Gasland, a film by Josh FoxYou can always count on the craftiness of the fox. And I’m not talking about the unbalanced and unfair reporting we’ve come to expect from Fox News. I’m interested in Josh Fox, who happens to be on the other side of the ideological spectrum.

Last week, a great to-do was made over the arrest of Fox, the documentary director of Gasland, who was trying to film a Washington, D.C., congressional hearing about the controversial gas extraction process called “fracking.” The arrest, which was dubbed “stunning,” “troubling,” and “shameful” in various outlets, was all over the Internet.

The story that was told was that Fox, an Academy Award-nominated director, was taken into custody by Capitol Hill police, thanks to Republicans who objected to his presence. Apparently, an ABC camera crew was also kicked out. The takeaway was that First Amendment rights were being restricted, hydraulic fracturing was being contested, and Fox, who is working on a sequel to Gasland, was in the middle of it all.

Good for him. Good for the cause. And good for his film, no doubt. But, let’s be clear, it was an bit of agitprop. I’m not one to advocate for Republicans or evil environment-spoiling conglomerates, but I want to put the whole incident in perspective. First, Fox had gone and got himself arrested just five months earlier, in D.C., when he took part in a sit-in with the likes of Daryl Hannah and author Naomi Klein, to protest a proposed tar sands oil pipeline. So, he’s versed in the utility of shock arrests. But few, if any outlets, seemed to pick up on that. Second, there apparently was no ABC crew present at the hearing, which diminishes the appearance that an iron grip of censorship was taking hold. The fact is that Fox had made requests to film the hearing, and was denied. This was widely reported, as well as the allegation that such a restriction was rare, so folks could choose if Fox was being unfairly gagged or if it was just House rules being tightly enforced. But you know what wasn’t so widely disperesed? C-SPAN was there to film the proceeding. It kind of takes the air out of the contention that there’s a Republican Third Reich at work here.

Again, I don’t want provide ammo for the right, but let’s face it: Fox’s arrest was a tactic, a good one at that, and it’s interesting to see that few, if any, outlets recognized that. They just rehashed the Reuters report, and Fox’s ensuing statement, without looking further into it.

I am not aware of many documentary directors getting arrested doing their work, so Fox might be a pioneer here. Michael Moore has certainly popularized the possibility, creating the dynamic of an adversarial documentary filmmaker duking it out with security forces. But although he has flirted with getting arrested, taunting security guys with his camera, I am not sure that he’s actually had cuffs clamped on him. (Ironically, there was an incident gleefully reported by Fox News about Moore’s bodyguard, who had been arrested for carrying an unlicensed firearm in 2005. Moore, of course, made the popular anti-gun film, Bowling for Columbine. This reported arrest was rehashed by zillions of outlets and, as far as I can tell, the connection to Moore wasn’t adequately established.)

Not surprisingly, you have to look to more repressive countries than ours to find serious incidents of documentary directors being thrown in the slammer. Last year, Iran arrested five documentary directors and one producer for providing “BBC Persian with information, films and secret reports to paint a black picture of Iran and Iranians.” They were put in Evin prison in Tehran, where according to Amnesty International Iran specialist Elise Auerbach there were reports that the filmmakers were treated “harshly,” including stints in solitary confinement and interrogations to make them confess to being agents of the United Kingdom.

“The Iranian government does this often to intimidate people,” Auerbach told me. “They were arrested because of their association with the BBC — they were not employed by BBC Persian but some films they had made were aired on BBC Persian. The Iranian government was particularly annoyed about a film called The Ayatollah’s Seal about the current supreme leader that was aired on BBC Persian just before the filmmakers were arrested.”

It took months, but eventually all of the filmmakers, including This is Not a Film co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, were released on bail. They’re still facing charges.

I asked Auerbach if she thinks the directors will get back to making films. She didn’t know, but, she added, “the government has made it perfectly clear that those who have any association with Western media will be punished, which will surely deter people.”

With those Iranian filmmakers in mind, I say, go forth, Josh Fox! Use your power to shock the U.S. establishment, and make it shake. Find the fissures in the wall. And do so knowing that there are some doc directors who work in fear of the wall falling down on them.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen