Michele Mitchell is an award-winning investigative reporter, with a broadcasting career that included stints at CNN Headline News, and on the PBS show NOW with Bill Moyers.
Filmmaking wasn’t what she had set out to do.
That didn’t stop her first documentary, “Haiti: Where Did the Money Go?” from winning the 2013 Edward R. Murrow Award for News Documentary.
Earlier this month, Mitchell was in Seattle for a screening of “The Uncondemned,” her latest production that tells the story of a group of lawyers and activists who fought to make rape a crime of war, along with the Rwandan women that agreed to testify in a mid-1990s case. SIFF Film Center hosted the screening, as part of the documentary’s current theatrical distribution. International screenings will start at the end of the month, including an appearance at the Human Rights Film Festival in Amsterdam.
The film will be broadcast on television at the end of the year (details yet to be announced).
The Queen Anne & Magnolia News sat down with Mitchell before her Seattle screening to discuss the film, and how her background in journalism has helped her as a filmmaker.
Your background is in political anchoring and journalism. How did that help as you made a transition to documentary filmmaking, and what did you end up still having to learn?
Mitchell: I’m very much an accidental filmmaker. It’s not what I set out to do. In 2010 there was this earthquake in Haiti in January, and I was taking French — which is a terrible thing to do to yourself if you are over the age of 40, don’t take French — my teacher was from Haiti, and the earthquake happened in January. In March, she went down there, came back, and she said, “Michele, if you could be in the camps at night, and hear the women cry, it would break your heart.” And I was like, “Well, what happened to all the money we donated to major charities?” And I was like, “Wait a minute. That’s what I do. I track corruption. I know how to do that.” It’s what I did for Bill Moyers. So I began to track what happened to the money that we all donated to major U.S. charities. And I did a web series, at the time I had started my own company, called “Haiti: Where Did the Money Go?” It was a six-part series, you can still find it on YouTube, and we debuted online in Jan. 2011. One of my former colleagues from PBS saw it, and he said, “You should think about doing a documentary on this,” and I was like, “Oh.” I was too naïve to know how hard it was to make these things. I was like, “Oh, so it’s sort of like long-form journalism, just longer.” We were able to get a presenting station fairly quickly, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and then all my sponsors pulled out, because they heard I was going to go after the American Red Cross. So, we inadvertently ended up crowdfunding that, and that film debuted in January of 2012, and the American Red Cross went after me, and called every public television station and told them not to run it, and they did. PBS actually ran it 1,100 times over a two-year period, and it won the Murrow Award for Best TV Documentary, and the next thing I knew I was a documentary filmmaker. I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ What really helped was that I had this strong background in writing, and I think it’s fine if you have a journalistic background as you start to go about doing a documentary, it’s often very handy because, there’s two ways of thinking about docs. There are those who are activist filmmakers, and there are those who are more journalistic, I guess you could say, and I would fall into the journalistic camp. But what’s the real critical piece is can you write a script that sustains people’s interest for 54 minutes, or 86 as it is for “The Uncondemned,” and that’s a lot. Everything I did up to that point really came in handy. Learning how to use silence, for example, I had some great mentors at CNN. They were the last of the original Murrow boys. They taught me how to use silence, they taught me how to use sound, they helped cultivate my ear for a good line, and then working with Bill Moyers, he taught me how to think about the editor when you’re conducting an interview, which is a whole other way to think about things, and also how to write that kind of script. All of that really informed making a documentary, because everything else you can hire people to help you with. I don’t know how to operate a camera, but I can hire somebody to that, and I knew the look I wanted, and I knew the different things I wanted, and really, it was all about writing. I will always tell people that. If people say, “How do I become a director?” I’m like, “Can you write? Because if you can’t, it’s going to be really hard.”
With “The Uncondemned,” was this a matter of having a topic, and needing to find the right story to tell along with it, or did the story come along on its own as a good fit?
