As a filmmaker, Brian Knappenberger has a reputation for drawing attention to the confluence of technology, transparency, and state secrecy. It’s the intersection he calls home.
That conflux forms the palette of his latest project, Truth and Power, a 10-part investigative series narrated by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. The docu-series examines abuses of power and institutional failures eroding the public trust.
Launched by Participant Media, a film company renowned for its socially conscious work, Truth and Power tackles a wide range of controversial topics, from the use of covert cellphone-tracking technology to the U.S. government’s partnership with Hacking Team, a company known for peddling cyberweapons to repressive regimes like Sudan.
“Why should police have drones and not journalists? Where does that line go?”
Knappenberger’s series is a departure, at least in terms of format, from his widely acclaimed feature films such as The Internet’s Own Boy, the definitive life-and-death biopic of Reddit co-founder and digital activist Aaron Swartz. But the transition from film to television appeals to two sides of Knappenberger’s personality, he says.
“There’s definitely something I love about the kind of metabolism of a weekly show,” he says. “You’re moving quicker, you’re a little closer to the news cycle, and you’re exploring stories that just wouldn’t sustain a feature film, yet are still really compelling and interesting.”
In his next episode, Knappenberger will examine the tangled web of laws governing the use of law enforcement and recreational drones. “There were over a million drones, apparently, given as Christmas gifts. So they’re taking to the skies,” he says. “It’s pretty clear that the Federal Aviation Administration, which is now currently in charge of everything in American skies, are just not equipped to deal with the privacy issues.”
An exclusive clip fromTruth and Power’s next episode, “Flying Robots”:
The “Flying Robots” episode, which airs Friday, March 25, also looks at the use of military-style Predator drones by law enforcement along the U.S. border, which, jurisdictionally, reaches inland for up to 100 miles—a zone where roughly 200 million Americans reside.
“Basically, I think what we found out is that, unless there’s a law against doing something with a drone, it’s possible, right?” he says. “… People are already putting non-lethal weapons on drones, like Tasers. I think there’s a lot of that stuff that could be happening soon, and [there are] a lot of people trying to figure it out as the technology is just barreling forward.”
“Why should police have drones and not journalists?” Knappenberger asks. “Where does that line go?”
After filming the first season of Truth and Power, Knappenberger says he’s again craving the pace of a feature film, “where you can really dig in and learn about characters and explore things in different ways.” When asked if the subject of his next picture might be found among Truth and Power’s episodes, he admits feeling the constraints of the 21-and-a-half format, on occasion. He points to a show aired in February, for instance, that focused on U.S. “ag-gag” laws, which prohibit activists from filming conditions on animal farms without consent.
“It’s about [animal-rights activists] Ryan Shapiro and Will Potter. That is a pretty interesting series of events and protests that I haven’t really seen done very well yet,” he says. “A lot of those people went to jail on terrorism charges. It’s a fascinating thing.”
Whatever’s next for Knappenberger, it’s a safe bet he’ll be shining a light into the U.S. government’s dark corners for the foreseeable future. “I’m still pretty obsessed with the connection between civil liberties and this battle we’re all in for more information about what the government is doing, the struggle to find out more about what’s going on, so we can function better as a democracy.”
Knappenberger adds with a laugh, however, that he sometimes wants “to do entirely different things.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m dragged back into this territory, but I do really think this is where we’re at,” he says. “You don’t pick the times you’re in, right? This is the moment we’re in, where that stuff is kind of all playing out.”
Photo via Tyler Curtis