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Vanessa McMahon

Vanessa is a novel writer, screenwriter, rep and a film producer. She shares her discoveries and film surprises. :-)



Interview with Director Brian Knappenberger and Producer Belisa Balaban on “Truth and Power”

Brian Knappenberger’s “Truth and Power" Brian Knappenberger’s “Truth and Power”

Brian Knappenberger’s “Truth and Power” is a 10-part investigative docu-series narrated by Maggie Gyllenhaal for Pivot, Participant Media’s Pivot television network. Truth and Power centers on the question, “What happens when private institutions and governments abuse their power and break the public trust Each half hour episode pulls the curtain back on stories of ordinary people going to extraordinary lengths to reveal corporate exploitation and infringement on civil liberties resulting from government overreach. Through interviews, original footage and newly unearthed documents, Truth and Power probes the issues of security, surveillance and profiteering in the digital age.

The series sold to international TV markets at the 66th Berlinale by international sales agent Filmbuff. 


In an interview with director Brian Knappenberger and Pivot TV produver Belisa Balaban, here is what they had to say about their new series “Truth and Power”:

Can you speak about how you got started in this documentary series and what 'Truth and Power' stands for?

BRIAN: Basically, 'Truth and Power' is about people who are fighting back against abuses of power or institutional failures. We're looking at those stories of people being active and participating standing up against these abuses. We're telling their stories and all their innovation and then investigating those same abuses ourselves. Pivot aired my last two films so we started a dialogue with them about what kind of series I'd like to create next and I said I wanted to do one that rattles the cage a bit, questioning those abuses of power because I think that's a key element of filmmaking and journalism.

Are you focusing mainly on American corporations?

BRIAN: A lot of our stories, at least in this season, are at least based in some way in the US although a lot of them have international elements to them. A lot of people in the Snowden revelations, there were a lot of questions about, “How does this affect us? How does this affect me? What are examples of this?” That was the big thing we sort of heard back then. And in some ways these stories are sort of where the rubber meet the road. Black Lives Matter, surveillance of a group, the Civil Rights Group, How do we feel about that? These are examples of that happening in our lives.

Can you tell about some of the companies you expose and how you put the show into action?

BRIAN: Sure. Some of the companies we expose are tech based, some of them aren't. One of the tech companies we look at is Stingray, which is a cell phone tracking technology that fakes your phone out and makes it think it's connecting to a friendly tower but it's not, it's connected to what police or law enforcement refer to as a 'fake tower' made by companies such as Harris Corporation, these military contractors that are so much a part of that government military landscape. There are lots of companies like that. One of our international stories is a Malware story that looks at these companies that create Malware that's weaponized to target certain individuals and they sell it to these repressive regimes that use it to target activists, dissidents and even journalists. So this show takes up arms against those people.

BELISA: We just started talking about what would a show look like that explored these themes across a range of subjects. At first we did talk about if they should all be tech based because Brian is a real expertise in that area and it's a really rich area. But we thought, “what if we can put that lens on a slightly broader palette of topics” and we've gotten into some really exciting areas. I think the one on private prisons is one of out more powerful episodes and exposes something that's happening in the US that most American citizens are not aware of.

It's great when people like you use media to expose corruption like this. How long has it taken you to do the research for this series?

BRIAN: It's true but it's it's a critical thing but I would argue that it's not enough. We need more people holding people accountable. We probably created ten episodes in about six months. We have a team of people who research and look deep into these things. It's TV so we were able to turn things around really fast.

How did you get Maggie Gyllenhaal involved to be the narrating voice of the series?

BRIAN: She was involved in an anti-surveillance PSA that I worked on a couple of years ago so that's how I first met her. So when this came up and we were looking for somebody, she seemed like a natural fit. And luckily she was so interested in the topics she said, 'yes'. She was a really nice fit in terms of her voice and the way she has approached it.

BELISA: Creatively, we brain stormed that we would like to have a woman as the voiceover artist, because it felt subversive otherwise. There are very few women narrators in the voice of TV. She happened to be on the top of Brian's list as someone very passionate about the issues. She was the only person we asked.

How can people tune into the series?

BELISA: People in the US can watch them on Pivot, which is distributed nationally. We are in 51 million homes. People outside the US have to wait until the show is sold in their territory but that's what we were doing in Berlin, selling it around the world.

BRIAN: It feels like it's coming soon to international markets. A lot of people seem interested and there's clearly a relevance. We never set out to make it only US based. The internet and technology doesn't really know international borders.

Do you have plans to continue covering this subject with maybe more international stories?

BRIAN: Yes, absolutely. I'm always attracted to big international stories. We're looking into continuing. These are not just dense doc subjects. They're really compelling personal stories. So, you are instantly engaged in these remarkable people who are really underdogs taking on powers much greater than them. So it's been really fascinating to learn about all these complexities of our modern world which can feel so overwhelming to some people. I think that's what is at the heart of this.

BELISA: We are focusing on that personal face of the issue, someone who has a firsthand account of the experience. And the one thing I would say for people who aren't aware of Pivot. We are the TV arm of Participant Media which is a media company dedicated to social change. And everything we program is socially relevant. We want people to be inspired by what they watch and then take action, even if that action is just being more informed as a citizen to participate in your own democracy. That's our goal.


Interview by Vanessa McMahon

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