'Troubled Waters' flap reveals the turbulence that many filmmakers face

Dawn Mikkelson
Dawn Mikkelson of Stillwater, Minn., is an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker and teacher.
Photo by Adrian Danciu

People have asked my opinion of the kerfuffle over "Troubled Waters," the documentary whose premiere was scheduled, then canceled, then scheduled again by the University of Minnesota. For those who haven't heard, the university pulled the film "to allow time for a review of the film's scientific content." The stories coming out from various sources who have seen the film point to a disagreement over editorial decisions made by the director.

What's troubling to me as a filmmaker is less this particular struggle (although thank you to the university for making me want to see a film that I probably wouldn't have otherwise seen) than what it so clearly illustrates about the precarious position that documentary film and independent voices face in this country.

I started my career as a television reporter for an ABC affiliate. That position, although formative for my future as a documentary filmmaker, was short lived, due to my frustration with the role advertisers and those in power have over the stories we broadcast.

More than 10 years later and with four-plus independent films under my belt, I see now what I didn't see then. This type of pressure from those who hold the purse strings and distribution mechanisms exists in every corner of this industry, not just the broadcast news. The flap over "Troubled Waters" (more and more aptly titled) is one of the few times that the public has actually been privy to this dynamic that is pervasive in our industry.

The bigger the fish you criticize with your work, the greater the barriers you face to getting that work funded or seen. While working on my film "Green Green Water," I learned for the first time what it was like to have a PR campaign waged against me.

"Green Green Water" was critical of a large-scale hydroelectric company in Canada called Manitoba Hydro, which was not living up to its obligations to First Nation communities whose lives had been devastated by dams that generate power to sell to consumers in Minnesota. The company tried to frame me as a fringe radical and "activist." Limitations were placed on my crew's ability to travel between the United States and Canada. Pressure was brought against venues to pull the film from their schedules. Broadcasters heard from their sponsors and advertisers, who tried to get them not to air the film.

Why did this story matter? Because it was an INDUSTRY at stake. Billions of dollars are exchanged between Xcel Energy and Manitoba Hydro, and this little gal from Minnesota, with a budget of less than $20,000 from a pile of individual donors, was going to mess with the public perception of their industry.

For me, what is going on with "Troubled Waters" is another element of this story. A filmmaker who is critical of an industry, regardless of how well researched her story, is framed as an unprofessional radical, while the vast majority of her original supporters watch in disbelief. How does this happen?

Ultimately the choice left to a filmmaker is to stick to her guns and potentially anger a powerful group, or to make the film wishy-washy, with no perspective, leaving the audience with little reason to care. The point of film is to make people care.

So how does one tell these stories honestly, if funders and institutions hold the power?

Without independent voices in our media, the stories of those who lack PR budgets will never be heard. We must demand that these stories are told and broadcast on our mainstream networks.

I've been criticized for not giving audiences any direct action items at the end of a film. I raise a question, and expect them to find the answer. I've often said, "I'm a filmmaker, not a (theologian, scientist, airline mechanic)," and leave it to them to figure out how to fix the problem. But in this story, there are things that you, the audience, can do:

Support individual storytellers and independent media, not just financially but by seeking out their work.

Show the mainstream distributors that there is a demand for this work, by attending film festivals and sharing the news of a great new storyteller with your Facebook network. We're out here, looking for you too.

Check out websites like Kickstarter.com that fund individual stories and artists, while creating a community of active audience members who not only help get films made but become the first to watch the premieres.

Attend independent film festivals (check out Flyway Film Festival in Pepin, Wis., Oct 21-24, a local festival dedicated to the art of storytelling and new voices).

These are just a few of the ways that audiences can really make a difference at the grassroots and make an impact on an industry that values its sponsors more than its viewers and content. Without these independent voices, we run the risk of being a society driven by the messages of the powerful and wealthy. I prefer a bit more democracy in my worldview.

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Dawn Mikkelson of Stillwater, Minn., is an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker and teacher whose company, Emergence Pictures, produces documentaries for nonprofit, governmental and sustainable business clients. She is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.

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