The 2021 Double Exposure presents 12 investigative feature films and a selection of more than 15 shorts for its seventh season, taking place as a hybrid event, October 13-17.
Drawing on a range of cinematic styles, from reportage to cinema verité to animation, from features to shorts, this year’s slate will take you inside urgent stories of our times and our lives. Meet the 25-year-old NSA whistleblower who exposed Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, enter a hospital caring for Covid patients during New York’s first wave, travel to Iowa where a small independent newspaper courageously fights for survival. This year’s films interrogate police corruption in Baltimore and school corruption in Louisiana, heartbreak at the Tallahassee Unified Family Court, and the enduring trauma of the refugee experience for an Afghan man who is gay, told mostly through animation. Witness the oddysey to rescue 12 boys trapped in a water-filled cave in Thailand, using contemporaneous footage from inside the cave, fires wildly burning in Australia and the determination of a group of Dalit women, dismissed as “untouchable” in India’s caste system, to build a first-ever Dalit news organization from the ground up.
This year’s program includes Opening Night, United States vs. Reality Winner, directed by Sonia Kennebeck; Closing Night, Accepted, directed by Dan Chen; Centerpiece, The Rescue, directed by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin; and Spotlight Screening, Flee, directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. The main slate includes 3212 Un-Redacted, directed by Brian Epstein; Burning, directed by Eva Orner; Courtroom 3H, directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza; The First Wave, directed by Matthew Heineman; Luchadoras, directed by Paola Calvo and Patrick Jasim; The Slow Hustle, directed by Sonja Sohn; Storm Lake, directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison;and Writing With Fire, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh.
The co-directors of the festival noted:
“Through this awe-inspiring lineup, shaped and driven by the investigative instinct, we glimpse the growing power of film to engage people with pressing issues of justice, humanity and our shared future on a profound level.” said Diana Jean Schemo, founder and co-director of Double Exposure. “The festival pays tribute to the resourcefulness, resilience and creativity of investigative journalists and filmmakers, whose best work allows us to call power to account.”
“The outpouring of work by filmmakers and journalists who reside at the intersection between both cultures has never been more prolific, nor more creative” said Sky Sitney, festival co-creator and co-director. “Whether excavating a dormant archive, meticulously piecing together citizen-created content, turning to animation as both a storytelling device and a protective measure, or boldly entering the frontlines of an ICU during a pandemic or forests ablaze with fire, the filmmakers and journalists featured in this year’s program are reaching extraordinary new heights with their craft, and telling vital stories that go well beyond headline news.”
2021 Double Exposure Film Festival Lineup
Opening Night Film
United States vs. Reality Winner
Director: Sonia Kennebeck
A state of secrets and a ruthless hunt for whistleblowers – this is the story of 25-year-old NSA contractor Reality Winner who disclosed one document about Russian election interference to the media and became the number one leak target of the Trump administration.
Directors: E. Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
The Rescue chronicles the enthralling, against-all-odds story that transfixed the world in 2018: the daring rescue of twelve boys and their coach from deep inside a flooded cave in Northern Thailand. Academy Award®-winning directors and producers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin keep viewers on the edge of their seats as they use a wealth of never-before-seen material and exclusive interviews to piece together the high stakes mission, highlighting the efforts of the Royal Thai Navy SEALs and US Special Forces and details the expert cave divers’ audacious venture to dive the boys to safety. The Rescue brings alive one of the most perilous and extraordinary rescues in modern times, shining a light on the high-risk world of cave diving, the astounding courage and compassion of the rescuers, and the shared humanity of the international community that united to save the boys.
Closing Night Film
Director: Dan Chen
Four high school seniors in rural Louisiana attend T.M. Landry, an unconventional K-12 school housed in a sparse warehouse made famous for sending its graduates to elite universities like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. The seniors aim to meet the intense expectations of Mike Landry, the imposing founder of the school who charts a relentless course towards their college dreams. But as more and more students are pushed to their breaking point, each senior must contend with uncomfortable truths about their school and the college admissions system, and decide for themselves what they are willing to do to be accepted.
Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen
Flee tells the story of Amin Nawabi (pseudonym) as he grapples with a painful secret he has kept hidden for 20 years, one that threatens to derail the life he has built for himself and his soon to be husband. Recounted mostly through animation to director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, he tells for the first time the story of his extraordinary journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan.
Director: Brian Epstein
When ODA 3212, an elite U.S. Special Forces team, is caught in a surprise attack deep in the Saharan Desert, killing four soldiers and leaving the rest stranded with no rescue or reinforcements sent their way, military brass immediately start spinning a fractured tale to hide the full truth from the public and the families of the fallen. Two years later, the Pentagon’s highly-redacted report on the ambush near Tongo Tongo, Niger shockingly accuses the team of going on a rogue mission to kill or capture a top ISIS commander.
3212 Un-Redacted is the result of an exhaustive three-year investigation that contains explosive interviews with a top Pentagon whistleblower, the former general in charge of special operations in Africa, the team’s own commander in Niger and the families of all four fallen soldiers united in their quest for the truth. Through a network of confidential sources inside the military and intelligence community, the film unravels the dark truth covered up by commanders at the highest levels of the military. It blows the lid off of the official Pentagon narrative, which pinned the blame on low-level soldiers to protect the careers of the senior officers responsible for the ill-fated mission.
Director: Eva Orner
From the lens of Academy® and Emmy-award winning Australian filmmaker Eva Orner, Burning takes an unflinching look at the unprecedented and catastrophic Australian bushfires of 2019-2020, known as “Black Summer.” Fueled by climate change, the nation’s hottest and driest summer ever recorded resulted in bushfires that burned over 59 million acres, killed an estimated three billion animals, and affected millions of Australians. Burning is an exploration of what happened from the perspective of victims of the fires, activists and scientists.
Director: Antonio Méndez Esparza
The Tallahassee Unified Family Court in Florida sets the stage for this extraordinary glimpse into the complex, sometimes irrational judicial system, particularly as it involves minors. The Family Court system exclusively deals with matters relating to children and parents, whether they be biological, adopted, foster and — in one remarkable case — entirely unknown to the child. There is seldom a happy circumstance that brings families to this court, which most often delves in a dark world of abuse, abandonment or negligence. According to the law, the court’s objective is to reunite families as quickly and safely as possible, however the movie takes its inspiration from the words of James Baldwin: “If one really wants to know how justice is administered in a country, one goes to the unprotected and listens to their testimony.”
The First Wave
Director: Matthew Heineman
A once-in-a-century pandemic has engulfed our world, leaving in its wake a devastating trail of death and despair, while also exposing long-standing fault lines in our society and changing the very fabric of our daily lives. The “first wave” of COVID-19 ravaged the city of New York from March through June 2020. The First Wave documents those harrowing four months, embedding with healthcare workers at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, as they risked their lives in the epic battle to keep the virus at bay.
Director: Paola Calvo, Patrick Jasim
Luchadoras is an intimate portrait of three courageous female wrestlers (Luchadoras) from Ciudad Juarez who, despite being surrounded by machismo, redefine the image of women in Mexico. They include the short-statured Mini Serinita, whose biggest dream is to become a full-time Luchadora and quit the factory work that disenfranchises so many women; Lady Candy, who can see the U.S Border, where her daughters were taken, from her house, but can never cross it; and Baby Star, the young single mother who was a Lucha Libre Star at an early age and now makes her way to a comeback. With Mexican passion they present a new image of what it means to be a woman in Mexico.
The Slow Hustle
Director: Sonja Sohn
A bullet to the head of a Baltimore police detective sets off a constantly unraveling mystery that ultimately reveals the depth of corruption and the profound complexities of policing in urban America today. When Baltimore police detective Sean Suiter is shot and killed on duty the day before he is scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury, a mystery unravels that raises questions about what story he was going to tell about his fellow officers. The now infamous Gun Trace Task Force investigation exposed members of an elite task force that proved to be one of the dirtiest police units in US history. From director Sonja Sohn, of Baltimore Rising and star of HBO’s The Wire, comes an American tale of how the culture of corruption penetrates the system at every level, destroying lives, as ordinary citizens, hardworking local journalists, and a few rebellious public servants endeavor to pick up the pieces.
