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IndieWire FYC Brunch: ‘The Nightcrawlers’ Director on the Ethics of Filming Murderers About to Kill

What happens when you're filming murderers, carrying out government-sanctioned killings in the Philippines, and they're about to kill.

Manila, Philippines - A police officer

National Geographic’s documentary productions often take viewers into the center of dangerous situations. “Risk is inherently a part of the DNA of our films,” said Carolyn Bernstein, National Geographic’s EVP of Global Scripted Content and Documentary Films. “Whether it’s ‘Free Solo’ or ‘The Cave.’”

But one film in the company’s slate touches upon the morality of documentary filmmaking itself when presenting a journalistic account of barbarism. Director Alexander A. Mora’s harrowing new short “The Nightcrawlers” follows the devastating effects of president Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody crackdown on the drug trade in the Philippines.

At the National Geographic documentary panel at IndieWire’s FYC Brunch, held on Tuesday at Liaison Hollywood, Mora told Executive Editor Eric Kohn that he grappled with staying neutral when he was following around government-sanctioned murderers and they were preparing to kill.

“When you follow a group of people who are alleged to be killers, how far do you go in just depicting them?” Mora said.

The documentarian found, though, that there was nothing he could do to stop them.

“I asked one, ‘What would make you stop killing people?’” Mora said. “And his response was, ‘Nothing. As long as I have a gun, I will keep killing.’”

Mora joined a panel of fellow NatGeo filmmakers comprised of Ferras Fayad (“The Cave”), Richard Ladkani (“Sea of Shadows”), and editor Katie Bryer (“Lost and Found”). The short “Lost and Found” has been paired with “The Nightcrawlers” in an awards-qualifying theatrical run; it centers on a Rohingya refugee trying to help reunite family members at a refugee camp on the Myanmar border.

The theme of “risk” that Bernstein mentioned carries through the other films as well. Fayad filmed “The Cave,” about the effects of the Syrian Civil War, and made it his mission to make the conflict less of an abstraction for the American audience. “I want you to live with the Syrians there,” Fayad said. “That you have an emotional connection to them.”

Ladkani, director of “Sea of Shadows,” faced down Mexican cartels to document the struggle to save the Vaquita, the smallest whale on the planet.

IndieWire’s FYC Brunch took place at Liaison Hollywood on Las Palmas November 5. The event is presented by Amazon Studios, Apple Originals, Netflix, Disney, NatGeo, and United Artists Releasing.

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