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That Jan. 6 Proud Boys Documentary Will Become a 4-Part Series, but Who Will Have the Courage to Buy It?

Column: Nick Quested's work is proof that filmmaking on disturbing subjects can make a difference, but only if the industry gives it a shot.

Nick Quested

Sarah Rada

Last week, Nick Quested went to Washington and pulled off a rarity for filmmakers these days: He captured the public imagination without the benefit of Spider-Man or Tom Cruise.

Quested, as some of the 20 million people who tuned into the primetime hearings may recall, testified before Congress about the actions of the Proud Boys during the January 6 insurrection. A veteran documentarian who produced the Oscar-nominated “Restrepo,” Quested was on the ground at the Capitol trailing the extremist group when hundreds of them amassed in Washington. By then, he had been tracking the Proud Boys for months. The night before the riots, he even trailed Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio as he was released from jail and held a clandestine parking-lot meeting with the head of another extremist group, the Oath Keepers’ Stewart Rhodes.

The committee showed this footage and more in a roughly 10-minute assemblage during the first January 6 hearing this month, the only one to hit primetime and generate substantial ratings. Quested delivered a stern, measured testimony to the violence he witnessed, but the footage went much further with a gripping inside look at seditious rage in action.

“Citizenfour”

It was the same kind of suspenseful teaser Quested might use to lure financiers at a film market, but leveraged toward a much larger cause. This weekly column looks at case studies that have relevance to the film community and this one is a striking breakthrough moment: Not since Laura Poitras sat in a room with Edward Snowden to capture his first interview for “Citizenfour” has a documentary been poised for such potential crossover effect, but the specifics of his project remained unclear. This week, as the hearings continued, I called him up to ask about it.

Quested hopped onto a Zoom call still looking shellshocked from the past few days. “It’s pretty crazy,” he said. “Once you give congressional testimony, you’re at the center of the world for a second. I’m not used to that.” The 52-year-old British director, who got his start with music videos, had a disarming sense of humor about the sudden interest in his work. “You know what the best part is?” he said. “I am working for MI:6 and thus I am James Bond. I should’ve come into the testimony with the theme music.”

About seven months ago, Quested began pursuing a Proud Boys documentary with the working title “64 Days,” an allusion to the period between the 2020 presidential election and the January 6 events, when the Proud Boys solidified into the violent militia that charged the Capitol. For project, which may now become a four-part miniseries, Quested also plans to utilize flashbacks to earlier moments in the Proud Boys’ evolution, including its 2016 “Stop the Steal” campaign that fizzled after Trump won the election that year. The filmmaker largely self-financed the project through his company Goldchrest Films, though he may enlist former National Geographic executives Tim Pastore and Matt Renner to take it to market.

Needless to say, Quested turned out to be a good witness in part because he’s a skilled director. He managed to weave his filmmaking chops into his testimony, discussing how he worked to find medium and wide shots in an effort to frame the crowd with the Capitol as the backdrop. He sent me a 17-minute highlight reel and it’s astonishing stuff: He and his team captured everything from the QAnon Shaman spouting nonsense on the street to a sea of rioters storming Nancy Pelosi’s office and the immediate aftermath of the protestor death that further inflamed the crowds. The camera remains steady throughout, a sober beacon of expert craftsmanship in the midst of total chaos.

Quested claimed he submitted a short cut to major U.S. festivals and was rejected by all of them; he declined to name which ones. However, he now plans to turn “64 Days” into a miniseries (one episode each for November and December followed by a two-parter set in January) and hopes to finish editing his 70-odd hours of footage by the fall. The outcome of the January 6 hearings could play a role. “There’s a strong possibility this could lead to a trial of a former president,” he said.

He added that he won’t weave his experiences into the drama. “I find it belittles the story to do that,” he said, singling out Vice News as the worst offender in that regard. “It’s like a travel show with war porn,” he said. “Instead of going to restaurants, they go to frontlines.”

