Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal and Annapurna Pictures’ Megan Ellison launched the production company Page1 with the intention of developing material based on reporting of actual events, so it was only a matter of time before they got into the documentary business.
That’s happening now with the announcement that the company has signed on as executive producers of the Israeli documentary “Death in the Terminal,” which will be released in the U.S. by First Look Media, and Boal said in an interview that his company would be scouting documentary festivals for more new work. “There’s a ton of stuff out there, and a lot of it is really good,” he said.
The hourlong “Death in the Terminal,” directed by Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sundry, provides a deep-dive into a 2015 incident in an Israeli train station in which the pandemonium following a terrorist attack led to a mob mentality with dire consequences. The filmmakers reconstruct the tense details with a blend of surveillance camera footage and conflicting eyewitness testimonies that transform the incident into a visually driven mystery in which every image is a clue.
The project came to Boal through his agents at CAA, who were introduced to it through fellow documentarian Alma Ha’arel. “I never felt more obligated to make sure more people saw a film,” Ha’rel said in an interview. “Maybe it’s because I’m from Israel and know how the ‘fear of terrorism’ as a political climate can change the way we see the ‘other.’ The price we pay with our humanity under that thinking is what every citizen of the world should be afraid of right now. We’re thankful that Mark and Megan are making it possible to see the film now.”
Over the past two years, Page1 has produced the second season of the hit podcast “Serial” and Boal completed work on the screenplay for “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s latest movie set to hit theaters this summer. In the meantime, he and Page1 president Hugo Lindgren had been searching for a documentary project.
“I’d never see anything like this before,” Boal said, noting that they had previously considered supporting a few other non-fiction projects early on. “It’s a really powerful piece of filmmaking just in terms of its visceral quality, but it also makes a really profound political point. It’s hard to find both in the same place.” He was particularly impressed by the use of surveillance camera footage. “It gives you this harrowing perspective,” he said. “I didn’t know about the event, but we all hear about various attacks and catastrophes on the news from the outside. This shows you what it’s like from the inside.”
Ha’rel first came across the project at the Doc Aviv Film Festival and passed it on to CAA. When Page1 got involved, Boal’s company advised on minor tweaks to help contextualize the situation for American audiences, including the addition of explanatory title cards. “The filmmakers were so familiar with the story,” Boal said. “We encouraged them had to think about how it would work for an English-speaking audience.” The film also recently screened at Hot Docs and the documentary festival DOC10 in Chicago.
While Boal said that he hopes to expand his support to more documentaries, the overall focus on Page1 hasn’t changed since its inception in 2014. “It’s still true stories or stories set in the real world that reveal something about where we are as a culture,” Boal said. “I think this film fits that.”
He’s also still reeling from a lawsuit against the U.S. government after it threatened to subpoena him into turning over tapes of his interviews with army deserter Bowe Bergdahl, the subject of the second season of “Serial.” “It was a really worthwhile,” he said. “Holding on to those tapes was a huge effort.”
In the meantime, Boal is spending time in Washington researching a screenplay based on the 2016 presidential election, and remains aghast at the current challenges facing journalists covering the Trump administration. “I’m completely captive to the news,” he said. “This is one of the most unpredictable environments I’ve ever seen. But with this election project, it’s really not so much about access as it is about putting a narrative to it. The research is going well, but the situation in Washington right now is just fucking nuts.”