You Can Handle the Truth: On Field of Vision’s Imperative Episodic Journalism

TV Features Field of Vision
You Can Handle the Truth: On Field of Vision’s Imperative Episodic Journalism

Since its founding by Laura Poitras, AJ Schnack and Charlotte Cook in September 2015, Field of Vision—a “visual journalism film unit” with an entirely free-to-watch digital archive—has emerged as one of the foremost producers and distributors of documentary reportage in the country.

Consider its offerings, each perfect in their modernity: showcases of original short-form work by new master directors like Kirsten Johnson, Adrian Chen, and Dustin Guy Defa; encrypted and secure submission options for sensitive or classified AV material; and, recently, acclaimed nonfiction features like Yance Ford’s Sundance premiere Strong Island and Poitras’s disturbingly brilliant Julian Assange exposé Risk.

At this infant stage, however, the works that most powerfully affirm the site’s high standard are its binge-able, episodic docuseries. By serializing the work of independent journalists, FoV’s in-depth reportage builds on its catalogue of short films—which focus primarily on the nuances of a single political concern or figure, like Johnson’s military surveillance indictment The Above (2015)— by using their length to explore a macrocosmic range of international conflicts and political situations, from xenophobia in Holland to the economic crisis in Greece to war-torn Syria.

With the battle for a free press increasingly fraught, the mere fact that the outlet produces, promotes and releases episodic televisual journalism pro bono is almost heroic in the context of most broadcast and cable news coverage. Still, cautious, thoughtful consumption is advised: If a common CNN segment is a milk-chocolate Hershey’s bar, a Field of Vision episode is a bitter dark chocolate truffle.

FoV launched its first docuseries, #ThisIsACoup, in December 2015. Directed by photojournalist Theopi Skarlatos, narrated by producer Paul Mason and released in single segments over the course of four days, it incorporates a combination of extraordinary interviews and archival footage to depict the European Union’s destruction of “the first radical left government in modern history”: Greece’s SYRIZA party.

Watching the series now, nearly two years after its release, Skarlatos’s expansive structural talent remains almost as impressive as the production’s access. Through early 2015, she and Mason secured interviews with the leaders of SYRIZA—including Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and former Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis—in the midst of desperate loan negotiations with the E.U. These exclusive conversations are visually panicked, urgent and hellish, presenting a nation on the brink of imposed austerity, yet the idealization of Greece’s ferocious independence becomes the filmmakers’ primary theme.

Editor Andreas Loukakos helps to turn their political concerns passionately personal, alternating between dialogues with bureaucrats to hostile rioting that Mason describes as “an epic clash” akin to the Arab Spring. Meanwhile, Skarlatos speaks to a coterie of locals who widely share both the “right to say no to austerity” and the inclination. (One protestor, blaming Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, for Greece’s financial stranglehold, gives the first episode its title: “Angela, Suck Our Balls.”)

In 2017, the sight of centuries-old democratic freedoms being impinged upon feels sickeningly familiar, primarily because Loukakos opts for a cyclical, Sisyphean chronology of push-pull bargaining. Foreign governments threaten virtual control over Greek lawmaking in exchange for desperately needed credit, while negotiations stall for months at a time. These monolithic superpowers loom in news footage like the spaceships in Arrival, days away from indenturing the country’s citizenry.

This kind of dystopian prescience is unusual for nonfiction series, especially one focused on a particular national crisis, but #ThisIsACoup welcomes reconsideration in the immediate present. Though Skarlatos and Mason set out to depict an isolated circumstance, the episodes increasingly move towards frighteningly accurate predictions of collapse (note the photographic resemblances between Greece’s anti-austerity assemblies and recent images of The Women’s March). For those of us in constitutionally challenged democracies, Field of Vision’s inaugural series remains unceasingly relevant in ways that television news may never be.