Directors: Jerry Risius, Beth Levison
Dark clouds hang over the cornfields of Storm Lake, Iowa, which has seen its fair share of change in the 40 years since Big Agriculture came to town. Farmers blow their life savings on new equipment they hope will keep their livelihoods intact. Migrant workers flock here—welcome and not—for their slice of the American Dream. The people of Storm Lake confront a changing community as global forces threaten their precarious existence.
Enter: 63-year-old Pulitzer-Prize winner Art Cullen and his family-run newspaper, The Storm Lake Times. Day in and day out, the Cullens deliver local news and biting editorials on a shoestring budget for their 3,000 readers. Come hell or pandemic, they’ll fight to preserve this town they call home. There’s simply too much at stake.
Writing With Fire
Directors: Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh
In a cluttered news landscape dominated by men emerges India’s only newspaper run by Dalit (‘low caste’) women. Armed with smartphones, chief reporter Meera and her journalists break traditions, be it on the frontlines of India’s biggest issues or within the confines of their homes, creating a voice and a presence for women as citizens of India.
Director: Kristy Guevara-Flanagan
Along the southern desert border in Arizona, it is estimated that only one out of every five missing migrants are ever found. Águilas is the story of one group of searchers, the Aguilas del Desierto. Once a month these volunteers—construction workers, gardeners, domestic laborers by trade—set out to recover the missing, reported to them by loved ones often thousands of miles away. Amidst rising political repression and cartel violence, as well as the eternal difficulties of travel in the Sonoran Desert, the Aguilas carry out their solemn task.
Águilas lays bare the tragic reality of migrant death by venturing deep into the wilderness of the borderlands. The desert is a vast cemetery where the bodies and dried bones of migrants lie exposed under the scorching sun. In a world where efforts to humanize the migrant experience often get lost within the statistics and headlines, this documentary provides an observational and poetic response to one of the most pressing issues of our time, undocumented immigration and the hardships of the border crossing experience.
Directors: James Burns, Shal Ngo
A documentary hybrid about solitary confinement, following three people who have spent a combined nine years in solitary, one of whom co-directed the film.
Directors: César Martínez Barba
Within the walls of a call center, a feeling of being in limbo pervades. Homesickness floods the phone receiver as deported call center agents make calls across the US-Mexico border.
Director: Michèle Stephenson
In 1937, tens of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent were exterminated by the Dominican army on the basis of anti-black racism. Fast-forward to 2013, the Dominican Republic’s Supreme Court retroactively stripped the citizenship of anyone with Haitian parents to 1929, rendering more than 200,000 people stateless.
Because of this ruling, Elena has lost her citizenship, and her family stands to lose their rightful access to legal residency in the Dominican Republic if they don’t manage to get their documents in time. Negotiating a mountain of opaque bureaucratic processes and a racist, hostile society, Elena becomes the face of the struggle to remain in a country built on the labor of her father and forefathers.
Director Michèle Stephenson’s new documentary follows Elena and her family through their tribulations and small joys, as they struggle to remain in the country they’ve called home for generations.
Director: Seth Freed Wessler
Detained inside an infamous American detention center as the pandemic spreads, a group of immigrants organize in protest to demand protection and their release. Filmed entirely using the cameras attached to tablets installed inside the detention center cell-blocks, the film is a unique, real-time chronicle of life in an immigration detention facility, and of a struggle for freedom and accountability.
Directors: Zac Manuel, Marta Rodriguez Maleck
The interconnected daily journeys of bus riders and operators on the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority bus lines illuminate why the black community here has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. While the bus operators fight for proper PPE, hazard pay, and sick time off, they continue to provide a necessary, but dangerous service to frontline workers, and to sick and homeless populations through a pandemic.
