"Bad Press" is, on the surface, a documentary about a community of 89,000 First Nation people, an independent media company that covers the local news, and a whole lot of small-town politics.
Five minutes it, I was already hooked — because this film is actually about so much more.
The politics and corruption exposed in "Bad Press" are very much a microcosm of the state of journalism in a post-Trump America. This is not obvious at first; the documentary begins with a discussion about Indian country, and how Free Press is not a protected right according to the self-governing laws of most Native American communities (obviously, it is a protected right in the U.S. — for now). According to the documentary, of the 574 federally recognized tribes, only 5 have laws protecting free press — and these laws are legislative, not constitutional, meaning they can be repealed by a council at any time via a vote. This is essentially what happened to Mvskoke Media: after the paper exposed scandals that reflected poorly on some council members, the National Council repealed their Free Press Act, and the once-independent newspaper was placed under the direction of the Secretary of the Nation and Commerce, who dictated what the journalists were allowed to print. Mvskoke Media risks becoming a propaganda machine.
What follows is a fascinating fight between the journalists wanting to do their jobs, the council members who very much don't want that to happen, the members of the community invested in having political transparency, and third-party dissenters who are critical of Mvskoke Media for largely unrelated reasons. As an election approaches threatening the status quo, the Muscogee Nation morphs into a vignette of the political culture wars that have raged across America over the last few years — complete with protests, claims of election fraud, and demands of a recount, all while wanna-journalist "bloggers" release conspiratorial think pieces about how the "real" issue is Mvskoke Media paying unreasonably high salaries. It's a complex web of distrust and disinformation and it very much feels like a warning bell for the country at large.
An Contemporary American Indian Story We Can All Relate To
I was on the edge of my seat watching "Bad Press." And it's not because I'm just that invested in Mvskoke Media (although the documentary does an excellent job of making you care about the journalists' plights) — it's because this is a human interest story, and you can't help but care about what happens to this community. Admittedly, I'm a small-town gal at heart, and I've been in involved in similar local media institutions. Perhaps that's why in the end, I wept.
The documentary is directed by Rebecca Landsberry-Baker, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation and the executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, and Joe Peeler, an established documentary filmmaker (according to Sundance). The collaboration presents the best of both worlds: we get a perspective on the Indigenous community that's honest, empowering, and relatable, but the documentary itself has the style and energy you'd expect from Netflix or even HBO. I try to go into festival documentaries with pretty low expectations for production value, but I was pleasantly surprised by how polished and tight "Bad Press" is. Not only is the actual cinematography and direction strong, but the pacing is exciting, and there are tons of little tricks and artistic flourishes that really elevate the documentary — like a shot of an open pizza box to frame the passage of time (because more slices are gone! It's subtle and cute). There aren't splashy animations or expensive pop songs, but the film doesn't really need that; everything is very down to Earth, which feels so appropriate for the subject matter.
To a certain extent, a documentary is only as good as the story it wants to tell. This can be a blessing as well as a curse. Sometimes, there can be unexpected twists and turns that make for a really compelling story, like the filmmakers finding Sixto Rodriguez in "Searching for Sugar Man." Other times, there is no compelling or satisfying conclusion — this is real life, after all. The mark of a really great documentary, to me, is one that can make a general audiences feel invested in a niche subject that they otherwise probably wouldn't care about. If in the process of doing that, the documentary also benefits from a satisfying arc — that's when the magic happens. This is how I'd characterize "Bad Press"; it may be a local story, but it does benefit from some genuinely exciting twists and turns, which elevates an already dynamite documentary. It educates. It entertains. It empowers. What more could you want?
/film Rating: 9 out of 10
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