However, there was a moment where he became a part of the story: When Proud Boys member Jeremy Bertino was stabbed during a counterprotest at a Black Lives Matter event on December 12, Quested gave him first aid until an ambulance arrived. “Was that crossing the line? I don’t care even if it is,” Quested said.

It’s hard to contemplate the complex moral calculus at play here: Quested not only infiltrated a hate group but saved one of the member’s lives on camera. However, his willingness to engage with such troubling material stems from his conviction about the potential for filmmaking to infiltrate society’s messiest corridors rather than observe them with horror from afar.

Quested said he and his producing partner Sebastian Junger (who co-directed “Restrepo”) had long wanted to explore the extreme rifts in American society. “We wanted to make a film about why Americans were so divided when Americans have so much in common,” he said. “We wanted to tell this in extremis by using groups on opposing sides, whether it was the far left or far right.”

Quested perked up when Donald Trump made his infamous “stand back and stand by” remark in the presidential debate last summer, which galvanized the group. “Obviously, the Proud Boys were becoming more and more prominent in American culture over the course of the summer. We were like, ‘Well, are these guys hooligans? Are they brown shirts? Who are these guys?’ That’s why we reached out. When the president name-checked them, we were like, “All right, here we go.’ After the election, I just reached out and was like, ‘Wassup?'”

It turned out that Tarrio was a “Restrepo” fan, and he wasn’t the only one in the group. “There were a lot of veterans who weren’t combat veterans,” he said. “They’ve done the training, but don’t feel that vitality and brotherhood that you get from combat deployment. You don’t have that existential need to band together to fight an enemy. You see the Proud Boys come together with a common thread of fighting for Trump.”

Quested, who hasn’t been in touch with Tarrio for months, said he had no problem spending time around the group. “My job’s not to go there to agree or disagree with them or debate them,” he said. “I’m trying to get them to portray their ideology. I’m trying to get to the bottom of what they really represent. I’ve been all over the world. Whether it’s militias or dissidents or different political factions, it’s the same thing. Just because I was with the Proud Boys doesn’t make me a part of the Proud Boys.”

Quested’s willingness to entrench himself in vile company also points to one of the biggest challenges his film may face: The most daring efforts to expose the truth scare off the business. Errol Morris sat down with Steve Bannon for “American Dharma” and never heard the end of it, while the movie struggled to find a release for months. A similar fate befell Bryan Fogel’s Jamal Khashoggi documentary “The Dissident,” as few major companies wanted to risk problems with Saudi Arabia by taking it on. Above all, Quested’s project reminded me of the 2020 documentary “White Noise: Inside the Racist Right” — a film produced by The Atlantic that never found a distributor.

Not to be confused with the upcoming Noah Baumbach adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel, Daniel Lombroso’s “White Noise” is an unnerving look at alt-right media figures like Mike Cernovich, Richard Spencer, and Laura Southern. It began as a short film that contained the shocking footage of Spencer shouting “Hail Trump!” to a roomful of young Nazis in the aftermath of the former president’s election — again, footage so powerful it had a crossover effect, exposing the way hate groups felt galvanized by the current moment.

In the feature, Lombroso follows his subjects on globetrotting journeys as they attempt to legitimize their rhetoric into a movement. Exhausting and infuriating in equal measures, “White Noise” provides a deeper understanding of the alt-right’s ascension than any sound bite can capture, but the movie premiered at AFI Docs after facing multiple rejections from major festivals. (It’s available for rent on iTunes and Amazon.)

Richard Spencer in “White Noise: Inside the Racist Right”

“The writing was on the wall from those first pitch meetings,” Lombroso told me this past week. “They all said this was important journalism, but from a business perspective it’s the wrong play.”

Most filmmakers who struggle for a release blame the industry, but Lombroso makes a convincing case. “When we heard from distributors, it sounded like they were afraid of being canceled on Twitter,” he said. “In the long view, I don’t think it’s bad business at all. It’s essential to study extremist movements. If there was a document of the Nazi Party in the ‘30s as they grew and took over the government, surely that would have mass appeal now. People would study it. Instead, ‘Triumph of the Will” did the exact opposite by glorifying it, but people study that film now.”