Mitchell: We’ve all had those stories which we think are sure things, right? And they just don’t fit. In 2012, I was stuck in traffic in LA, and I heard a man on the radio say that a woman cannot get pregnant with rape, because she had a way to shut down her body. It was Todd Akin, he was running for U.S. Senate for Missouri, and I remember being really pissed off. And I was like, “That’s it, that’s it.” My first thought was the Serbs didn’t get that memo in 1994, and I was like, “That’s it, I’ve had it, I have had it with the way people talk about this. I’m going to tell a story that takes the sex out of sex crimes, and put it so firmly where it should be, which is an act of power, torture, and humiliation, that you’re never going to talk about it any other way.” And then I thought, “Well, we all know rape is bad. We all know rape and war is bad. So what’s the new thing I’m going to say that’s going to accomplish that goal,” and I was like, “Well, what if I tell a story about what to do about it?” And then it was fairly easy for me to think, “Well, what about the first time it was prosecuted? It must be prosecuted.” So I started researching, when was it prosecuted as a war crime, and I really thought it that was the FOCA case from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, that’s the tribunal that certainly received the most press coverage, it was a famous case where women were held in rape camps in Bosnia. Lots and lots of people covered it. But, after six months of researching that case, I was at the Pickford Theater in Bellingham with the Haiti documentary — they were screening it there — and I was having a glass of red wine called local red with a human rights lawyer, and she said, “What’s your next film?” and I said, “Oh, I’m going to do a film about the first time rape was prosecuted as a crime of war,” and she says, “Oh, Akeyasu,” and I was like, “Aka-what?” and she’s like, “Akayesu, that’s the case.” I’m like, “No, it’s not, it’s FOCA.” She goes, “No, it’s Akayesu, and you need to talk to Pierre Prosper,” and I’m like, “Who’s Pierre Prosper?” So maybe three days later I talk to Pierre, and I remember getting off the phone with him, and I turned to my partner Nick, who really wanted to go off and make narrative films and I was like, “I think you want to stick around, this sounds pretty good.” Really, from the first time I talked to Pierre, and I heard the story, I was like, “Oh my god, really?” It’s one of those things where I started finding everybody, and very, very few times do you ever do anything journalistic where everything’s ready to be told, and I just describe it as, that story had waited long enough, and it was ready. I feel weird talking about it as a separate entity but that’s really what it was like. I found everybody. I was in the middle of Congo, and someone was like, “Michele’s doing this film about how rape is prosecuted,” she goes, “Oh Akayesu, I was the witness escort on the airplane,” I’m like, “What?” I’m the middle of the jungle as this conversation is happening, and it just was really ready to happen. Then, it took every skill I had as a storyteller and as a journalist to factually make sure that everything was correct, because people’s memories go after 20 years, and then to figure out how to tell a really complicated story in a compressed amount of time. It is the best story I’ve had, and I’ve had thousands of really good stories. This is the best one.
What would you say the biggest challenge was in pulling it all together?
Mitchell: It took a long time to write that script. The biggest challenge was how do you do a multiple narrative where every voice is really strong and they all have this particular arc, how do you take that multiple narrative and make it work? I remember I decided to write a treatment. I had never done that before, so I told Nick [Louvel] I was going to write a treatment, and he’s like, “Great.” He was the cinematographer and editor part of our duo.
I came to him maybe three weeks later, and I gave him a stack of papers. He’s like, “What is this? I was like, “It’s the treatment.” He goes, “It’s 137 pages.” I was like, “Yeah.” He goes, “It’s supposed to be 10.” I’m like, “Oh my god, okay, I’ll get right back to you.” So it was really complicated to take this script and try to wrestle it to the ground. I wrote for four months before we ever started editing, and it was complicated. But I liked that challenge. Those are the kinds of stories I like, and they don’t happen very often. To do narrative non-fiction is so hard, because those stories don’t come along very often, you can’t force it, you just kind of have to let it do it’s thing and then you just hope you have the skill to wrestle it to the ground.
With a topic like this that’s rather sensitive, how do you go about crafting a narrative that’s respectful, but also a cohesive storyline?
Mitchell: I love this question, because you’re what really getting at is what is our responsibility as storytellers, and how do you take a situation where people were traumatized, and not further traumatize them. And I’ve done enough stories now in the developing world, in post-conflict zones, in post-disaster zones, where I have a particular standard in terms of how I conduct myself. One of the things is always approach the subject the way you would want to be approached. For example, I never asked the women in the film what happened to them. I know they were raped, because they testified. I actually read their testimony, so I do know what happened, but I never asked them to tell me, and the reason is because I knew someday, I would be sitting in a movie theatre with them and I didn’t want to be sitting next to them having the worst thing that ever happened to them play out again. And I didn’t want that to be the only thing the world knew about them, because I wouldn’t want that to be the only thing the world knew about me. So you start from a standpoint of basic dignity and how you would want to be treated. And it is a little bit of a different approach, because a lot of times as journalists, we parachute in and kind of jump on out, and one of the things I started with the Haiti documentary is I went back to the camps with the film, the day before it was airing in the U.S. on public television stations, I showed it in the camps where I had filmed, because I wanted them to see it first. I’ve maintained that credo with “The Uncondemned.” The ladies saw that film before anybody else ever did. Not so they could give their stamp of approval, but because it’s