Filmmaker Camilla Hall is a White woman from the United Kingdom who is quick to admit that growing up, she was mostly protected from the social and political strife that plagues much of the world. As a journalist-turned-documentarian, she has chosen to spend her adult life examining society’s many ills in hopes of creating healing and understanding.
Camilla first served as a journalist in the Middle East and New York City before producing her latest doc, Copwatch, which follows regular American citizens who spend their time following and recording police activity. The film’s subjects include Ramsey Orta, who filmed the NYPD’s murder of Eric Garner, and Kevin Moore, who’s recording of Freddie Gray‘s arrest helped spark protests in Baltimore and across the country.
After being targeted by police because their videos went viral, both men have joined the group We Cop Watch, a non-violent community organization that observes cops, attempts to deescalate dangerous situations and informs the public about their rights when dealing with police. Copwatch follows the team and shows how their attempts to hold police accountable for their brutality has made them targets of law enforcement themselves.
Orta — ironically, the only person on the scene of Eric Garner’s murder who faced any legal consequences — has been ruthlessly harassed by the NYPD and is now facing multiple charges as punishment for posting his video online.
To learn more, GlobalGrind talked to Copwatch’s award-winning director, who’s worked previously with the Financial Times and has been featured by the New York Times, USA Today and Mashable. Below, Hall explains the mixed reviews she’s received from different audiences, her motivation for covering the cop watching movement, and why she believes St. Louis is comparable to some of the war zones she witnessed while covering the Middle East.
Questions by CoupCoup40Cal:
GG: How did your background lead to you telling this story?
CH: My background is in journalism. I was a journalist for seven years. I reported in the Middle East for five years, and then I reported in New York City… I was looking at the issue of police militarization and police brutality, and I came across the articles about Kevin and Ramsey getting arrested shortly after they filmed their videos.
I had a call with a professor of criminology, an ex-police officer, and he basically just said to me, “Yeah, it was like standard. If somebody messed with us and filmed us or was annoying us in that way, we’d just go back and we’d figure out if there were any warrants on this person, if there was a parking ticket or a traffic stop we could use against them.”
There was this idea that people weren’t necessarily being arrested for filming, but they were being hassled in ways after. And Ramsey talks (in the film) about a light being shined in his apartment. These kind of like small levels of harassment, and I guess in hearing that from the ex-cop directly, that was really the first thing where I was just like, “That’s really, really fucked up, and really crazy.” And so I basically went about trying to interview Kevin and Ramsey.
I was really happy when I saw you were looking into Ramsey’s case. I read a little about how he was being harassed in the past, but wanted to know more. It was important to see just how far the police have gone to punish him for doing the right thing.
Honestly, when I saw Ramsey Orta’s story, it shocked me that nobody was covering it. I didn’t understand why nobody was filming or reporting that story through film. It just seemed like such an important thing to follow and know what was gonna happen.
We just took our time to get to know these guys. This is a highly secretive group who are very concerned about surveillance and infiltration. They have a number of cyber attacks and other things that they face. They really put me through the paces. So I had to earn my right to be there. And I think our very first shoot, they invited me to St. Louis to the new headquarters that they’d purchased, and the first ten days, we had no electricity, no water.
We were using the restroom outside of the house in the middle of the night, and that house had gun shots ringing out all night, every night. They basically tested me. They wanted to know if I was ready to hit the streets with them, go out on the cop watches, put myself in danger to tell the story.
That was a big part of what led to the trust. And throughout the course of that year… we found ourselves in very frightening situations. And we didn’t always put that in the film… There’s whole scenes where we’re in the midst of 45 shots being rung out. And it’s all very exciting, VICE-type footage. But the film was never about us.
How are America’s issues with racism and police brutality different than what you witnessed growing up in the U.K.?
It’s definitely different in the U.K. At the end of the day, racism exists in every country — that’s the starting point. And I have never even grown up as a Black person in England, so I can’t tell you how it would feel. I’ve definitely read a lot about it and spoken to friends. But the one main difference between the U.K. and the U.S. is the level of guns that you find. The level of gun crime, but also the way in which the police are armed in America. So you have different crimes that are being dealt with, but also different approaches to how to solve those crimes.
For me, arriving in St. Louis, in an open-carry state. I haven’t grown up around guns. And seeing guns everywhere was very insane for me. It really was like, “this is something so different and this is why I need to document this… In the U.K., the police are far from perfect, but it did feel from what I’ve seen is that there is this level of de-escalation and much more of a reliance on dialog at the beginning of an interaction that did not escalate the situation.
If your film could have any affect on American society, what do you hope to see change?
It’s that very first verbal interaction, like you see in the movie, it’s these derogatory terms being used from the very initiation of a police interaction. The thing I feel most strongly about is trying to change that very first interaction. Bringing respect to that first interaction and a level of innocence until proven guilty.
There was a video that came out of a guy in a subway station in England. He was like waving this sword around, and you see the video, and the cops are just there trying to talk him down. He would have been shot within two minutes — he wouldn’t be alive in America. There’s this real feeling [in the U.K.] of trying to deescalate situations without using force, but at the same time, things are changing. Because the U.K. looks to America. We look to the U.S. as kind of a model and there’s a lot of collaboration there. So I hope the U.K. doesn’t go too far in that direction.
I think in terms of the level of racism, the U.K. is very similar. It’s not discussed in the same way as in America, and I think there’s strong, important debate that’s happening here but I’m not sure it’s quite as strong in the U.K. right now.
