Baltimore activist Kevin Moore and videographers of police brutality are the subject of a new documentary premiering this month.
Moore is the witness that filmed on his phone the moments before Freddie Gray disappeared into the back of Baltimore Police Department detainee transport van. While in police custody, Gray later sustained fatal injuries during what has been termed a “rough ride.” Despite indictments by Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, after a series of not guilty findings, all charges have been dropped against all the officers last to see Gray alive. While several of the police officers are still facing internal disciplinary proceedings, the Justice Department recently announced that it would not be bringing federal charges against any of the officers.
Moore is not alone, and as part of an organization called We Copwatch, he along with David Whitt, a videographer that recorded the police and community response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Ramsey Orta, the videographer that recorded the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and Jacob Crawford, a documentarian who has been recording police encounters under the Copwatch banner for the past 15 years.
The documentary “Copwatch” is an assemblage of the individual works of Moore, Whitt, Orta and Crawford with original footage from the crew of Camilla Hall, the film’s director and a former Financial Times reporter.
The phone cameras used, without the assistance of telephoto lenses, allow the production to be “able to have that intimacy of what it’s like to be alone in a copwatch,” Hall told the AFRO. “Even though we really pared down our crew, that was something so valuable that we were able to get from all the different cameras.”
While putting the viewer in close proximity with the observer, it also puts the viewer in often uncomfortable closeness with law enforcement. In a gut wrenching opening, moving from the immediate aftermath of the death of Brown, to the strangulation of Garner and then to the agonized screams of Gray, each subsequent and comparatively peaceful police encounter creates a feeling that further violence could break out at any moment.
Police officers loom large in the frame, and never look down into cameras, giving an impression of disinterested giants barely able or willing to communicate with the activists asserting their First Amendment rights and asking for space to work. Real alienation sets in moments where officers advance slowly on the camera repeating orders and ignoring questions. The work appears emotionally exhausting.
Hall doesn’t foresee the expanding implementation of police body cameras lightening the load any time soon.
“Body cameras, I think they’re a good thing,” said Hall. “But I don’t think they are the same as cop watching. Unfortunately, we find many instances where the body cameras are turned off at a critical moment, we find moments where incredibly terrible things have happened and the police departments won’t release that video.”
In August, a number of Baltimore drug cases were dismissed after it was discovered a BPD officer may have been manipulating his body camera recordings.
Executive produced by TJ Martin and Daniel Lindsay, “Copwatch” takes a lot of cues from Martin and Lindsay’s April release “LA 92.” The allusions to “I can’t breathe” in the latter work are put front and center in Hall’s piece and the emphasis on archived-if only recently-footage place it firmly into the similar aesthetic of cinema verite.
Also, both end on fraught and perilous notes. Legal troubles haunt Orta and Moore in what the film positions as acts of retaliation. While Copwatch ends with the team acquiring a new headquarters and cutting-edge equipment, yet it’s unclear where all this will lead.
Five of the six officers indicted in the death of Freddie Gray now face internal BPD disciplinary charges.
Ramsey Orta is currently incarcerated in Rikers Island and may not be released until 2019.
“Copwatch” is slated for limited release starting Sept. 22. It will screen in Los Angeles, Harlem, Chicago and other cities until it wide video-on-demand release on Sept. 29.