like, before the rest of the world sees you, let’s have you take a look at this. It’s really, really important when you’re dealing with people who have been through trauma to approach it with respect and dignity. That situation is very tricky, you don’t know when you’re going to trigger something, and when you trigger it, in my case I just kind of back off, if I see the look cross their face. And then the question becomes, okay, how do we now tell a story about something that people don’t really want to hear about, and I remember very clearly this moment. I was in Congo — because I did a lot of research before we ever shot anything — I was in a hospital where there were a lot of women who had been raped repeatedly by these militias, and they were really injured, waiting for their surgery. And I remember standing there, it was a really traumatizing visit for me, it’s not only the rapes, they also were disfigured and maimed and all these other terrible things that were happening out there. Just to realize that people could be so cruel to each other was shocking to me. But I remember standing in the ward, and I wasn’t even taking notes, I was just talking with them. This one young woman, I will never forget her face, she asked me, “Does the world really want to hear our story?” And I said, “No. The world does not. But I promise you I’m going to find a way that they will want to hear it.” And so the challenge was, well, what’s that? And I was like, it’s very simple, do a legal thriller. Everybody likes a legal thriller, and it just lent itself so well to being a legal thriller, and ultimately as I was working on this story it really became this tale of redemption in a lot of ways. Redemption for the lawyers, redemption — there was one woman in the movie who finds out 20 years later that her memo that she thought had been killed was the key part that won the case — redemption for her, it’s redemption for the women who testified, and that idea that we can change the world and may not know about it for a while is very powerful, and it’s a story of hope, and it’s also a classic good versus evil story. It’s all those things as a storyteller that you really want to have. But of course it’s about this terrible, terrible thing that happens every day. As you and I are having this conversation, it’s happening in many, many places around the world. Again, the trick is you tell that story that makes you want to watch.
“Haiti: Where Did the Money Go?” was crowdfunded. Was this also crowdfunded?
Mitchell: Yes, we have over 7,000 donors. This is like Haiti on steroids. In fact, there’s a group of young women here in Seattle that raised our graphics budget. They read about us in an article, contacted me last month, what can we do, and I was like, “Really?” They made t-shirts, and they threw a fundraiser, and they raised the money that we needed for the graphics, and then they came to the premiere. Our red carpet premiere was on Oct. 19 at the United Nations. There was 700 people there, including this group of young women from Seattle, so that was cool.
What has been the response from audiences when they see this film?
Mitchell: It’s been nothing short of magical. As an artist, it’s incredibly gratifying when people are like, “Oh my god, I cannot stop thinking about that film.” It’s great. And I like the fact that people feel inspired by it, and think that it’s possible to go out there and change the world. People walk out pumped up, and that’s great. I think that, again, bad things happen in the world, but also something really good can come out of something really horrible. The world got it really wrong in 1994, epically wrong, but in 1997, humanity got it right, and isn’t that great, and if we’ve done it before we can do it again, and I don’t think we can hear that message enough, especially now.
What comes next for you?
Mitchell: I wanted to do a story about surfing, I thought that’d be fun. But then, this election happened, and I’ve had really good training from some really good people over the years, and I’m going to have to start paying attention to what’s going on. The propensity for things to go really horribly wrong — I’m a registered lower case I independent, but I don’t trust these guys, so it’s game time. Let’s go. There are some stories I was kicking around, and I just pushed them all to the side, because I thought, you know, I’m going to start paying attention to what’s going on over here, so we’ll see.
My partner Nick died in a car accident last year, and so, it’s interesting for me now to sort of figure out who do I want to work with, and there’s some really great filmmakers and journalists here in Seattle that I’m talking with, so hopefully a lot of different things. I can honestly tell you, doing a feature documentary is just so hard. I felt like I was doing the hammer throw and the high jump at the same time just to get this out, and now it’s out and I’m like, great, but it was a lot of stress, and I can honestly tell you that doing this particular topic was also really hard. No one told me that vicarious trauma is a thing, and you do suffer from talking to people and being up to your eyeballs with this stuff. So I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that was really hard to deal with. I don’t know if I could go down the rabbit hole of sexual abuse, sexual assault. It’s a really hard, dark place to be. Some people have been like, oh you should do human trafficking. I can’t do human trafficking.
There’s always a social justice story that needs to be told. I’m not going to be short of material.
So after you do a documentary like this, there’s a need for a cooling off period to just step back?
Mitchell: Nick died in the middle of it, and I had to finish the film, and it was just the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, was holding it together, holding that group together, continuing raising the money, finishing the film trying to figure out how in the world I was going to finish it without it. And it was a whole skillset I didn’t know. I mean, I had never done all that stuff, that was all Nick’s job, so just to get through the last year has been really, really tough, and so it feels really good to be out on the other side, and the film has gotten such great reviews, and it’s been such a nice response, so it’s great just to be on the other side of all that, because it was hard. I feel like I’ve walked through fire for three years, but now there’s nothing that you can do to freak me out. Seriously, there’s nothing that freaks me out.