bergman’s The Silence, Bresson’s A Condemned Man Escapes or Chabrol’s La Femme Infidele usually finds a place.

If you could have dinner with one famous person, living or dead, who would you choose and why?

Eleanor Roosevelt would make me comfortable and sit me down for a very good dinner at Val-Kill. She’d know the texts and subtexts of what was happening in American politics and culture and have a sense of what’s going on around the world. She’d stimulate me to think clearer and more, and act better and more.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

I’d give the same advice Henry James gave to young writers: “Be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” Look and look and look and try to figure it out without relying on the “received wisdom” of the day.

Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?

In my early days the great screenwriter Horton Foote taught me much about story and character and moment-to-moment work. The great editor Ralph Rosenblum taught me about the angles required for a scene, about pace and rhythm, about how the “business” works. In recent years I’ve learned a lot from my colleagues—young and old.

What sparks your creativity?

Work. Work breeds creativity—in imagination and in action.

Read about the work of the journalists featured in DEMOCRACY ON DEADLINE >>

Learn more about the state of independent media >>

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