SDX 2001 Awards Gallery
Going beyond headlines
By Lorna Veraldi
Though often dark and troubling, its subject an ancient grievance or an insoluble problem, the documentary is an optimistic form. It proceeds on the presumption that people can learn. That people can feel. And that people can change.
At its best, of course, a good documentary tells a good story, and maybe that alone would be enough to pique our curiosity and hold our attention. Maybe. But the documentaries I remember, the ones that have stood out from the rest, have done more than get my attention. They have made me see things in a different way. They have taught me things I did not know before and made me think about things I had not yet considered. In some way, they have moved me and changed me.
I doubt William Faulkner had journalists in mind back in 1950 when, accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, he spoke of the writer’s duty not merely to record the human story, but to help man “endure and prevail.” Reading his short speech again, however, I cannot help but think Faulkner, without knowing it, foresaw something of the current state of journalism.
There are many news voices competing for attention these days, from Internet gossips and strident talk show hosts to staid network anchors presiding over the same evening newscasts each has anchored now for years. Journalists and others who talk about the news never run short of opinions, speculation, debate, sound bites and live images delivered by satellite trucks sometimes even before stories unfold. There is no shortage of words or pictures.
Yet too often something vital seems missing from the news, something Faulkner called “old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.” To paraphrase Faulkner, it is as if journalists, for all their technology and speed, “stand among and watch the end of man.” It is one thing to act independently in seeking and telling truth. It is quite another to detach oneself and hover over the surface of the day’s events without pity or compassion or understanding of the larger meaning of events.
The documentary breaks from the daily recital of facts and the slide show of images out of context. The documentary does not spray us with statistics. It immerses us in those “old universal truths.” Documentaries of the sort we honor here force us to think and to feel, to become part of something larger and more enduring than today’s headline. Each in its own way helps the human family to “endure and prevail.”
Lorna Veraldi teaches in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University in Miami.
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Dan Collison, James Robinson, Amanda Klonsky, Gary Cavino, Johanna Zorn and Ellen Weiss, DC Productions, Chicago, Learning to Live: James Story
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“Learning to Live: James’ Story” addresses the extraordinary ability of the human spirit as well as a prevalent issue in the criminal justice system.
DC Productions delves into the life of James Robinson, an ex-offender attempting to make the transition from a life in prison to a life in the free world.
More than half of Robinson’s life was spent in prison; his four separate prison sentences stemmed over 25 years. Robinson’s narration recounts his struggle with drug and personal rehabilitation after a seven-year prison term, when he enters into a program offered by St. Leonard’s, a halfway house for ex-offenders.
One extraordinary aspect of “James’ Story” is that it is narrated – and co-written – by its main subject. In Producer Dan Collison’s words: “The result is an intimate view of James’ journey – a view made all the more intimate because James also played an active role as reporter, interviewing his peers and family members, and as a co-author of the script.”
In prison and out on the street, having no control is a sign of weakness. It makes you seem vulnerable. But in recovery, admitting you have an addiction and surrendering is the first step to getting better – a sign of strength. It took me some time and wrestling with myself to learn this new way of thinking – and to unlearn the old ways.
Robinson felt that his last jail term, for car theft, was a result of his drug addition. Although he was involved in a drug rehabilitation program while he was incarcerated, Robinson feared that he wouldn’t be able to continue his resistance after he was released.
The documentary follows Robinson’s progress over his three-month involvement with the rehabilitation program at St. Leonard’s. It describes Robinson’s attempts to reestablish relationships with his 9-year-old daughter and his 19-year-old son, James.
His son, “Little James,” creates an interesting parallel to Robinson’s own life. He is headed down a similar path as his father and already has been arrested for drug use. Although Little James had not seen his father since he was 4 years old, he considers him a positive role model. He tells his father it’s because “you’re goin’ in a positive direction.”
Collison sits in on Robinson’s 12-step meetings and his interviews with his counselor, Willie.
I talk to Willie every day. He’s the kind of person I want around me now – the kind of person I need around me if I’m gonna stay out of prison.
One of the most challenging tasks that Robinson faces is his reintroduction to the job market. St. Leonard’s provided job training for him and, with the help of a job specialist, he has successfully obtained a position with a cable company. “They know all about my criminal history, but they judge me on how I am today – not on my past,” said Robinson.
Collison expressed concern for the struggles of Robinson and other ex-offenders: “This past year, over 500,000 former offenders were released from prison in the United States. I don’t think people understand how difficult it is for offenders to transition back into society.”
The judges describe this documentary as presenting “a tight, straightforward report that skillfully wove actuality and narration, James telling his story as only he could. It was clear, concise and remarkably comprehensive.”
