This past summer marked the 25th anniversary of the Rodney King riots. For many, it has been a depressing quarter-century. Unlike the Cold War or grunge rock, police brutality and the institutionalized racism that underpins it remains omnipresent, its visible injustices remain battle cries for the activist class. Documentaries commemorating the milestone refer to a fire still burning: Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992, L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later, and Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn!. Hanging over these docs are smaller fires lit more recently in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Staten Island. Camilla Hall, a former banking correspondent for the Financial Times, centers her debut, Copwatch, on those three locales, profiling a number of activists who have taken to filming police arrests in order to provide a public catalog of brutality.
Copwatch, tellingly, opens on those activists’ footage. It’s a somber set up: iPhone shots of violent police arrests, bracketed by heavy borders and unseen screams, the effect similar to the loud silence that Michael Moore used to replicate the falling World Trade Center towers in Fahrenheit 9/11. The images are pieces of our own collective, tangential consciences, things we’ve seen before in quick bursts on the news, but Hall’s presentation forces us to acquiesce to its sheer emotional power.
From there, Copwatch becomes a somewhat narrower profile, ultimately settling its focus on Kevin Moore and Ramsey Orta. As unwitting videographers of the murders of Freddie Gray and Eric Garner, respectively, they are potent symbols, and Hall utilizes their personal between-the-crossfire stories to great effect. Like many a novice documentarian, Hall’s eye veers deep into the lives of its characters, but it’s a sacrifice that manages to pay remarkable dividends. Moore brings in the narrative of long-term, systemic injustice — family members are called upon to testify to the depths of institutional racism in his childhood, from schoolroom beat downs to the equally hostile job market. Hall pairs this with a sonorous score, only miffed by the occasional low-budget rap number, that compliments home-movie-quality footage.
Orta’s case is more interesting. Shortly after he goes public with his footage of Eric Garner, he and his mother are arrested for multiple gun and drug charges. Eventually, he is forced to cut a deal that sends him to prison for four years, in exchange for dropping the charges against his mother. Hall cuts the case curiously: we never hear a definitive statement of guilt or innocence from Orta, a detail that a lesser documentary would demand in order to deliver sympathy. We get something else, a portrait of how a system operates, the pure cruelty of its machinations. Matt Taibbi, the movie’s only talking head, appears here in order to cast a snippet of the editorializing doubt that anyone who reads him in Rolling Stone will be familiar with. But in Hall’s hands, these scattered parts collect to become a cohesive moral demand: is Orta’s arrest and imprisonment a coincidence that rings hollow in our ears?
The pair are joined, intermittently, by David Whitt and Jacob Crawford, who play the movie’s organizing arm. Whitt is an activist from Ferguson enraged by Michael Brown’s murder and Crawford is a refugee of the Seattle protest scene who, in his own words, “realizes [this] is not my place but…maybe I should go out there and document it.” Drawn in by the what he has seen on the news, Crawford finds Whitt in Ferguson and they organize a group called WeCopwatch — a confusingly named offshoot of Copwatch, a national network of activists who have been following police with amateur camera equipment since the early ’90s that Crawford used to roll with.
Hall puts together a number of scenes that juxtapose Crawford’s copwatching expeditions with Whitt’s, a comp that proves anecdotally illustrative. Crawford, white and with a post-hippie beard and beanie, is treated like an uncomfortable gnat, given furrowed looks but little else. Whitt is immediately seen as a threat and told, repeatedly, that he will be locked up if he sticks around (“I know it’s hard, [I’m speaking] English,” a policeman taunts Whitt). This becomes something of a motif in Copwatch: a series of agitated police faces looking on at the cameras, which is to say us, with disgust.
This is the larger metaphor hanging over Hall’s film and, like many works of the past half-decade, want us to use the power of film to generate the kind of empathetic bond found absent among so many members of the police force. Her characters are hopeful and, so, perhaps is Copwatch: a set piece, in the end, involves members of the police offering to have a “coffee shop conversation” about their differences with Whitt’s activists. They are unsure whether to take it as a joke or an earnest plea to reconcile differences. But they’ll keep on filming.