In the opening montage of “All Governments Lie” we can see what’s coming. Grainy nighttime images of NYC and Washington crackle with intrigue and subterfuge. A foreboding soundscape underscores the voices of the government figures we know so well. Here we have Richard Nixon proclaiming, “In all my years in public life, I have never obstructed justice – I am not a crook.” And then we have Colin Powell presenting evidence for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction asserting, “Every statement I make is backed up by solid sources,” and from another time, LBJ’s voice gravely announcing, “New hostile actions against United States’ ships in the Gulf of Tonkin,” have compelled him to take retaliatory action against North Vietnam. A compilation of government lies.
The opening sets up nicely our introduction to I.F Stone, the legendary journalist iconoclast who inspired director Fred Peabody and producer Peter Raymont’s film, All Governments Lie: Truth Deception and the Spirit of I.F. Stone. An ode to independent journalism, the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September and had its American opening at the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival in Washington DC a month later. Since then, the documentary that pokes a stick in the eye of corporate media has been scoring honors and critical acclaim from Hollywood to Helsinki.
“A damning indictment of mainstream media.” — L.A. Times.
“An urgent and fascinating documentary.” — Variety.
At once a brisk romp through the corridors of independent media and a primer on who’s who in independent journalism today, All Governments Lie is also an angry alarm bell. A gallery of stunning archival materials is woven in an out of the film’s narrative to remind us why the work of an independent press is so necessary—why adversarial scrutinizers of power are so important.
“I want this film to have something of a shelf life, particularly in journalism schools,” explains Peabody when asked why he made the film. “Because there’s a whole new generation of people who not only don’t know about IF Stone, but they don’t know about Manufacturing Consent.” Peabody says he wanted to unpack the underlying premise of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s 1988 bible of media criticism. “The thesis if I had to boil it down, would be that the mainstream corporate media in the US function as a tacit propaganda arm for powerful government and media elites. I think that book (Manufacturing Consent), even though it was written more than 20 years ago, could have been written yesterday.”
Fierce debates and discussions will be had about the themes explored in All Governments Lie, ‘a movie you can agree and argue with at the same time,’ as one Variety reviewer puts it. But just as absorbing and instructive is how Peabody, Raymont, and their collaborators got the film made. This is the story of their process.
The Spirit of I.F. Stone
Peabody was 19-years-old and still in film school in Toronto when he had a job producing radio documentaries for CBC, the Canadian public broadcaster. He made no secret of his life’s ambition– that investigative reporting was all he ever wanted to do. A colleague suggested he subscribe to I.F. Stone’s Weekly, the independent muckraking newspaper written, edited and published single-handedly by Isidor Feinstein Stone from 1953 until 1971.
When Stone was blacklisted during the McCarthy era from working for the establishment press because of his openly left-leaning politics, he started his own paper. I.F. Stone’s Weekly was dedicated to hammering governments for distorting facts and to exposing the official messaging of the day as half-truths, propaganda and, in many instances, outright lies. Stone took pride in being banned from White House press briefings which he considered nothing more than daily “brain washings.”
“I had never heard of him,” says Peabody. “I was told, the guy was an investigative reporter, but very independent, and that I was going to read stuff in there that’s completely different from what you read in the NY Times.”
Peabody started subscribing to Stone’s four-pager in 1969. “As I recall it was only 5 bucks a year. When Stone retired the newsletter I was very disappointed because there was nothing really quite like it out there.”
In 1988, Peabody landed a job as producer with 20/20, ABC’s flagship investigative news magazine. He went on to notch producer, director and writer credits with other networks making documentaries and nonfiction entertainments for such series as Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted.
After more than 20 years of making TV docs for American networks, mostly in New York and Los Angeles, Peabody returned to his hometown,Vancouver, in 2009.
“I started thinking what do I really want to do for the third act in my life. I decided I really just want to do investigative journalism,” says the Emmy Award winner.
“There’s an expression,” says Peabody, “that good journalism should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It made me think of I.F. Stone. So I started googling.”
One of Peabody’s early searches landed him on the splash page of ifstone.org, a rich web repository of Stone’s writings, speeches, archival links and reminiscences. Peabody contacted the site’s webmaster, introduced himself and shared his connection to I.F Stone’s Weekly. He broached the idea of making a film about I.F Stone.
When the e-mail reply came back, it was from I.F Stone’s son Jeremy who, as it turned out, was looking to have a film made about his father’s legacy. Jeremy Stone, who would become the film’s spiritual guide, died in January 2017, but lived to see All Governments Lie open to warm reviews at film festivals and theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
With Peabody in Vancouver and Stone in Carlsbad, California the two struck up a friendship over distance, kicked around some ideas for the film and soon decided it was time to find a producer.
