IDFA 2018: Bellingcat
22 November 2018
Hans Pool first became aware of Bellingcat (the website for investigative journalism) after reading an article about a Dutch member of the team.
"The guy was just an ordinary citizen, and he was investigating the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17," Pool remembers. He was amazed that this ordinary man, not a foreign correspondent, was so heavily involved in research into a story that was causing such enormous political reverberations. "I was thinking, my god, this is a citizen and he is doing a crazy job... he is really close to the truth."
Pool was immediately intrigued and began planning a film about citizen journalism. The investigator was originally reluctant to meet him. After all, he operated under cloak of secrecy. However, through this Dutch source, Pool was put in touch with Elliot Higgins, the British blogger and founder of Bellingcat.
Higgins was a shy, laid-off office worker who had previously blogged under the pseudonym Brown Moses. He used social media and other openly available web sources to conduct meticulous research into his news stories. He and his followers often came up with insights that had somehow eluded the world's mainstream media. When Pool proposed the film, Higgins responded, "that's alright with me" and contacted the other main members of the organisation. They also soon agreed to participate.
"They're a little bit the same. They like to stay hours and hours behind their computers," Pool describes the personalities of Higgins and all his followers. They're mainly male (although there is a female member in Armenia). By their own admission, they can seem a little nerdy. They are a long way removed from the world of James Bond and Jason Bourne. Most have normal lives."
Given that the subjects spend much of their time sitting on their chairs, looking at their computer screens, there was an obvious challenge in making the material visually exciting. However, the stories they are investigating are always fascinating. Pool captures the adrenalin rush the Bellingcat operatives experience when they do manage to connect the dots. So much so that the director believes that the story of Bellingcat could make a fascinating fiction film.
Pool's initial focus was on the MH17, but as he started making the documentary the film's remit broadened. Produced through Submarine, the production company run by Femke Wolting and Bruno Felix, Pool has been working on it right up to the last moment, editing the final cut so he could include material about the poisoning of Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Bellingcat's journalists were able to establish that the poisoning was carried out by GRU operatives. The resulting film Bellingcat - Truth in a Post-truth World , supported by the Netherlands Film Fund, world premieres at IDFA.
Pool was happy to be working with highly respected British editor, Simon Barker, whose credits include Pussy Riot and Promised Land and who helped him to find a strong narrative thrust to the film. Dutch documentary makers, Pool suggests, sometimes become distracted by the poetic side of their material. Barker's attitude was always: "cut the crap, you have to tell a story."
The film, supported by the Production Incentive, investigates the notion of "truth" in a contemporary world in which President Trump and others are continually railing against what they call fake news and when Russian trolls are busy contaminating the trusted news sources.
"It is very important to have organisations like Bellingcat to find out about the truth," the director says of the role the organisation. Higgins and his crew can stand up stories that powerful interests would otherwise be able to dismiss as fabrications. "Democracies in the western world are really in danger," Pool declares of the ongoing battle to establish what is true and what isn't in the new freefor-all media world. Geoffrey Macnab
SEE NL Magazine #33 November 2018 / IDFA Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.