Quested said he believed bigger companies were complicit in simplifying the public’s understanding of the January 6 events. “There are so few people now to do business with and those companies are trying to commoditize documentaries into subjects, not value the work of the filmmakers appropriately,” he said. “Our film isn’t about January 6. Our film is about why January 6 happened. They haven’t examined the root causes of January 6. They’ve examined why people turn up there and the events of the day in what I thought was fairly cursory. These things take time.”

It is possible for companies to support projects about dangerous fringe groups: the PBS-produced “American Insurrection,” for example, or HBO’s miniseries “QAnon: Into the Storm.” However, Quested said those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

“If you’re lucky enough to sell a film, it just becomes the film about that subject,” he said. “It’s like saying, ‘Oh we’ve done a film about January 6, there can’t possibly be another angle.'”

Quested cited Poitras’ work as another example of filmmaking that can engage challenging subject matter for a broader audience. I asked Poitras if she had anything to add about the subject, but she declined beyond recommending Jessica Kingdon’s “Ascension” as recent example of ambitious filmmaking that overcame commercial hurdles.

It’s true: Kingdon’s experimental look at the hierarchical nature of Chinese society found distribution via MTV Documentary and received an Oscar nomination. The film explores everything from factory life to a training school for butlers for a fascinating, non-narrative overview of the way China choreographs every facet of its modern identity. “I thought it would be more niche,” Kingdom told me earlier this year.

However, Kingdon didn’t point her camera at hate groups. Her haunting, poetic assemblage and Dan Deacon’s awe-inspiring score is both compelling and non-confrontational; if its criticism of China had been more explicit, it’s hard to imagine MTV taking it on with gusto. At the same time, “Ascension” and Quested’s work share an ambitious approach that allows them to explain vast societal forces. Filmmaking can enlighten people to the substance of real-world situations in ways that traditional reportage cannot.

ASCENSION, 2021. © MTV Documentary Films /Courtesy Everett Collection

“Ascension”

©MTV/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Look, documentaries are based on fact, but whenever you use editing and music, you’re creating an emotional impact,” Quested said. “It becomes a very effective way of packaging the truth. A lot of people have seen these stories in micro-bites on the news, but they haven’t seen it all in context. So when you see these events and how quickly they unfolded and how highly charged the rhetoric was, you can see the pattern of the narrative. That’s what we’re bringing to the table.”

Another reason for substantial filmmaking on extremism right now is extremists make movies, however bad. A few days after Quested’s testimony, the committee showed a clip of former Attorney General William Barr mocking Dinesh D’Souza for his inept “2,000 Mules” documentary that attempted to prove voter fraud. Laugh at him all you want, but the movie’s still out there.

Quested may choose his words carefully these days, but exposing the Proud Boys in action has already shown the potential of activist filmmaking in these fractured times. There are plenty of talking-heads movies with rousing soundtracks and end credits listing URLs where you can learn how to help, but they rarely impact the national conversation. Documentaries — and their filmmakers — need to wade into the muck to make a difference.

In 2016, I attended a luncheon for the DOC NYC festival that took place just a few weeks after the presidential election and the mood was grim. The late Jonathan Demme was an honoree that day and pushed back on the bad vibes. “I don’t think the election of Trump changes anybody’s personal agenda,” he said with a grin. “We still have our agendas and we’re still going to push for meaningful progressive change. The bar is just higher.”

It keeps rising. Filmmaking remains a critical means of cutting through the noise, but if the industry doesn’t support these efforts, they’re more likely to fade into the madness than expose the truth.

Are you a filmmaker working on a project about American extremism and struggling to find an audience? Or a programmer with curatorial solutions for showcasing this kind of valuable work? I’d love to get your input: eric@indiewire.com

Browse previous columns here.

Last week’s column on the potential for Broadway playwrights to improve Hollywood landed before “A Strange Loop,” thankfully, won Best Musical. Tickets might be elusive these days, but at the very least, try to listen to the soundtrack.