“Looking around for a production company, I found Peter Raymont whom I had never met but I’d seen one of his films on TV, a documentary about journalism called ‘The World is Watching.’”
Peter Raymont, president of White Pine Pictures, an award-winning Toronto production house, wasn’t hard to sell on the project. As it turned out, Raymont had been a subscriber to I.F. Stone’s Weekly as well, and his impressive credit list included a string of award-winning films about journalism and media criticism.
“Part of my interest in making documentaries is films that help us understand how the media works,” says Raymont. “The impact of media on our lives, how news works and doesn’t work. It’s an ongoing theme in my work.”
Raymont spent his formative years as a filmmaker with the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal during the 1970s, producing, directing and editing documentary shorts. When he left the NFB to set up his own production company, Investigative Productions (now White Pine), Raymont’s first film was History On The Run, a one-hour doc that scrutinizes how four high profile journalists covered the 1979 Canadian federal election.
Raymont and Peabody hit it off and flew out to California to meet with Jeremy Stone. “He had a lot of stories,” recalls Raymont. “But as I thought about it more, the film to make was about today’s I.F. Stones—people who are working independently and keeping the spirit of IF Stone in their work.” Peabody was already on the same wavelength and Stone would eventually come around. Stone suggested Jeff Cohen, media critic, political pundit, and the founding director of the Park Centre for Independent Media at Ithaca College in New York as a possible collaborator.
Cohen, who knows many of the independent journalists ultimately featured in the film, became an invaluable resource and was asked to join the project as an executive producer. With Cohen’s help, Peabody and Raymont made a wish list of the characters they wanted to populate the film.
“So, Fred (Peabody) went out and convinced a number of working journalists to be in the film,” says Raymont: “Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Amy Goodman and also pundits like (Noam) Chomsky, Ralph Nader and former journalists like Carl Bernstein.”
Peabody explains his choices for participants– “the three criteria I tried to look for in characters for the film: independent, investigative, adversarial. And not everybody in the film has all three of those characteristics, but everybody has at least two.”
“Fundraising is all about having a good pitch package and a great sizzle reel,” says Raymont.
Jeremy Stone hooked Raymont up with someone at the Knight Foundation, an organization known for championing the First Amendment and for investing in journalism and the arts. The foundation kicked in $25,000 to fund a demo reel.
Fundraising is all about having a good pitch package and a great sizzle reel
Peabody and Raymont took a crew to shoot the 2014 Izzy Awards. Initiated by Jeff Cohen, the “Izzies” are awarded annually for “special achievement in independent media” by the Park Centre for Independent Media at Ithaca College.
“That’s how we all met,” Cohen recalls. “And soon after, I became a co-producer. Three of those honored in Ithaca in 2014 are important characters in the movie: John Carlos Frey, Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald.”
Raymont and Peabody got lucky when Greenwald and Michael Moore came through Toronto on separate business trips. Both are avid I.F. Stone fans who agreed, not only to be interviewed for the demo reel, but also to participate in the film should the project materialize. Peabody crafted an engaging sizzle reel from the Toronto interviews, the actuality and interviews from the Izzies, and from historical file footage including TV clips featuring I.F. Stone.
Peabody also wrote a treatment to anchor the package. Raymont’s advice for writing treatments is to write something that helps the reader feel like they’re watching the film, what it’s going to look like and feel like. “You have to take them through situations.” Raymont says that Peabody is good at it.
Peabody’s process was to pre-interview the various journalists he had convinced to be in the film, then go off and write scenes about it. Raymont gives an example: “In the film we followed Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone) to a Trump rally in New Hampshire during the primaries. We hadn’t shot that yet, but we assumed we would. Fred described that scene in the pitch document.”
As part of his research Peabody had read everything by and about Stone he could get his hands on including Myra MacPherson’s, All Governments Lie – The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone (2006). Raymont secured the film rights to MacPherson’s deeply researched 350-pager early on.
“If you can say to funders, I’ve optioned the rights to so and so’s book, you’re a lot further along,” says Raymont. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money. Your option expires after a year or whatever you put into your agreement so the author is not tied up with you forever.”
To complete a pitch package, says Raymont, you need a budget, a proposed financing scenario and you need the CVs of the creative team. “I think the demo reel is actually more important than what’s on paper. They’re watching, it’s visual, it’s got music and emotion. But you need both.”