Poitras, Schnack and Cook edged closer to a traditional TV model with the release of The Journey in May 2016. Funded, filmed, produced and directed by Matthew Cassel, who faced severe personal risk to track a Syrian refugee’s attempts to reach Europe, FoV and The New Yorker originally co-released the six-episode series as The Journey from Syria. The slimmer title works better, however: Like the series, it is stark and precise, a reflection of Cassel’s elemental aesthetic.

After making contact with the filmmaker, Aboud Shalhoub trekked from Istanbul (where Cassel, an American citizen, was based) through Macedonia and into the Netherlands, seeking political asylum from a besieged Damascus. Jeweler and journalist took the treacherous journey together—by raft, train, automobile, bicycle, foot—while cameraman Simon Safieh spent time with Shalhoub’s wife and two children. Over thousands of kilometers and many months, the filmmakers arguably captured the most personal footage of any contemporary diaspora in documentary history.

Equipped with a Sony Action Cam and a Canon C100 Mark II, Cassel shoots largely on-the-fly, sporadically and almost abstractly, creating disjuncture in our sense of time and space. While Shalhoub and his brother move slowly through Eurasia, Cassel and editor/producer Olivia Dehez speed through the depiction of the journey’s logistics, turning instead to scenes of humanistic warmth, like the Shalhoubs’ encounter with a displaced single mother and her harrowed daughters. To stave off tragedy (which is rare in the series), Cassel and Dehez allow these golden moments to soak in to the anxiously determined Shalhoub, and likewise, to those viewers who may have expected shots of Hanekean misery.

Shalhoub’s voyage is depicted straightforwardly, yet The Journey’s broader chronology is warped: As Cassel has said, he could only turn his cameras on for a moment’s shooting here and there, forced to switch them off again to preserve precious battery. The result is a kaleidoscopically visual series, with lush Mediterranean vistas and magnificent landscapes captured in brief splotches, then harshly juxtaposed in Dehez’s exemplary edits with black Balkan nights and jittery hand-held getaways from immigration police.

It should be clear that the aesthetic chasm between The Journey and the simpler #ThisIsACoup is massive, with the former concluding on a note of unforced beauty that Skarlatos and Mason cynically (and rather cleverly) avoid. But the tonal difference in these projects benefits both: Ultimately, the two series establish their distributor’s idiosyncratic approach and thematic flexibility.

Immigration, finance, militarism, digital access: Watching these groundbreaking series take flight, one cannot imagine a subject or perspective off-limits for Field of Vision. Appropriately, in a confluence of television and journalistic traditions, the site has developed its own news cycle, releasing a mix of seasonal content in topical batches.

The most engaging projects from Spring 2017 (Season Four) include Maxim Pozdorovkin’s 12-minute documentary Our New President, a semi-satirical pastiche of Trumpian obsession in Russia; Clowns, a horrifying treatise on America’s collective fear of clowns; and last month’s touchingly humane The Moderators, about office workers monitoring the world’s social media sites. Docuseries, too, are a continued focus, with an upcoming episodic project about militias fighting ISIS, as well as a ten-film series on America’s president called Our 100 Days, promising some measure of viral fame for the company.

Yet, unlike its shorts, which Neon has recently opted to present theatrically in front of features like Risk (which, coincidentally, Poitras originally intended to be episodic), the impact of Field of Vision’s series will rely on their continued contrasts with the garbage-fire news media’s partisan, punditry-heavy renditions of the same narratives. Skarlatos’s and Cassel’s tremendous physical risks, for example, bear the visual fruits of extreme intimacy: There is no mistaking the experiential cinematics of their stories for mainstream nonfiction. As the Field of Vision’s profile expands, maintaining this intimacy across its programming could be its biggest challenge, and its greatest promise.

You can watch all episodes of The Journey and #ThisIsACoup now on Field of Vision.

Sean L. Malin is a media critic and producer based in Austin, TX. He is a frequent contributor to The Austin Chronicle and Filmmaker Magazine; and he is the editor-in-chief of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism.

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