I heard from a few readers in the theater community, including several women who expressed disappointment that the story didn’t showcase women playwrights. A few people drew my attention to Honor Roll!, a grassroots advocacy group for women playwrights over 40, and others shared names of playwrights worth singling out. Here’s one list sent my way.

A list of women who have created, run and written for shows including “Succession,” “Watchmen,” “The Morning Show,” “This Is Us,” “Better Call Saul,” “House of Cards,” “The Flight Attendant,” “New Amsterdam,” “Fosse/Verdon,” “Empire,” “Masters of Sex,” “The Chi,” “Billions,” “Nurse Jackie,” “The Americans,” “GLOW,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Homeland,” “Stranger Things,” “13 Reasons Why,” any number of “Law & Order”‘s, “Halt and Catch Fire,” all the Chicago shows, “In Treatment,” “This is Us,” “Maid,” “Shameless,” “The Good Fight,” “The Good Wife,” “Smash,” “Happy,” “High Maintenance,” “Blue Bloods,” “Sneaky Pete,” “The Goldbergs,” and so many more.

Katori Hall’s play “The Mountaintop” was on Broadway, and she currently runs “P-Valley,” based on one of her plays. Sarah Treem went from “In Treatment” to create “The Affair.” Laura Eason runs “Three Women” about to premiere on Showtime, Charlotte Stoudt created “Pieces of Her,” Theresa Rebeck has had four plays on Broadway and created “Smash,” Liz Meriwether created “New Girl” and “The Dropout,” Jessica Goldberg created “The Path.” Suzan Lori-Parks won a Pulitzer for “Topdog/Underdog,” created “Genius: Aretha” and wrote “The United States vs. Billie Holiday in 2021.” The list goes on and on.

These women include multiple Pulitzer, Tony and MacArthur “genius” grant winners, those with work on and off Broadway and around the country. It should also be said that every playwright I’ve ever met has a side hustle. For some that’s TV and film. For others TV and film was a draw as well as writing for the stage and they continue to do both. I know many of these women personally and they are fierce.

More names: Lynn Nottage, Dominique Morrisseau, Katori Hall, Suzan-Lori Parks, Tanya Saracho, Theresa Rebeck, Sarah Treem, Jessica Goldberg, Laura Eason, Molly Smith Metzler, Charlotte Stoudt, Liz Meriwether, Lucy Prebble, Leslye Headland, Bekka Brunstetter, Tracey Scott Wilson, Stacey Osei-Kuffour, Leah Nanako Winkler, Pia Wilson, Sheila Callaghan, Jacquelyn Reingold, Susan Cinoman, Marsha Norman, Alison Tatlock, Diana Son, Jennifer Haley, Gina Gionfriddo, Kara Lee Corthron, Neena Beber, Sarah Gubbins, Quiara Alegria Hudes, Jamie Pachino, K.J. Steinberg, Amy Fox, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Bathsheba Doran, Heidi Schreck, Hannah Bos, Carly Mensch, Liz Flahive, Annie Weisman, Nambi Kelly, Christina Anderson, Tori Sampson, Chisa Hutchinson, Eboni Booth, C.A. Jackson, Monet Hurst-Mendoza, Dipika Guha, Cheryl Davis, Bess Wohl, Jennifer Maisel, Kate Robin, Kate Fodor, Alexandra Cunningham, Melanie Marnich, Marlane Meyer, Allison Moore, Christina Ham, Sigrid Gilmer, Stephanie Liss, Halley Feiffer, Wendy Graf, Gabrielle Fox, MJ Kang, Anna Moench, Moira Buffini, Ali MacLean, Janice Kennedy, Kim Rosenstock, Janine Nabers, Catherine Butterfield, Laura Rohrman, Nikila Cole, Laureen Vonnegut, Stacy Rose, Susan Miller, Melody Cooper, Marilyn Anderson, Karen Zacarias, Jihan Crowther, and many, many more.

—Jamie Pachino, playwright and TV writer

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