“Do Not Resist” opens with footage of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, events made famous by their media ubiquity, but never seen quite like this. Craig Atkinson’s documentary features an on-the-ground perspective of the riots that, despite the chaos, has an immediate intimacy. The protestors are seen mostly in closeups, emerging from the shadows and surrounded by the unseen mayhem of the crowds. As the movie pivots from these moments to other incidents in which military force has been used on a local scale, “Do Not Resist” maintains a frightening contrast between the mechanically oppressive nature of law enforcement and its targets, leaving the impression of humanity getting steamrolled by unregulated oppression.
If that sounds like a paranoid characterization, “Do Not Resist” crams a lot of empirical evidence into its concise 73-minute running time. Eschewing talking heads for an eerie pileup of fly-on-the-wall observations, Atkinson ventures across the country to witness harrowing police training sessions and stone-faced officers making the case for their increased weaponization. The movie is crammed with alarming statistics to contextualize the militant industry it documents, with none more striking than the $34 billion given to police departments around the country by the Department of Homeland Security in the years since 9/11. “Do Not Resist” expertly shows the extent to which that money has been put to use.
While last year’s “Peace Officer” examined the link between the rise of SWAT teams and instances of police brutality through a single victim’s personal experiences, “Do Not Resist” presents a collage of disquieting moments. With little to no music, the fragmentary moments speak for themselves — as do the hawkish police official, one of whom makes a frightening case for further weaponization against “monsters” threatening officers lives. Diagnosing a “metastasizing threat,” he epitomizes the culture of fear that percolates throughout the movie. Having highlighted these system efforts to bolster militant procedures, “Do Not Resist” singles out numerous examples, one of which finds a man arrested for a petty crime and surrounded enough defense forces to suggest he occupies a war zone.
These sequences are less involving, as they mainly serve to gawk at an ugly situation, like an episode of “Cops” without the sensationalism. Too concise for its own good, “Do Not Resist” crams a lot of half-formed tidbits into its scattershot survey of an emerging police state. Later passages focused on technological developments, including the domestic use of drones, further distract from the more powerful focus that these tactics have on individual’s lives.
In its sharper moments, “Do Not Resist” excels at peeking beyond the dominant narrative associated with police brutality. Rather than taking the media filter for granted, the movie illustrates its boundaries. At one critical moment when the filmmaker returns to Ferguson, he tracks alongside Anderson Cooper as the newsanchor speaks on CNN. However, Atkinson’s own camera lingers on the characters just beyond Cooper’s frame, a stream of black protestors shouting for attention. Elsewhere, he captures a painful exchange between a young Ferguson protestor and an officer who know each other. “I’ve known you a long time,” the uniformed man says. The retort is immediate: “And y’all still killin’ us.”
Rather than casting an angry gaze on this dreary scenario, Atkinson observes it with a passionate eye, diagnosing a problem rather than advocating for one solution. In its closing minutes, “Do Not Resist” shifts to conversations between the President’s task force, which offers no clear path forward. Instead, the movie presents a snapshot of an infuriating disconnect between power players and disenfranchised targets, ending with the lingering perception that problems lies not with the tools of persecution but the people all too eager to implement them. It’s a sober account of police militarization in the 21st century that, no matter one’s stance on the matter, makes a brutal statement.
“Do Not Resist” won best documentary at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, where it was a world premiere. It is currently seeking distribution.
For more from Tribeca, watch the “Southwest of Salem” trailer: