Film festival, symposium to focus on creative storytelling and investigative journalism

By Ariana Duford

When 100Reporters director Diana Jean Schemo created the country’s first investigative film festival five years ago, she didn’t foresee how successful it would be.

The idea for the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival came when Schemo said she noticed deep disparities between the valuable work journalists perform and how communities perceive those journalists.

The first year of the festival, 2015, about 40% of Americans reported having a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the news media, according to a Gallup poll. That number dropped to 32% — an all-time low — the following year.

But in 2017, it jumped nine points and has continued to increase. By 2018, 45% of Americans reported having trust in the media to report the news “accurately” and “fairly,” four points points higher than the year before.

Schemo describes journalists as the “midwives of democracy.” But as she watched them struggle to build and maintain the public’s trust, she decided it was time for a different approach.

“If we can’t build a constituency through the work itself, let’s try creativity,” she said.

The Double Exposure festival, along with its concurrent symposia, combines investigative reporting with creative storytelling. Inspired by the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and the long-standing fascination between Washington and Hollywood, Schemo, the first female foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, said she envisioned journalists and filmmakers coming together to swap advice and learn from one another.

“They’re both producing films that are driven by this investigative instinct,” Schemo said, “but they have different aesthetics, different ways of telling stories, different ethics, different sense of how you tie everything together.”

The festival finds new ways each year to bring the two sides a bit closer. For example, the DX Pitch and DX Access initiatives, which Schemo described as “speed dating,” allows journalists and filmmakers to meet one-on-one with producers, directors, brokers and other insiders to pitch ideas, seek funding or gather suggestions on upcoming projects. When it was introduced two years ago, 50 meetings took place; that number jumped to 190 last year.

This year’s festival is introducing Crossing Borders, an initiative to allow journalists and filmmakers to watch and constructively criticize four films.

This year’s festival is introducing Crossing Borders, an initiative to allow journalists and filmmakers to watch and constructively criticize four films —two from news outlets and two from feature-film producers. Schemo said that would allow both sides to get input they might not otherwise have. The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and E.W. Scripps are each producing a film for the initiative.

The films for the Oct. 10-13 festival in Washington, D.C., will include “Desert One” directed by Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple; Feras Fayyad’s “The Cave;” and Paul Rosenberg’s “Bedlam.”

Schemo said she received a warm reception when she came up with the idea for the festival, but adds that “every year it is a struggle” to do it again.

In its first year, opening night featured an extravagant gala and showcased “Spotlight,” the feature film about The Boston Globe’s investigation into the child-molestation and cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church in Boston. The movie won two Academy Awards, including best picture.

The festival was a success. But a few weeks later, Schemo’s husband was diagnosed with cancer; he died several months later.

The mother of two said the sudden loss of her husband nearly led her to forfeit plans for a second festival.

“I don’t think I can actually do this,” Schemo remembered telling those around her as she juggled parenthood, editing and fundraising at the nonprofit  100Reporters and finding new partners to help sponsor the festival.

Her team encouraged her to keep going. She said they reassured her that they would “get across this finish line all together.” They did. The second Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival was as successful as the first.

But it’s still an expensive undertaking. The multi-day event, which includes speakers and panelists from around the world, costs between $300,000 and $400,000, she said.

“The challenge is always getting funding together, but somehow we do it,”  said Schemo, who raises money for the festival in collaboration with sponsors.

The festival worked for two years to build an audience. By its third year, Schemo said she and her team were able to build partnerships with organizations in the area, cementing the festival’s place in the larger community.

“It takes a whole team; it’s not a person. A lot of people make it happen,” Schemo said.

Double Exposure differs from most film festivals in only screening each film once. Schemo’s goal is for the festival to expand enough in coming years for the films to be screened in theaters across the city so people have more opportunities to see them.

And Schemo wants the festival to promote a clear path for newsrooms to produce and release more aesthetically and visually stimulating films, whether they are documentaries or fact-based dramas, such as “Spotlight.”

These films are rare, she said, adding that while journalists have mastered the art of investigative reporting, she wants to see more reporters delve into cinematography and creative storytelling.

As the fifth edition of Double Exposure approaches, Schemo said she can now say with confidence: “We’re here to stay.”

The Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival and Symposium is Oct. 10-13 in Washington. Tickets are available online.

(The investigative Reporting Workshop is a supporting partner in the festival.)