Canadian-born, U.K.-based filmmaker Jean-Philippe Tremblay spent five years researching, producing and directing the documentary Shadows of Liberty, which explores censorship and corporate control of the U.S. media. Featuring the personal stories of six journalists and interviews with media experts like Daniel Glover, Amy Goodman, Dan Rather and Julian Assange, the film has been screened at some of the world’s largest documentary film festivals, beginning with Toronto’s Hot Docs 2012. The film was also nominated for a 2012 Cinema For Peace Award (Berlin) in the category of most valuable documentary film of the year. Shadows of Liberty will receive its first U.S. TV broadcast on Friday, April 5, on Link TV.
Anita Malhotra interviewed Jean-Philippe Tremblay on Saturday, March 23 at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Hotel, during a run of his film at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema.
AM: How did you get started in filmmaking?
JPT: I was always interested in film, since I was a young teenager. I was attracted by film mainly because I love the freedom of approaching different subjects and the freedom you have in terms of travelling in different parts of the world. I minored in film at Carleton University and had different jobs in Ottawa. One was an assistant to the Minister of the Environment at the time, Pierre H. Vincent. He said, “What do you want to do – what’s your forte? And I said, “I want to make films.” Then he said, “Why don’t you make films about me and I’ll show them at conferences.” And so I made my first five- or 10-minute film about him.
Later I worked at the Chateau Laurier hotel and I was surprised to learn that Yousuf Karsh was living there. I was so in awe of him and his work and I befriended him. So that was a real inspiration for me. When I left the Chateau it was to take my savings and travel the world with my camera. Yousuf Karsh gave me an umbrella as a going-away gift. I was going to South-East Asia and he said, “The sun’s very strong, so you’re going to need an umbrella to block you from the light.”
So I left travelling for an entire year. You could say that I walked from Bangkok to Indonesia with my camera. That was an amazing experience. When I came back to Ottawa I hooked up with film co-ops and started making my own little films. In Ottawa, there were a lot of NGOs, and I started working for them, travelling with my camera doing little documentaries. I was also lucky enough to start working as a grip and a gaffer in the television and film industry, and I went on to do a bit of editing and camera and all sorts of things
AM: How did you end up in London, England?
JPT: I met a girl, we fell in love, and she was English, so we went to England together. I didn’t have any contacts in London, so I decided to go back to school. I went to London Film School and made some films there and one of them went to the London Film Festival. And when I got out of London Film School, I hooked up with DocFactory, which is part of a bigger organization called the Bertha Foundation. The idea of DocFactory was to make documentary films to change the world – to bring awareness to important subjects.
AM: How did you choose the subject of your film?
JPT: DocFactory put the subject on the table via a book by Ben Bagdikian, who’s an American journalist – one of the first to write about the civil rights movement in the 1950s in the United States. In the early ‘80s he wrote this book called The New Media Monopoly, which said that about 50 corporations controlled all the media and that was too small a number. He predicted that it was going to get less and less. He’s updated this book about five times. His last update was maybe eight or nine years ago, and he said there were five corporations that control the media now. And I was inspired by this book.
As we were talking about this, the Federal Communications Commission in the United States announced that they were going to have media ownership hearings across the country. So naturally we thought, “What a great opportunity for us to start researching the subject.” So I actually moved to the U.S. for a year and a half, following the conferences with my camera.
AM: What was the budget for the film?
JPT: The budget was close to a million pounds.
AM: It must have been a luxury to have a fairly large budget.
JPT: A lot of documentaries are made on an extremely low budget and I think there had been projects about the media and the media monopoly that had that raw feel to them, which is great. But I wanted to do something different – to make a feature theatrical film. Because it was about the media, I thought it was important for us to really utilize new media – new digital technology. And we use the RED camera, which is an amazing camera that takes really great images. And we also knew that to tell the stories of these corporations we needed the archives from the corporations, and that comes with a price-tag. There are a lot of different film formats in the film. There’s the RED camera, there’s HD footage, there’s 8mm black-and-white film, and there are the archives from around the world. It was a very big, multi-layered kind of project, from image to sound.
AM: The media monopoly in the United States is huge topic. How did you go about deciding which themes to focus on?
JPT: We wanted to give a history of how it came about that five corporations are controlling most of the media. So we tell that by giving you the six most important moments according to us in American media history. Then I thought that I didn’t want the film just to be a history program. What I really wanted to do was tell it from a personal angle. I thought, if we’re saying that there’s a media monopoly, why don’t we just look at how that operates on a practical level. How about we ask journalists if they’re had problems reporting the stories or approaching certain subjects.
