Stop Start – Copwatch

Adi Iskandar gets going with Camilla Hall’s timely documentary.

The title ‘Stop Start’ for this review of ‘Copwatch’, the documentary directed by Camilla Hall, reflects not just the film’s viewing experience, but also the core’s subject matter of police brutality, particularly in the case of African-Americans in the United States of America, and intermittent progress when it comes to transparency and accountability. Having said that, it echoes far beyond its national boundaries, with the familiarity of names like Michael Brown and Eric Garner suggesting how a global, non-American audience can relate to such injustices without ever having set foot in the country.

Made in 2017, the focus of ‘Copwatch’, however, is more on an organisation called WeCopwatch, a group of activists who record the police as they discharge their duties. Cameras are whipped out and red buttons are pressed as these officers physically detain those they believe to have conducted criminal acts. My Malaysian bias meant I was a little surprised this was allowed, but it certainly is legal in the United States, even if the police themselves do much to discourage this.

Not that it has mitigated the fire lit in the likes of Kevin Moore, Ramsey Orta and Jacob Crawford. They are key personalities in WeCopwatch (and thus the film). Though we initially tag along with Crawford’s efforts in getting it off the ground, the camera eventually leans more towards Moore and Orta, who recorded footage of the apprehension of Freddie Gray and Garner respectively.

However, this blurring between the personal and the professional that made for a slightly uneven viewing experience, diverging from my initial idea that the film would take a broader look at the bigger picture. This is particularly given the film’s relevance in global politics today, with many around the world rising up in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.

In the film, Orta’s ordeal swayed the camera in his direction. Having recorded the death of his friend Garner, he was caught up in the arms of the law, charged with drug possession and such. While the film implied that the arrest was a reaction to his copwatching activities (itself is a compelling argument), subsequent information would come to light, suggesting him to be a flawed protagonist to hang our hopes on.

As a documentarian recording history in the making, Hall was in a difficult position. While the initial objective may well have been to analyse issues through the WeCopwatch lens, the dramatic turn of events puts her at a fork in the road. With hindsight, her choice to focus on Orta resulted in an uneven treatment between the film’s beginning and end, but in that context, it is likely that I would have made a similar choice.

Another reason why the title reflects the film’s stop-start nature is my own viewing experience. By this, I mean that in general, I purposely minimise the viewing of harrowing events, even as I keep in touch via second-hand information. The convergence between a cinematic reel and a tragic real is something I find no pleasure in, and the film’s streaming on YouTube, as a part of the We Are One global film festival, allowed me to pause the film at certain moments. It is an option I used liberally, particularly during the apprehension of Garner and Gray.

These difficult moments are balanced out by others we would not have had a chance to see otherwise. Television cameras may leave town not long after the fact, but for the locals, the likes of Brown are actual human beings who lived, and not merely a clarion call for change. Their communities remember them by constructing memorials, putting out teddy bears with the names of victims written on them. This is important.

I also like how WeCopwatch is an example of the power of citizen journalism, allowing people to step up and put bad cops in the limelight. It also reverses the panopticon concept, where an institution is designed to make its people feel as if they are constantly being watched. Believing that certain punishments would be meted out if rules are not adhered to, this sense of surveillance would affect how they would behave.

That concept plays with the idea of one person keeping many others in check, imbuing him or her with great power. ‘Copwatch’ suggests an alternative this Foucauldian notion; with greater evidence of the police themselves stepping out of line, turning the cameras on them is an attempt at swinging the pendulum to the other side. The inmates are not quite running the asylum per se, but neither are they turning away from this fight.

That is a battle we are all in right now. I may be mistaken, but if I recall correctly, ‘Copwatch’ is a replacement for ‘Iron Hammer’, itself a documentary by Joan Chen about the Chinese Olympion, Lang Ping. However, that film dropped out of We Are One a few days before the festival’s start. While others wonder why, I feel that this documentary is a good choice as its closing film, given the zeitgeist we are in.

Ultimately, film has its hits and misses, but I am hopeful that its impact would be felt all the same. In having a constructive conversation with a (black) police officer, Moore puts it best, expressing hope for a better future: “I think that eventually, the guns, the badges, the copwatchers, that everything is going to have to be set aside, we’re going to have to come together, and try to figure out what’s going on, man.”

That time is now.

Featured image credit: lechenie-narkomanii/Pixabay

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