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'Nobody Speak': Documentary speaks truth to power in the age of Trump

The latest from documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger is
The latest from documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger is "Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press.”
John Tyler Curtis
The latest from documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger is
Terry Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, walks out of the courthouse after he was awarded $115 million in damages in his lawsuit against the gossip website Gawker in March 2016.
Photo credit: Eve Edelheit (courtesy of Netflix)
The latest from documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger is
Terry Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, testifies in court during his trial against Gawker Media at the Pinellas County Courthouse on March 8, 2016 in St Petersburg, Florida.
Pool/Getty Images
The latest from documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger is
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump answers questions from reporters at the National Federation of Republican Assemblies on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Photo credit: Mark Humphrey/AP (courtesy of Netflix)

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Update: This story has been updated with a new interview with the director and more current information about the film's topics.

When documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger began work on “Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press,” few people really believed that Donald Trump would become president.

But since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the film's exploration of the role of journalism has grown increasingly more relevant under a Trump presidency. 

Nobody Speak Trailer

“Nobody Speak” is largely focused on how Silicon Valley mogul Peter Thiel secretly bankrolled Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media. A jury ruled against Gawker, which had published a Hogan sex tape. The judge ruled that Gawker pay a $140 million judgment to Hogan. Gawker then filed for bankruptcy.

Knappenberger uses the case to address larger issues about the critical role of the media and the importance of freedom of speech, even when it’s tawdry, and the role of money to influence both. Candidate Trump is in the film as is the casino owner Sheldon Adelson who bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal after the paper had reported on his businesses.

To keep the film as up-to-date as possible, Knappenberger added footage of Trump’s inauguration to “Nobody Speak” just hours before its premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

The film is being released on Netflix and in theaters June 23.

The Frame's John Horn spoke with Knappenberger at Sundance and recently in the KPCC studios. Below are some excerpts from those conversations.

Interview Highlights:

On what happened in the intervening months following the film's Sundance premiere:

In the last few months, we've seen quite an uptick in aggravation against the press. And I think essentially what Trump has created is a kind of wave of hostility in some ways. And that has panned out in all sort of things. I mean, we saw Dan Heyman, the West Virginia reporter who was arrested for asking a question of the Health and Human Services secretary, Director Tom Price. We had John Donnelly, the reporter who was pinned against the wall of the FCC for trying to ask a question there.

We had this incredible scenario with Greg Gianforte, when he body-slammed a reporter for doing what, really, a reporter should be doing -- asking a question about the new healthcare law to a then-congressional candidate, now member of congress. And so that was a really, really disturbing act of aggression not just against the press but against the public, really, who has a right to know what their positions are.

On what interested him about the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker Media case:

I think the short answer is, they were all things I was thinking about simultaneously. But really, I thought about making the film just about Peter Thiel for a while. I was kind of, in parallel, captivated by this trial that was simmering in this courtroom in Florida between Hulk Hogan and Gawker Media. I thought it was a really interesting back-and-forth. I thought there were some pretty big ideas about the First Amendment and privacy under foot. Part of it was salacious, part of it was highly principled. You never quite really knew when it would be either. So at the end of that trial, the verdict was a real shocker for me — $140 million dollars. That was staggering. Really it was like the axe coming down on Gawker's head. It forced their bankruptcy and they ended up going out of business.

On individuals' or companies' ability to go after publications:

The idea of funding litigation is not new. Sometimes people do it for financial benefits. Sometimes even entities like the ACLU funds a particular case, even for a political purpose. But what happened here is this series of behind-the-scenes chess moves, which was really the result of a nine-year grudge on the part of Peter Thiel. The secretive way in which he did it really did create a frightening blueprint. This doesn't have to apply to a website that you hate. It doesn't have to be on the right or the left. There's no reason that somebody couldn't use this same technique to go after Breitbart News or the New York Times. 

On what president Trump says about the media:

Even following the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker case, you understood that some similar things were at work in the landscape that was happening all around — this bizarre contentious political landscape. When you look at the rise of Donald Trump, it is based in some part on an assault on the press — an all out war on the press. When you look at candidate Trump, we understood it was probably going to be part of the movie right away, the way he was treating the press. The way he was berating them and calling them scum. He was blacklisting some, saying to the Washington Post, BuzzFeed and others, You can't get press credentials in the normal way. He was actively encouraging his supporters to turn on the press. And yes, some of the reporters did feel physically threatened. Some of the news organizations had to beef up their security actually. 

One of the weirdest things for me, as a filmmaker, was we understood that this thin-skinned, highly litigious billionaire was fitting perfectly into our theme. The day after the election I went into the office and screened the film, and I realized this is a radically different film than I thought I was making 24 hours [prior]. It used to be cautionary or something. But this was different. He's now in charge of the executive branch, which is the most powerful institution in the world. 

On the what the future holds for journalists in this new reality of journalism under attack:

First of all, I'm slightly optimistic right now in the sense that I do think that there's legitimate criticisms of the press - that it's gotten too corporatized, that it's gotten too cozy with power, that for too long it maybe traded softball stories for access to power and celebrity.

And that's made the media -- quote, unquote “the media,” very broad term -- not particularly well liked. I mean, they don't poll well, people say they hate [the media]. They love the media that they listen to but they don't like the media in general. So I think there's genuine hatred for the media and I'm slightly optimistic that now there's a reason to stand up for it. There's nothing like a common enemy to understand what you were there for in the first place. And there does seem to be a kind of push back and an understanding about what the role is of a media -- to speak truth to power, to really question abuses of power.

“Nobody Speak” will be available on Netflix on June 23.  

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