Director: Laurence Topham
Pegasus spyware is capable of bypassing your phone’s security and gaining complete access to your device – including emails, messages, GPS location, photos, video and your phone’s microphone. A Guardian investigation documents widespread abuse of the Pegasus technology by government clients around the world, who purchased the spyware. People who were selected as possible targets include journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders.
Red Taxi, filmed by a Hong Kong crew who remain anonymous due to safety concerns, shows a city in upheaval through the eyes of those who must traverse the streets day and night to make a living.
Director: Sierra Pettengill
Through meticulously assembled archival imagery, THE RIFLEMAN reveals the roots of the modern National Rifle Association, U.S. Border Patrol, and the gun lobby’s unyielding influence on national politics.
Director: Daisy Ifama
One morning in June 2020, graffiti reading RIP SENI appeared emblazoned across a public artwork outside the Bethlem royal hospital, a psychiatric hospital in south London. The spray-painted letters drew attention to Olaseni Lewis, a 23-year-old black man who died after being restrained by 11 police officers while in the care of the hospital in 2010. This film follows what happened after the graffiti, as it launches a discussion about race, mental health and injustice in the UK, and the effects on families.
Since You Arrived, My Heart Stopped Belonging to Me
Director: Erin Semine Kökdil
Central American mothers journey by bus through Mexico, searching for their children who migrated north towards the United States but disappeared en route.
The Vet Van
Directors: Sarah Jenks, Elizabeth Mulvey
Two New York families rely on their pets to cope with isolation and poverty. When their animal gets sick, a low-cost mobile veterinary clinic is their only hope.
They Won’t Call It Murder
Directors: Melissa Gira Grant, Ingrid Raphaël
Bound by grief, five women in Columbus, Ohio reclaim the voices of their loved ones from the police who killed them.
To Be Reconciled
Director: James Jones Christenson
Before the headline-grabbing crisis of family separation at the U.S./Mexico border unfolded in 2018, many thousands of longtime, undocumented residents of the Midwest had already begun to experience the U.S.’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy. This film illuminates the effects our confounding immigration system has on the lives of migrants who, in good faith, are trying to make America their permanent home.
To Be Reconciled is the personal story of Carlos Urrutia, an undocumented resident of Saint Paul, Minnesota who has lived in the U.S. for 35 years, as he battles the relentless threat of deportation and seeks redemption as an alcoholic. A 2017 traffic incident involving alcohol made Carlos a target of ICE and the zero-tolerance system. But while serving hard time, Carlos finally confronted his alcoholism and rediscovered his Catholic faith and its traditions of social justice, forgiveness and redemption. While his legal team prepares a desperate appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, he reflects upon his faith, his recovery, and the ideas of freedom and justice that may permanently separate him from his family.
Director: Amina Waheed
In 2018, 22-year-old Jazmine Willock was found dead in her home in Tucson, Arizona. Her partner, Taris Ford-Dillard, shot her multiple times with a handgun and then killed himself. Ford-Dillard should never have had a gun. He was prohibited from having one under federal law because of a domestic violence conviction. Despite this, he was never ordered to surrender any firearms. Unrelinquished exposes the gaps in the system that are allowing domestic abusers to keep their guns, with deadly consequences.
For nearly a year, Jennifer Gollan, a reporter with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, has been doing what no one in the federal government is: tracking the deaths of those who were killed by intimate partners who were banned from having a firearm. Her investigation found that the rights of abusers to have a gun are greater than their victims’ rights to be safe.
In this groundbreaking film, Al Jazeera’s award-winning documentary program Fault Lines and Reveal show the consequences of a system that time and again failed to prevent so many deaths.
What You’ll Remember
After 15 years of bouncing from unsafe apartments to couches to shelters to the streets, a young family moves into their first stable home during the pandemic. In What You’ll Remember, parents Elizabeth and David write a letter to their children. Their letter tells the full truth of what Elizabeth and David initially portrayed to the children as an extended camping trip—sleeping in parks, showering at the beach, dressing for school in gas station bathrooms. Intimately filmed by Elizabeth, this short film plays as a love poem, expressing their deep belief that family can create home when there is no house.