When Rich Williamson met with his Ryerson University peer, Daniel Voshart, to view his weighty personal project, he only intended to provide a sounding board, and a person to confide in, not realizing that he would stumble on a fresh perspective on a national news story, bearing implications on a much larger scale.
In the resulting Frame 394, an Oscar shortlisted documentary short, we see the fatal shooting of North Charleston local Walter Scott by police officer Michael Slager through new eyes, as Voshart uses his artistry and particular skill set to dissect blurry, distant footage of the event, in hopes of providing some new insight. Though the tools at Voshart’s disposal are accessible to the average Best Buy customer, Frame 394 poses new questions about one’s duty as a citizen of the world, and the potential uses and abuses of media in the era of Reddit and fake news.
Speaking to Deadline from Nigeria, while in the process of making a feature-length documentary on Nigerian energy, Williamson and producer Shasha Nakhai discuss the key takeaways from the experience of producing their thirty-minute short.
How did this story come to your attention?
Rich Williamson: Dan [Voshart] and I both went to Ryerson University, in Toronto. We’ve stayed in touch over the years. He called me up one day with this news on what he was working on, and I was obviously interested. He called me, basically, so he could speak to somebody, and sort of get it off his chest, because he had been working on it for a while. He needed someone to confide in—I guess I was that person. From there, I went to his place and I had asked him if he would be interested in getting it on camera. I thought it might be good to document it for his own sake, just to have it on record.
Shasha Nakhai: For me, as someone who wasn’t as close to Dan, I got my interest in the piece when I heard that Dan was actually considering meeting with Andy Savage, the lawyer in the film. I thought, okay, maybe there’s more to this. You’re not just interested in this because of your friend. You can look at this more as a documentary, and there’s a story that other people would be interested in, as well.
What has been your experience, working with someone you know firsthand on a story of such profound implications?
Nakhai: It was a very challenging film to make, for that reason, and given that Rich and Dan were friends, we made sure that we hired an experienced story editor who didn’t know Dan at all, so that in edits, we had someone who he could work on story with that didn’t know Dan, and wasn’t necessarily influenced by their friendship. It’s difficult, because as the film touches on, people can be very extreme on many different ends of the spectrum. When you talk about these kinds of issues, it’s definitely something we thought about. At the same time, we went into it saying, we’re going to do our best to provide balance, and that’s what we decided to do.
As seen in the film, Voshart was quite specific with what he would divulge of his findings, and to whom. Did he have any reservations or stipulations in terms of his involvement with the documentary?
Nakhai: As the person who had to get the paperwork, and his release form and everything, it wasn’t too difficult because Dan trusted us very much as people, and having seen work that we’ve done, and having talked to us about it. He basically watched the film in between the cracks of his fingers, but I think he was pretty happy with how we conveyed things.
Williamson: I think one of his biggest worries was about the complexity of the issues. Right from the start he wanted people to understand, “Well, this is what I’m doing, and this is why.” These little intricacies of [camera] stabilization. The difficulty for me, of course, being a filmmaker, was how do I take this really complex system that he’s using and turn it into something that an audience might understand, or be able to take in. He was afraid of the media sensationalizing. I think there were a lot of risks, on his part, being this guy who was doing this work and how it might be perceived.
In your opinion, could anyone else have done what he did, in applying his artistry to something procedural? It’s said in the film that the work he does is, in some ways, more thorough and illuminating than the work the FBI was able to contribute to the case.
Williamson: I think that he comes from so many different backgrounds, in terms of his expertise—he’s a master of architecture. He comes from a film background. He’s into virtual reality, so he knows how to build these environments, and that separates him from a lot of people, in terms of all these things coalescing into this one video.
Nakhai: To be honest, as he readily admits to people, the tools that he uses are tools that everybody has, that you download off the internet. What makes him different isn’t necessarily the skills that he possesses, but the fact that he takes the time to do this. When I saw the video, I probably just watched it, got upset, and then scrolled past it. A lot of people do this with news nowadays, and so the fact that someone actually spent days upon days to teach himself a skill set, but also to go into this much depth, I find it fascinating, regardless of what he found or didn’t find. That’s what drew me in, really. The fact that someone would go to this length.
