‘To hold two truths:’ A Q&A with ‘The Force’ director Peter Nicks

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“The Force,” a prize-winning Sundance documentary, tails the Oakland Police Department as the notorious agency worked to reduce rates of officer-involved shootings and curb criticism for alleged racial profiling, all in an effort to comply with an enforced federal monitor.

Just two years after the death of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown at the hand of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, led to the country’s largest Black Lives Matter protests in Oakland, California, local documentary filmmaker and UC Berkeley School of Journalism graduate Peter Nicks turned his camera on the OPD. But, on the cusp of meeting the required reforms — and at the end of Nicks’ gathered funds — a local scandal broke international news. The film’s third act observes as OPD struggles under the unwanted interrogation.

The director and cameraman of “The Force,” Peter Nicks, sat down with The Daily Californian to discuss the complexity of police reform and his film’s twist ending, which is still unwinding today.

The Daily Californian: The documentary approaches OPD with a very open-minded tone. What, if any, do you think was the message of the film?

Peter Nicks: In my mind, there was a pretty sharp conclusion — which is the need for oversight. … Beyond that, I think the ambiguity is a reflection of life: There’s good cops, there’s bad cops, there’s people fighting for justice who are good and bad, there’s complexity on all sides. Sometimes it’s hard for people who are advocating very strongly, for one thing or another, to be able to hold that complexity, or to be able to hold two truths simultaneously — and so the film does ask the audience to try to do that in some cases.

DC: Since you were there while they were under federal oversight, what did that exactly entail?

PN: The department is operating under a negotiated settlement agreement that resulted in a lawsuit that was brought against them after “the riders” case, which was a corruption case back in 2000.There were a number of terms, everything from reducing racial profiling to officer involved shootings. … That’s part of the reason we wanted to make the film, because we wanted to see: What does that process look like, what does reform look like in real time?

DC: In observing the training sessions where recruits watched the Black Panther films, I was wondering: Is that something they did a lot of?

PN: Obviously, you hope that police departments are talking about the Panthers and showing them officer-involved shootings that are debatable … and having them grapple with that. We wanted the audience to understand that … that’s part of the reform process. In a lot of police department academies, that type of stuff isn’t happening. Oakland is one of the more progressive departments.

DC: What was your reaction when the sex scandal broke?

PN: With a documentary, you don’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s not like we were like, ‘there’s going to be a scandal at the end’ — I don’t know if they would have let us in if they had known that.

We were almost done with the film when the sex scandal broke. …  We’re just about out of money … we were trying to get into Sundance — we did have to stop and figure out how to incorporate that. It wasn’t just a local story, it wasn’t even just national, it was international, it was all over the world, this thing. So we knew we had to represent it.

DC: Why did you decide to do the film with no interviews — a “cinéma vérité” style?

PN: I think a closeness to character and a closeness to situations creates that authenticity and immersiveness and doesn’t inflect as much editorializing, and I think what we wanted to do was allow people to take this for what it meant for them. I think a lot of the distrust and divisiveness in this country is a result of not knowing each other’s stories.

DC: A scene that stood out to me was when they watch the video of the officer shoot the man getting out of his car — 13 times. I assumed that the officers were all going to be on the same page, but then they weren’t.

PN: Cops are so upset because they feel like we’re all criticizing them … where we all would have done the same thing. The film is trying to put two truths next to each other at the same time. … It’s necessary for us as a society to hold that authority in check, but until we deal with the underlying problems — poverty and violence — we’re going to continue to have these interactions.

Contact Audrey McNamara at [email protected].

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