Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Bad Press Review: Riveting Doc Fights for Independent Media

2023 Sundance Film Festival

/
5 mins read

Bad Press
(USA, 98 min.)
Dir. Rebecca Landsberry-Baker, Joe Peeler
Programme; US Documentary Competition (World Premiere)

 

Can you image the last few years without a free and independent press holding politicians in the U.S.A. to account? Bad Press, a riveting Sundance doc from directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler, offers a hard-hitting exposé about rights that can vanish at any moment. The film explains that the right to a free press is part of the U.S.A’s First Amendment. However, Bad Press notes that this right doesn’t extend across the land. First Nations govern their own constitutions, which covers the press.

The film shares the precariousness with which citizens may report on their communities in such situations using the case of Mvskoke Media. Housed in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, Mvskoke Media is one of few outlets in a First Nation with legislation to protect the freedom of the press. When an emergency session at the National Council barrels through a motion to repeal the Free Press Act, Mvskoke Media’s significance—and that of all independent publications—becomes more apparent than ever.

Church vs. State

Directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler follow the story through the perspective of Mvskoke Media reporter Angel Ellis. The dogged journalist tells how she’s been in this fight before, having faced reprisals for reporting on a former Chief’s embezzling scandal. This time, though, the implications are further reaching because the Council leadership isn’t going after one person. They’re silencing the practice of the press itself, therefore removing any objective measure of accountability for their behaviour.

Bad Press, which playfully takes its name from the adage that any news is good news, proves a bit disorienting as it works Ellis’s prior incident with the events of 2015 and the 2019 fight to appeal. The 2015 decision happens swiftly with no public debate. Within minutes, Ellis and her peers witness as Mvskoke Media loses its independent editorial board and the Council’s Secretary of the Nation and Commerce becomes its director. This means that the National Council both finances Mvskoke Media and determines its editorial content. Council members grumble that Mvskoke Media reports too often on the negative and that they’d rather lighten the mood. Bad Press shows that this is far more than softening the news, though. The act undermines its existence entirely.

Gripping Drama

Landsberry-Baker and Peeler find strong characters to fuel this essay about the lifeblood that outlets like Mvskoke Media are to a community. From villainously shady figures on the National Council, to colourful, offbeat journos and an editor in way over her head, Bad Press illustrates how a functional, editorially sound newsroom keeps a community moving forward. Moreover, as the fight ignites in the community and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation readies for another election, the freedom of the press becomes a hot-button topic on all sides of the campaign. Citizens note the role that Mvskoke Media plays, even with Facebook livestreaming, to inform and engage the community. And from the reporters, to the candidates, to everyday people, residents of Muscogee agree that consensus building, of which the press plays a part, is a fundamental element of First Nations governance.

At the same time, the opposition to outlets like Mvskoke Media grows beyond the Council’s resentment. The battle for the free press in the First Nation coincides with Trump’s campaign against the media. Charges of fake news and the like become part of the routine for Ellis and company. The fight’s never been harder and it’s never been more urgent.

Some solid dramatic tension makes for a riveting final act as Mvskoke Media rallies not simply for its own future, but for all reporters in First Nations communities. Bad Press finely blends factual reportage with character-driven storytelling to captivate audiences in a tale that should have all viewers at the edges of their seats.

 

Bad Press premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Update: Bad Press opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Sept. 22.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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