Bad Press, the new documentary from directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker (Muscogee-Creek) and Joe Peeler, isn’t yet 10 minutes along when a grim statistic flashes up on the screen: Just five of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the US have laws protecting freedom of the press.
The Muscogee-Creek tribe is among them, but that designation came at a chilling, bitter price whose high-stakes bargain is the province of Press. Viewers learn the tribe passed a free press law in 2015, then murdered it three years later amid sexual harassment, graft and other allegations against the very politicians who decided tribal -citizens shouldn’t know what they were up to.
Let’s brawl, then, came the decision from the handful of journalists who remained at Mvskoke Media, the company comprising the independent newspaper, television/digital and radio stations serving the tribe. Viewers watch much of the skirmish through the eyes of mother, cigarette aficionado and f-bomb hurling reporter Angel Ellis (Muscogee-Creek), who describes the conflict in her job thusly: “I’m reporting on stories that maybe don’t show my tribe in the best light. But do you want a friend who will lie to you and leave you walking out the door with a booger hangin’ out your nose...Or do you want a friend that will stop you and say, ‘Hey, check your face?’”
Narratively, this film is more Citizenfour than Page One: Inside the New York Times in the way it follows a chronological, stasis-tension-release arc. Denisse Ojeda’s off-center electronic score accentuates the story’s peril; interviews with tribal citizens remind us for whom the journalists work. And the parallels to larger political riptides dragging America out to sea these days are many: On losing a primary election race for Principal Chief, one of the transparency-phobic political bosses files fraud allegations and demands a recount.
The film closes on Election Night—as voters decide whether to enshrine press freedoms into the tribal constitution—with familiar scenes: pizza boxes, Mountain Dew cans and a managing editor lying on the newsroom floor, head in hands. But we can’t imagine covering an election in which our jobs are on the ballot. In the end, the Muscogee-Creek people stood up for journalism and democracy. We’re left, though, with a disquieting question: Would American voters do the same?
+Spotlights an under-covered story; rock-solid direction
-Works too hard to connect the story to U.S. events
Directed by Landsberry-Baker and Peeler
Santa Fe International Film Festival, NR, 98 min.