So after a couple of years of research we had about 30 stories. To tell 30 stories would have made it a 10-hour or a 30-hour film, so we chose six. And that came about sometimes because we investigated a story and the main people in the story could not talk to us. Sometimes they were scared to talk because they wanted to protect their job, their career, their family. Sometimes it was because they had sold the rights to their story to one of the big corporations like Universal Studios or Paramount under the condition that they’re not going to talk to any other people about it. In a sense they were silenced.
AM: You have many other interviews in the film. How did you choose who to interview?
JPT: To get good information you have to get a diversity of voices, so it was important to have men and women with different backgrounds to speak in the film. I travelled the United States for about two years meeting people who have worked in independent media, who have worked in the mainstream, and who had a story to tell about the media.
Danny Glover is in the film, for example. He’s invested a lot of his time supporting independent media and media reform. And David Simon, the creator of The Wire, who works at Time-Warner for HBO doing these amazing TV series. I knew that he’s a real journalist at heart and he’s got an amazing method of really investigating subjects and investing a lot of who he is into his subjects. At the end of the day I’m quite happy with the way it turned out and I’m so happy that the contributors that we have came forward and allowed me to interview them.
AM: Probably the most high-profile interview you have is with Julian Assange. How did you go about making contact with him?
JPT: I became aware of Julian Assange, just like anyone else, through WikiLeaks, which I think is the greatest example of how information about our governments and corporations can be revealed using the most advanced communication tool that we have today – the Internet. We were making a film about the media and it became obvious that we had to have Julian Assange in the film. I mean, he’s at the head of new media, new journalism exposing difficult truths to the world in a most amazing way. When we contacted him, he was under house arrest – so it took several months of speaking to people who represent him legally and socially as well. I interviewed him in London and that went very well. You have this impression of people through the media, and then when you meet them, a lot of the time you’re just looking at a real human being. I just thought he was a really nice guy, really sweet. We had the interview, and then he had to rush home to Norfolk to abide by his house arrest.
AM: What has the reaction to your film been like so far?
JPT: The film has had film festival life that started at Hot Docs in Toronto last spring. We had our world premiere there and it was absolutely amazing. We opened up at the Bloor Cinema – it fits 700 people. There were 900 people that showed up and it was kind of amazing. So things took off from there. We got accepted in some of the biggest documentary film festivals in the world. We went to present at Sheffield International Documentary Festival, at IDFA – International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam – and a whole bunch of other festivals. There have been conferences organized in some countries around the film. In Norway, we’ve had two conferences with members of parliament and media owners, so there’s a real support behind the film and people are taking it as an opportunity to question their own media.
AM: Despite this reception around the world, you have not managed to get into a U.S. film festival. Why do you think that is?
JPT: In the United States we applied to all the big documentary film festivals and all the medium-sized ones as well. To be fair, we did get accepted at two or three small film festivals, and we did not present at those film festivals because it was important for us for the film to be seen on a bigger platform, especially for a U.S. debut. That did not happen. You get the usual letters that they’ve looked at the film, that they really enjoyed it, that they think it’s an important film. So that suggests that they support the film, but that they don’t have enough room in their film festival because they can’t show every film. All sorts of people around the film that have seen the film suggest that the reasons behind that are political. In our film we say that it’s very hard to get information into the United States and maybe we’re living out the story of our film.
AM: What kind of distribution are you getting in the U.S.?
JPT: First Hand Films in Zurich, Switzerland, represent our rights for distribution. They worked out a deal recently with Link TV, who are satellite broadcasters. Link is going to broadcast it on April 5 for the first time in the United States. It’s going to be shown at the Media Reform Conference that begins April 4 in Denver, and Link TV is going to do their broadcast coinciding with the conference. We are going to show it as well at an event called New Filmmakers L.A. I’m going to screen the film at one of the Hollywood studios on April 13, so that’s going to be its first theatrical presentation in the United States.
AM: What is your next project?
JPT: I’m just at the very early stages of research for a new film and it’s too early to say how it’s going to turn out, but my goal is definitely to make another documentary film.
Shadows of Liberty will be broadcast for the first time in the United States on Link TV on Friday, April 5 at 8 p.m. Eastern Time (5 p.m. Pacific Time). For more information about Jean-Philippe Tremblay or his film, please visit shadowsofliberty.org.