Raymont raised money from both the Park and the Knight Foundation and also sold broadcast licenses to Super Channel and to Radio Canada for the French language rights. “It’s dangerous to get started unless you’ve raised most of the money, like three quarters or more. As Fred was making the film, we were still trying to raise money,” says Raymont.
Once shooting began Peabody says he wrestled with the scope of making his first 90-minute full-length feature.
“I wanted it to be partly a verité documentary. No narration, in the moment, following people doing things as much as possible,” says Peabody. “But at the same time we had a thesis that we were trying to establish. It was almost, partly, what I would call an essay documentary. Also, juggling not one character, not three characters, but like six or seven main characters. Almost anyone will tell you, don’t try to do that.”
Some of the most insightful and powerful moments of All Governments Lie are actuality scenes of journalists doing their investigative work. Peabody describes the tandem relationship he worked out with DOP John Westheuser when shooting in the participants’ inner sanctums, their offices, studios and newsrooms: “Once you’re into a verité or actuality situation you have to have a cameraman who’s thinking on his feet—who you can trust,” says Peabody. “Because, in a way, you’re not going to be directing, ‘go to a wide shot now or zoom in now’. None of that’s going to happen or you’d be totally intruding on the reality of the situation.”
Peabody says crew access to locations was easy, “because participants were really doing it for I.F. Stone. That was my secret weapon. And over the years you learn during shooting how to become part of the furniture, and they forget about you if you know how to become invisible.”
Westheuser calls it ‘the Houdini trick’. “Two guys with camera and sound gear are able to disappear! It’s actually possible if the subject is busy doing their job and are treated with respect by the crew,” says Westheuser who’s been shooting actuality since 1982. “It’s old school verité shooting. I do not tell the subjects what to do, we roll when there is something happening and pause and wait for the next bit of action or conversation. I am always listening to the audio on my buds and if I hear something that sounds important then I will start rolling and say, ‘Pardon me?’ just like in normal conversation and they most often will say it again just as they did before and the conversation between subjects will carry on. Treating the subjects with the utmost respect is probably the most important thing.”
All Governments Lie ends as it starts, with a montage: U.S. military might is on display as I.F. Stone’s cutting voice calls out famous corporate brands for their complicity in war; napalm rains down from the sky; entire villages explode; civilians from Asia to the Middle East are shown in desperate flight; Stone’s final words punctuate the film with an ironic mix of hope and bitter sarcasm, “Isn’t it wonderful that human beings can resist all this murderous technology of ours?”
Even before shooting was complete, Peabody had an idea of how his film was going to unfold, how it was going to end. “I was already arranging a structure in my mind and on paper.” He first wrote a rough, skeletal outline of the structure in point-form and then prepared a paper edit using interview transcripts and daily notes he’d scribbled directly onto call sheets after each day’s shoot.
The shooting ratio on All Governments Lie was about 40:1. All 46 hours of footage were uploaded to Vimeo. When Peabody couldn’t be in Toronto for the edit, he’d supervise it remotely via Skype and Team Viewer, the IT support software that permitted editor Jim Munro to show the director in Vancouver exactly what was on his Avid screen in Toronto. Peter Raymont spent long hours in the edit suite as well, looking at rough cuts and giving notes to help “make things flow,” says Peabody.
Committed to not using a narrator for the film, Peabody and Raymont found what didn’t flow were transitions between segments and the introduction of new characters. After eight weeks of editing, they decided that the solution was to re-interview Jeff Cohen.
“It was really a case of me in consultation with Peter Raymont and saying we could really use a bite of Jeff here talking about such and such. It’s too abrupt otherwise,” Peabody recalls. “I knew I had to keep Jeff feeling that he was doing an interview and not narrating. Nothing was scripted. I had a list of questions, but it was very much a natural spontaneous interview.”
Peabody and Raymont completed the fine cut of All Governments Lie in time to have the film showcased at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2016 where it received a standing ovation. Peabody was thrilled with the response.
“It was nice to see the audience laughing in the right places. We got five screenings at Amsterdam (IDFA doc fest). The film does seem to impact and shock audiences, and the reaction typically is “What can we do about this?”
Since TIFF, the film has enjoyed non-stop festival exposure and theatrical screenings as well as international TV sales, including to NHK in Japan, ABC in Australia and ARTE the French/German public television channel.
When asked about lessons learned from directing his first feature-length documentary, Peabody said, “As director you end up working with a lot of different people with strong opinions and they may not be part of the vision you have for the film. The most important thing, I think, is to stay true to your original vision, style and concept of the film and then fight tooth and nail to defend that, if and when it’s necessary.”
A seasoned script-to-screen television and video producer and trainer, Peter Biesterfeld is a non-fiction storyteller specializing in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.