I never went to film school and I never went to journalism school. Instead, about 20 years ago, I picked up a camera and dove headfirst into making my first documentary. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to make films. I’ve seen my independent documentaries receive national primetime broadcasts, critical acclaim, dozens of awards — even some decent paychecks.

So, perhaps the doubts that rattle around in my head about my place among filmmakers and journalists are unfounded. Maybe I just have a classic case of imposter syndrome.

After all, I typically produce, direct, edit, and shoot my films. Yet, even so, I sometimes wonder what I may have missed by skipping school. Would it be valuable to be part of a cohort of documentarians? What could I gain if I had more opportunities to reach out to professional peers and work with them as collaborators?

Is there a way to know if I’ve missed a turn somewhere? How do I ensure I’m not forging full steam ahead down the wrong track?

It turns out I am not alone. Most artists ask themselves some version of these questions.

Moreover, as filmmaking tools have become more accessible, the documentary community has widened. Nowadays, tinkerers, artists, self-taught filmmakers and others with little or no prior journalism experience make many successful documentaries.

The problem

One obvious benefit of this broader community is that documentary filmmaking now includes a wider range of styles and points of view. However, veteran journalists like Lowell Bergman have noticed that many of these documentaries have lacked journalistic rigor. As a result, they (perhaps unknowingly) blurred the line between journalism and advocacy.

Bergman saw this trend and decided to do something about it. Best known for his work investigating and exposing Big Tobacco as a producer for “60 Minutes”, Bergman worked for many years a producer and correspondent for Frontline. His role was later dramatized in the 1999 major motion picture “The Insider”.

Bergman received numerous Emmys, Peabodys, and other awards for his hard-hitting work. He is now the Reva and David Logan Distinguished Chair at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. There, he founded the Investigative Reporting Program (IRP), and most recently, its independent production company, Investigative Studios (see below).

The solution

With support from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and ABC News, Bergman and IRP director John Temple launched a crash course intended to give independent filmmakers a boost in journalism know-how.

According to Bergman, while “independent filmmaking is flourishing,” the documentary form demands higher standards. In Bergman’s words, “Documentaries can be undermined if filmmakers don’t bulletproof their stories against powerful critics or opponents.” Thus, Bergman stresses the need to elevate the journalistic practices of independent filmmakers.

Of course, there are other workshops, labs, fellowships, and conferences that also offer guidance to documentary filmmakers. Highly regarded existing programs include Sundance’s Documentary Film Program, Film Independent’s Documentary Lab, and the International Documentary Association’s Master Classes. However, the IRP Professional Workshop for Independent Documentary Filmmakers is one of a kind. It is the only program centered on applying the best practices of investigative journalism to documentary film.

I applied the moment I heard about the workshop and participated in its inaugural edition.

The workshop

The workshop begins as any event for starving artists should—with wine, beer and a good meal. Then, during dinner on opening night, each participant introduces his or her project. After some brief remarks and a trailer or scene from their work-in-progress, the process begins.

Twelve filmmakers are selected for each installment of the program. This creates a relatively intimate format that allows each participant to explore questions and challenges particular to their current project. Over drinks and dinner, we also meet the workshop instructors and, to put it simply, they are an impressive bunch.

Instructor Lowell Bergman at the workshop.

In addition to Bergman and Temple (former managing editor at The Washington Post), they include consummate professionals. Present are folks like Kerry Smith, Senior Vice President for Editorial Quality at ABC News, and Gary Bostwick, one of California’s leading media and entertainment attorneys. In addition, our advisors include Dawn Porter, acclaimed director of the documentaries, “Gideon’s Army” and “Trapped.”

The filmmakers

The filmmakers come to Berkeley from all over the US, attracted in part by the intensive two-day format. This condensed schedule makes it more feasible for out-of-town filmmakers than an occasional class or a weekly lab. In various iterations of the workshop, the topics tackled by the filmmakers are as varied as they are consequential. While one filmmaker investigates patterns of sexual assault on a prestigious college campus, another filmmaker is creating a portrait of whistleblowers exposing corruption at the Office of Veterans Affairs.

And there is another work-in-progress on the possible lynching of Lennon Lacey, a 17-year-old African-American found hanging from a tree in North Carolina in 2014. This project became the framework for filmmaker Jacqueline Olive’s film “Always in Season,” winner of a Special Jury Award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Still from “Always in Season”.

I am making a partially dramatized documentary about a diary that was first found in the ashes of Auschwitz. Admittedly, none of us is making the feel-good movie of the summer.

Over coffee the next morning, however, we find comfort in chatting with colleagues. Our mentors are deeply engaged in bringing challenging stories to light. We can confide in them. Since many of us may be dealing with confidential or sensitive sources, the workshop operates under Las Vegas rules. What is said at the workshop stays at the workshop.

