It's Saturday afternoon at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and the papers are plastered with news that Murdoch pressured Blair over Iraq. Meanwhile, the Showroom Cinema is fast filling up for Jean-Phillipe Tremblay's Shadows of Liberty, a documentary, funnily enough, about the extraordinary economic and political power exerted by the five mega conglomerates that own the vast majority of US media outlets. I managed to get ten minutes with Tremblay to talk about Canadian cinema, corporations and change.
How did you end up making Shadows of Liberty? What was the catalyst for the project?
I'm interested in films that raise awareness of, and inspire change for, society's most pressing social issues. We came across this book called The New Media Monopoly by Ben Bagdikian, which is about how a handful of corporations have come to control most of the information in the United States. This isn't exclusive to the US, and it raises troubling questions about democracy for all of us.
So you see documentary filmmaking as a vehicle for change?
Absolutely, and it's not just me. One distributor even told us that he would release the film as a "legacy for his children". Documentary filmmaking is about challenging the status quo, and asking the right questions, and making the world a better place as a result.
What were you watching while you were making this?
I'm Canadian, and we have a great documentary filmmaking tradition in Canada. So when I started researching for Shadows of Liberty, I went back to my roots to filmmakers like Peter Wontonnick (Manufactured Consent), and Mark Achbar (The Corporation). There's also Richard Desjardins, a Québécois performer who's made some interesting documentaries about important social issues.
Shadows of Liberty doesn't offer a counterpoint from the corporations. Why?
If you want to hear what CBS or some other corporation has to say, they have their outlets, 24/7, across all sorts of platforms. Here we have just 93 minutes to offer an alternative perspective and let those voices shine that are so often brushed aside by the mainstream media.
Documentaries that deal with corruption and concentrations of power are often dismissed as conspiratorial. How do you respond to something like that?
We spent five years making this film. So there was a lot of work done in getting our facts straight. Also, it was important for us that we only featured credible figures. Kristina Borjesson, for example, has won an Emmy for her investigative reporting. And Roberta Baskin, who talks about her experience with CBS News and the Nike Corporation, has received over 75 journalistic awards.
Many people will watch the film and agree on the need for media reform, but where do they go from there?
This is something we've been thinking about. First, for "further reading", just look at our cast and what they've written; Amy Goodman, Jeff Cohen, John Nichols and Robert Mcchesney; these really are the godfathers of media reform. Also, with the website, for example, we want to create a hub space where we can get all these media reform organisations like Democracy Now!, FAIR and Free Press together for those who want to get involved. We look at this project as going beyond the film. That's part of our challenge.
Taking on these powerful entities, you must have faced some difficulties along the way.
I suppose part of this is brought on by paranoia, but when you associate yourself with people like Julian Assange, who's in the film and who's been brushed aside by governments and the media, it can leave you feeling vulnerable. When I was flying to the US for interviews and research, going through customs was an unnerving experience, and it always took hours. On one occasion I wasn't even allowed in. But we knew this would be a difficult film to make, and that's why we made it.
Shadows of Liberty is screening on 23 June at Open City Docs Fest and will be released in the UK this autumn.