It’s important to note that as a Canadian, Voshart is, in a sense, divorced from these events, and the American narrative surrounding police brutality. Do you feel that, in providing an outsider’s perspective on the situation, you’re getting a little closer to an objective vantage point?
Nakhai: It’s impossible, I think, for anyone to obtain true objectivity. We, as filmmakers, attempted that, but we also are coming at this from a point of privilege. We live in Canada. I’m not from a marginalized community in the United States, being oppressed by militarization of police, or I don’t have a brother who is a police officer. As Canadians, we are also coming into this in a more privileged point of view. We have these issues here as well. We were actually surprised at how vast and different the viewpoints were from people we talked to.
What was the most surprising revelation that came in making the doc?
Nakhai: I believe that racism exists in the United States, but until we actually went there and saw how wildly different the narrative was depending on who you talked to, I think that surprised me. So many people watch this film and they run the gamut in terms of their reactions. Some people are like, “Oh I just want a film about the science,” and then some people are like, “I just want a film about Black Lives Matter.” Everybody has their own bias that they bring to the table that informs how they react to the film, and for me that was really interesting.
Williamson: I think one of the most surprising things that happened while making it was the act of being transported into that space of, “We’re here, and we’re talking to a lawyer about this case.” And seeing the behind-the-scenes that was happening, and how they would frame it in court. That was a very interesting position to be in, witnessing that.
What was the biggest challenge?
Williamson: The biggest one is just that it’s wrapped around with so many different viewpoints. How do you appease all those angles and make something that’s objective and satisfying for all parties? And ultimately, how do you compress all this information into a thirty-minute film? That’s what I think was, while we were making it, the most difficult thing.
I had people telling me, “Oh, you need to make a feature-length [film].”It was supposed to be a twelve-minute film. We realized that it was much bigger and more complex than we had made this out to be. It’s not feature-length, but it’s a very long, feature-like short.
Do you have any notions as to why the lawyer in the film didn’t give Daniel the extra footage he’d requested, which might further elucidate matters?
Nakhai: We know for sure Dan is not testifying in the case. It’s closing now. I think the jury is making deliberations as we speak. I can’t really speculate on why. We don’t have a definitive answer as to why. Some people might say, “Oh, maybe he tried to use Dan,” or some people might say, “No, lawyers simply don’t share everything because they’re [building] a case.” Many people have speculated on many different theories, but I can’t really speculate myself as to why. There could be many reasons.
The film is also very timely in its discussion of the ways in which the media is used and abused—or the way in which the media can be usurped to spread false narratives.
Nakhai: The making of this film definitely solidified that, as well. People want echo chambers—they want films that reinforce their already existing worldview, and we found that with this film. People, depending on what end of the spectrum they’re on, want a film that reinforces their own worldview. We saw that very much with the election and social media, and we hope that there’s still a place for very complex films that have complex narratives, and that challenge people, and that build bridges across a very wide gulf of opinion.
Do you see any solution to these problems, as they currently present themselves on a global scale?
Nakhai: This film was made for an online audience, and we kept being told by the data and by the metrics that people click off, they’ll only watch a five-minute video, it has to make them angry, make them happy. This film’s given me hope—a lot of people have shared it, a lot of people have engaged with it, so it gives me hope that, yes, people do have the attention span to watch a 30-minute video online, and they have the capacity to engage with complex issues in the online world.
The story at the center of this documentary continues to unfold in the legal system. Do you have plans to follow up with this case as the story develops?
Nakhai: Our film, we tried to go at it at an angle, because the case is covered widely in the media in a variety of different forms. Our film is just one little slice—it’s like one frame of the big picture, this whole story. We felt we were happy, coming from what we know, which was a Canadian guy going in, and his perspective, talking about the narrative of social media and technology. There’s also the time aspect—we don’t live in South Carolina, and we didn’t feel that it was really our place. We just decided against it.
Though Williamson and Nakhai have concluded their official coverage of the Walter Scott shooting and the events that followed, the legal battles faced by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager continue. While Slager was indicted on federal charges of violating Scott’s civil rights and the unlawful use of a weapon in May, earlier this month, a mistrial was eventually declared, after a state murder trial ended in a hung jury. Though no dates have been set, Slager’s case is expected to go to a federal trial in the spring.