The author, Yoav Potash, at the workshop.

With this understanding, for the next two days we dive into a variety of topics. These range from the fast-changing documentary marketplace to legal obstacles and confrontational interviews. Throughout these sessions, we bombard the instructors with questions from our own works-in-progress. This process enables us to apply lessons to our specific situations.

How to bullet-proof a documentary

Common themes emerge over the course of this process. For example, the expectation that our work will be judged by the standards of journalism, even if we view ourselves as artists or storytellers. This is a common thread of our discussion that weaves its way into various specific take-aways of the workshop.

Don’t fall in love

Kerry Smith warns filmmakers against “falling in love” with subjects or sources. She advises taking steps to protect their films from the critique that their approach is one-sided. “I’m kind of obsessed with it,” Smith admits. “It can really protect you and your work if you include substantial comment from the other side with appropriate context.”

Don’t follow the crowd

Bergman points out that examining a story from a different angle can lead to an investigative scoop. To describe what it can be like when many journalists all cover the same story in the same way, he offers the metaphorical example of a group of children playing soccer. All the children huddle around one ball, trying to kick it. “But the real story,” Bergman says, “may be way down at the other end of the field.”

He cites the McMartin Preschool case as an example. Initially reported as a story of rampant child sex abuse, Bergman later produced a two-part segment for “60 Minutes,” which exposed the case as a fraud. In truth, prosecutors and phony experts had coached children into fabricating accounts of abuse.

Be proactive on legal matters

With a touch of humor, Gary Bostwick offers a primer on many practical legal issues that documentarians encounter in their daily work. His presentation includes what does and does not constitute defamation or an invasion of privacy, how to handle leaked documents and protecting yourself from lawsuits.

“Saying, They probably won’t sue,” he advises us, “is like saying, I know there’s a landmine out there, but I probably won’t step on it.” Helpfully, he highlights not only the common legal risks faced by documentary filmmakers, but prompted by our questions, Bostwick digs into situations particular to each of our projects.

A community of creators

As a peer group, we also help one another in areas where we are familiar. Having filmed extensively in California prisons for one of my earlier films, I offer guidance to a filmmaker now documenting hunger strikes in those same penitentiaries. Another filmmaker, in turn, offers me some off-the-beaten path tips for locating archival footage.

Benefits of attending

The two information-packed days fly by quickly. Workshop participants, however, receive the benefit of an association with the IRP for an entire year. This ongoing relationship acts as a seal of approval as we seek support for our films. It also opens the door for filmmakers to reach out to the instructors with additional questions as they arise.

Filmmaker Jackie Olive now describes her workshop experience with the rough cut of “Always in Season” as a helpful step towards completing her award-winning film.

“I had a professional background in TV news,” Olive says, “but that format is so short that it’s rare to have a chance to do truly investigative work. So the workshop provided a refresher and a specific set of tools to help me take what had been covered mostly in theory in journalism school, and to put it into practice on the ground.”

Olive recalls, for example, that she was a bit stumped as to how to find a police officer willing to go on-camera for her film. At the suggestion of workshop instructors, Olive reached out to African-American churches to see if they could introduce her to current or retired officers— and the strategy worked, landing Olive the information she hoped to find.

As for myself, I emerge from the workshop recharged. I have been reminded not just of the ethics of good journalism, but also of the many reasons upholding those ethics leads to better filmmaking. In today’s documentary world — which can seem either cluttered or abundant depending on your outlook — I have a better sense of the opportunities and challenges in play.

I have been reminded not just of the ethics of good journalism, but also of the many reasons upholding those ethics leads to better filmmaking.

Thus, I return to the solitude of my home office, but I now have a lifeline that I can tap into when I find myself either at a dead end, or simply at a point where it would be helpful to hear a wise and objective voice verify that I am on the right track.

Beyond the Workshop: Investigative Studios launches new production model with feature doc “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?”

Investigative Studios, a new nonprofit production company affiliated with UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program (IRP), is uniting award-winning career journalists and journalism students to produce original, multi-platform investigative stories for national and international audiences. The company’s first independent theatrical feature film, “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?” investigates the deadly accident rate associated with the US military’s 53E helicopter, revealing misaligned incentives in the defense establishment that threaten the very lives of those dedicated to protecting our country.

Lt. Van Dorn

The gripping and heartbreaking doc took home an Audience Award after its Mill Valley Film Festival premiere late last year and continues its festival and theatrical rollout in 2019.