How did reporting in St. Louis compare to the work you did in the Middle East?
In all my time in the Middle East, I wasn’t reporting on the front line, I have to say, but I did travel a lot in the region; and St. Louis is a war zone. I felt like every American should go to St. Louis just to understand. We know about Baltimore from The Wire, and Chicago [from the news], but St. Louis was somewhere that the racism was just so apparent. And the division of wealth and the level of violence that families and people were living through on a daily basis. Like, to have to go to sleep every night hearing gunshots, that’s in America.
That really genuinely blew my mind. That this was a war zone in the middle of the country… Racism seems very much entrenched. There’s one street, the Del Mar Divide, and on one side there’s mansions and billion dollar houses, and on the other is some of the most extreme poverty that you could see in America. And just the proximity of these things is truly astonishing.
It was this constant anxiety, constantly being on edge and never being able to drop down that guard for a minute. And the mental impact that has on a person is so intense.
The film transfers that constant state of stress to viewers who may never have dealt with it. People who don’t know the feeling of being pulled over and fearing for your life. Variety‘s negative review of Copwatch seems to be from the perspective of someone who’s never dealt, but also has no interest in engaging with the topic. How did you feel reading that review and how will it affect future promotion?
I think this comes down to what happens if you don’t have diversity in the media, and you don’t have diversity in the executive ranks of these distribution companies. While that Variety review speaks to [the critic’s] audience and his type of people, unfortunately, it’s still White male executives who are dominating the industry. So unfortunately, those are the people who are making the decisions of whether everyone else gets to see these films or not.
That review, it’s not actually important at all to the people who would actually see my film, but it’s so important to the companies making the decisions. All these people in these companies who loved the film and have to push it up to the CEO for final sign-off, that’s the first thing that the CEO looks at. “Oh, well Variety says it’s bad, so however much you guys think this has a market, at the end of the day, I think these things have such a specific affect on distributors.” And more [representation] in the film press and in the Hollywood distribution companies, that’s what’s really gonna change things… But one review is not gonna kill this film, we’re definitely gonna keep fighting.
Did the Variety review differ from the feedback you got at screenings?
The thing that I found in all of these screenings was we had this heartfelt, warm, moved response to the film, and a lot of empathy for the situations that are unfolding. And even last night, I had somebody come up to me who said, “I was assaulted by the police. I was beaten physically by the police for no reason, and just being able to see that story being told is so important to me.”
So as much as there might be that Variety idea of somebody sitting in Connecticut, a White guy who never has to think about or experience any of the issues, I think there’s a whole other demographic of people who want to learn more (and) want to hear other voices that are not just representative of themselves.
Whenever I read a bad review, I remember how the New York Times reviewed Beyonce’s first album. The headline was: “The Solo Beyoncé: She’s No Ashanti.” Look at how things have gone since then and remember that most critics are just assholes who aren’t ashamed of sharing their shitty opinions.
It’s just really sad that somebody like that could have so much impact on the potential distribution of the film. Because, really what I’ve seen in screenings is this sheer relief to see some other voices on screen; and voices that are not necessarily perfect. And one of the things that I also kind of felt was that people say the film is kind of frustrating. And the reality is frustrating. And that is the exact emotion that I’m trying to put across with the film. It kind of feels like everyone wants this perfect group of people with a happy ending and five goals that they achieved, and that’s not the reality of the activist movement.
I think the sad thing, and one of the things that really stood out to me was the adjectives he used. Every time he had a chance to give a negative like a negative slant — like calling David an “impromptu activist,” and everything was “sketchy” — it almost went to me as far as he might as well have just called all these guys thugs.
That was the feeling that I felt running through the piece. And I think what was so interesting is at the same time, he critiqued the things I made sure we kept in. So we did keep in a scene where there’s a Cop Watch, and Ramsey and Kevin are kind of antagonistic; And they’re angry. And I chose to put in that scene. Because I think it’s important. I’m not saying these guys are perfect. I’m showing, that yeah there’s anger. And that anger comes from somewhere.
Jacob, from We Cop Watch, gave a great statement to me. He said, “Look, that guy had to think about us for at least like five hours. He had to think about us. That’s great.”
What would you say to Americans who feel their exceptional way of life justifies living in this sort of society? Guys like the Variety reviewer who rationalize the blatant racism and brutality because they do not want to examine how they are benefitting from this social order?
In life you come across people who want to listen, want to learn and want to become better people by learning about others, and you come across people who just have their fingers in their ears. I think the only way to be a better person is to try to learn about other people and other peoples’ experiences. I just think ignorance is an incredibly dangerous state of mind. For the security of the country, for the future of the country. I think if you kind of bury your head in the sand and ignore some of these issues, it’s gonna come back to you. It’s that idea of exceptionalism, and we have the same attitude in the U.K., but it’s that same feeling of “these things would never happen to us,” (that is dangerous).
I lived in a lot of countries where people lived under dictators and authoritarian governments. And those people never imagined a day when those rulers would be taken out of power. Living in Egypt and knowing people in Egypt, nobody talked about politics. There was never a moment where people were saying, “Let’s get rid of Mubarak. Let’s have something different.” And then all of a sudden things changed and there was a revolution in that country. And I think if people are not willing to understand how entrenched some of these problems are, you can face a violent future in this country.
Follow the director, the film and the We Cop Watch movement for more updates on the cop watching movement.