Investigative journalism has come under siege lately. Newspapers have fewer resources to fund it, right wing interests are on a mission to discredit it and targets of the investigations will go to any lengths, including murder, to silence it.
Beyond those factors, as Behind the Headlines documents, are the rigours of doing the job itself.
The film begins with Frederick and Bastien Obermaier going on a fruitless trek for the killer of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a co-writer of their famous Panama Papers series, assassinated via car bomb. Malta’s most famous journalist, Galizia had made too many enemies for them to sort it out. But the purpose of this section is less to tell a detective story than it is to illustrate the dangers of the profession.
Sager’s camera then follows the pair as they try to learn more about an Iranian arms dealers’ dangerous machinations. Almost everyone, from the Iranians to the Americans to the Israelis, is giving them the runaround or mouthing political platitudes. The team does develop the insight that their subject is hard to nail because he’s so hopelessly normal but they never get to the heart of a scandal.
They do strike gold when they get access to a video of Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache in a sleazy conversation with a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch. Plainly fuelled by alcohol, he offers her business contracts in exchange for political support and also expresses interest in turning the country’s largest-circulation tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung, into a paid mouthpiece for his candidacy and his right-wing party the FPÖ.
But this investigative gold needs polishing. You can’t use a video only if you’ve seen it. You have to have it in your possession. Negotiations to secure it are intense and all the while you’re worried someone else might get access to the video before you. Get your hands on it and every second has to be verified as authentic to make sure no one’s tampered with it. Then start writing. Every sentence has to be fact-checked.
When you follow the process, thanks to the unprecedented access director Sager got to the inner workings of the newspaper, the claims that investigative journalists–these are print journalists, remember–just make stuff up becomes absurd. They not only do not invent facts, they go through hell to verify them.
Unfortunately, all of this activity does not exactly make for riveting viewing and the filmmakers don’t do much to give it more juice. Our heroes sit around waiting for the phone to ring and then engage in phone conversations we can’t hear, which they then report to their colleagues. Or they’re painstakingly editing each other’s copy, laboriously going over it word for word.
Dramatic feature films don’t have this difficulty. Recall a key moment in All the President’s Men, when Woodward and Bernstein comb through thousands of slips at the Library of Congress to get incriminating information on E. Howard Hunt: 45 seconds of rifling through the files, punctuated with a superb zoom out shot showing the entire floor of the library. Or consider The Firm’s extensive scenes of photocopying, enhanced by quick cuts. Here, director Sager refuses to mess with the integrity of the story, as some docs do, via soundtrack or editing. It’s a case of cinematic ethics getting in the way of art.
But the narrative is important and the film worth sticking to, especially since, in the end, the good guys achieve a spectacular result.
Behind the Headlines premieres at Hot Docs 2021.