An experiment in investigative journalism

“Van Dorn” is the first feature documentary produced and directed by Zachary Stauffer, but since 2009, Stauffer has had a hand in IRP’s television productions, which have been broadcast by Frontline, PBS NewsHour, NBC News, and other outlets. With the advent of Investigative Studios, Stauffer and other reporters affiliated with the IRP can now develop and produce multi-platform independent journalism projects without having to wait for a green light from PBS — or anyone else.

Production image of Zachary Stauffer.

This proved crucial for “Van Dorn,” which — like many great films — was turned down by a number of potential backers. Investigative Studios’ own small war chest allowed the film to go into production nonetheless.

“This is a unique experiment,” says Lowell Bergman, who worked with the University of California at Berkeley for over three years to structure and establish Investigative Studios. “It allows a public university to become a generator of reliable investigative reporting on all platforms—print, radio, TV, streaming, film, podcast, you name it.”

The arrangement also allows for Investigative Studios to retain creative and financial control of its productions, and to bring in revenue by licensing its work to broadcasters, streaming companies, and other TV and news outlets. The new company also benefits from its association with UC Berkeley, including use of the world-class university’s imprimatur and an expansion of the teaching-hospital model already in place at the university’s Graduate School of Journalism, known to students and faculty simply as “the J-School.”

Story origins

Fittingly, the story of “Van Dorn” originated with a J-School student. In 2014, Jason Paladino — then a fresh face at UC Berkeley — learned that one of his former high school classmates had perished during a US Navy training exercise off the coast of Virginia. His investigation began with a simple question: “Why did my friend die?”

That question took on greater significance in the years that followed, as Paladino teamed up with Stauffer and others to dig into the facts. Paladino collaborated with print reporter Mike Hixenbaugh, who covered the military beat for the Virginia-Pilot newspaper, to produce a series of hard-hitting newspaper stories that questioned the many accidents and deaths associated with the 53E helicopter. The IRP helped expand the collaboration to include the NBC investigative unit, which relied on Paladino and Hixenbaugh’s reporting for a four-minute Nightly News story on the aircraft. In late 2015, Stauffer, Paladino and Hixenbaugh began talking about how they could explore bigger questions in a documentary, and they soon began gathering footage for the film that would become “Van Dorn.”

At the heart of it

The film’s namesake is Lt. Wes Van Dorn, the fallen US Navy Pilot of the chopper that also killed Paladino’s friend, Petty Officer Brian Collins. As the film reveals through Van Dorn’s tattered green notebook, audiotapes, text messages, and other documents preserved by his widow, the pilot had grave concerns about the aircraft and the management of the entire program around it.

Stauffer’s exploration of these documents takes the viewer down a rabbit hole that leads to a stark exposé of misaligned incentives in the defense industry. This concept comes to life in the film’s animated treatment of “the iron triangle,” an arrangement in which military leaders, elected officials, and defense contractors all trade power and wealth, regardless of the financial cost to the American taxpayer and the human cost for the military’s rank and file.

Audience reception

Stauffer is proud to have made a film that can appeal to any audience, regardless of their politics. Audiences have been deeply moved by the film—whether it’s been with a deeply conservative audience at a military base, or an intensely liberal audience at a Bay Area film festival like Mill Valley. The producer/director described how even a close member of his own family went into seeing the film with preconceived notions about members of the military, but after the film admitted to “having had it all wrong.”

The “Van Dorn” project extends beyond the film itself, allowing for multi-platform distribution opportunities. Most recently, Investigative Studios partnered with Reveal, the award-winning investigative radio and podcast program, to produce a compelling hour-long episode that relies on the film’s production audio.

A foundation in journalism

The investigative approach of the entire endeavor echoes the same journalistic values that Bergman and other veteran journalist have worked to impart through all the activities of the IRP, including its Professional Workshop for Independent Documentary Filmmakers (see above). These standards — which may seem old-fashioned to those who rely on social media as a primary source of information — include ruthless fact-checking, unbiased reporting, and a strong drive to find and tell a completely original story. To that end, Investigative Studios considers story pitches and investigative leads from anyone, whether they are affiliated with the J-School or not.

“We try to do stories no one else is doing,” Bergman explains. “But the real conundrum is how do you restore people’s faith in mass media? We are living through a period where the President has declared we are the “enemy of the people,” and we hope that this film helps reassure people that nothing could be further from the truth.”

In this context, the value of Investigative Studios may be in its capacity to stand out from all the noise with accounts that are as unimpeachable and as riveting as “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?”



Yoav Potash is an award-winning filmmaker whose films include the Sundance premiere documentary “Crime After Crime,” now streaming on Amazon Prime (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B079WMRCPC), and “Food Stamped,” available on iTunes. He is currently producing and directing “Diary from the Ashes,” a film about the long-lost Holocaust diary of Rywka Lipszyc, and “The Remembered,” about Polish-Jewish relations as revealed through the story of one small town.