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Doug Hamilton, Emily Lundberg, Josiah Hooper, Katie Galloway, Emma Margaf, Burt Glass, Dan Noyes and Sue Ellen McCann, Center for Investigative Reporting, KQED and theRake.com, GunShots
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Sometimes, daily gun violence is overshadowed by high-profile school shooting cases. “GunShots,” a co-production of KQED public television and the Center for Investigative Reporting, in association with theRake.com, helped to shed light on the illegal gun markets that have resulted in more than 1,000 annual deaths in California.
“GunShots” begins with a simulation of a killing that took place Nov. 5, 1997. Two young men fired more than 15 bullets at a notorious teenage drug dealer in the Oakland, Calif., area.
An innocent bystander, Lynette Allen, was hit and bled to death on the sidewalk. The assailants got away.
The report interviewed the young woman’s grandmother, capturing the heartache that is still alive in gunshot victims’ families:
I had to get up and identify my granddaughter, all shot up, laying here dead. I didn’t know I was gonna see no picture like that, and that just kinda made me, uh, you know ... I just couldn’t take that part, she was just my heart ...
The cameras go into the evidence locker at the Oakland Police Department. George Edwards, an OPD employee, shows the different types of guns that are collected by police.
This is the one, oh this is the bazooka, that’s what it is. This is the thing that they shoot tanks with. ... I mean, I really wanted to know the story behind it, how did you get it? ... I mean, you know, you shoot down planes with it, I mean, why is it sitting in this city?
While Oakland’s homicide rate was more than three times that of the national average, the city saw a decline in recent years – until 2000, when the city’s homicide rate shot up 55 percent.
“ ‘GunShots’ looks at a deadly loophole in the regulation of the gun industry and how law enforcement is limited in collecting and computerizing data that would be helpful to their investigations of gun trafficking,” said Dan Noyles, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
“GunShots” also examines the influence of the media on the relationship between young people and guns. It looks at the laws and attitudes of the government toward guns since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
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Ken Verdoia, Nancy Green and Bill Brussard, KUED-TV, Salt Lake City, Skull Valley: Radioactive Waste and the American West
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Nuclear power makes up about 20 percent of America’s power consumption. As radioactive waste accumulates, nuclear power plants must either build new storage areas or go out of business.
While Americans fear energy shortages and rolling blackouts, plants looked to the government for land for a federal waste facility. The facility had the support of Congress, but no state was willing to follow suit. To buy time, Congress amended its immediate request to accept a temporary storage facility: for storing the waste for 20 to 40 years, the area willing to take it would receive financial incentives and a promise from the federal government to haul the waste away at the end of the agreement.
States saw this proposal as a way to skirt the state’s approval process, and the small tribe of Goshute Indians saw it as an opportunity.
KUED-TV Public Television in Salt Lake City researched “Skull Valley,” a documentary detailing the lengthy and complicated story behind the agreement and the current situation that plagues the state – specifically the Skull Valley tribal lands of the Goshute Indians.
Local media, such as daily news and print sources, had previously covered the situation on day-to-day developments. But these reports failed to divulge deeper issues, such as the history and economic state of the Goshute Indians, said Ken Verdoia, KUED-TV senior producer and reporter, director and writer of “Skull Valley.” This piece was the first journalistic effort to examine the history of the original agreement between the Goshute Indians and the federal government.
The documentary revealed the limited influence of the state of Utah on the Goshute Indians’ situation. The original “Treaty of Peace and Friendship” between the Goshutes and the state of Utah was explained to viewers. The treaty allowed the Goshutes to stay on their ancestral land and recognized their “sovereign right to self-governance.”
“Such a treaty was at dramatic variance to virtually all the treaties of the era,” Verdoia said. “Its wording lends support to Goshute claims that they possess the right to enter into a private contract to host nuclear waste on their tribal lands, and that their sovereignty trumps any state oversight of the activity.”
“Skull Valley” reviews the government’s history of targeting Indian grounds in the 1980s to temporarily hold nuclear waste under the pretense of economic development. The documentary also identified corporations involved in the deals. All but one of the utilities involved declined an interview.
“Even in the face of these reporting efforts, the strength of the journalistic enterprise involved in ‘Skull Valley’ may very well be found in its efforts to clearly and accurately explain a terribly complex issue to the public,” Verdoia said. “Without bias, KUED sought to serve the public’s ‘need to know’ as well as their ‘right to know.’ ... The final result is an example of explanatory journalism in the finest tradition of our profession.”
As the issue continues to fuel many debates in Utah, the news team of “Skull Valley” actively maintains a Web site that scouts the progress of the story. Available at www.kued.org/skullvalley, the site contains a full-length transcript of the documentary, public response forum and information about nuclear waste.