It’s not often that a documentary film achieves both newsworthy timeliness and long-term, long-form, longitudinal depth. But that’s exactly what Stephen Maing pulls off with Crime + Punishment, a project that’s been years in the making, following more than a dozen characters, comprising over a thousand hours of footage, and yet the issues at hand and its attendant legal proceedings, couldn’t be more active or immediate. Building off of several shorter films made earlier in the decade, Maing (whose previous feature, High Tech, Low Life premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) spent time with New York City police officers who had decided to go public with their frustrations over what they were being asked to do—effectively meet arrest quotas that target citizens of minority communities, even though such quotas have been deemed illegal. But where another filmmaker might have invested just enough production time to get adequate footage for a topical, news-oriented dispatch from the “front lines” of the clashes over police reform and racial profiling, Maing instead just kept showing up. And kept meeting more officers, with different stories, from varying backgrounds, who were readying themselves to go public and face on-the-job punishment as well as potential public backlash in order to do what they felt was right and try to change a culture of criminalizing—and profiting from—the poorer and more vulnerable sectors of society.
Throughout the course of the below interview, conducted mere days before the film’s world premiere as part of the U.S. Documentary Competition, Maing mused over how to describe what he’s doing in this film, shying away from being called a journalist despite working deeply and ethically in a journalistic mode. And while working quite effectively in that mode, what he accomplishes in terms of form, and in terms of nimble, elastic filmmaking, goes well beyond a presentation or deliberation of reported facts. Sequences flow from on the fly, off-the-cuff interactions between the filmmaker and his subjects into visually evocative passages, then into spontaneous, often revelatory street-level reportage, then into candid moments of whistleblowers weighing the costs of their convictions and commitment. There are Serpico-worthy confrontations that veer into thriller territory, as well as candid, emotionally raw moments that can only be achieved over time, and through sincere human connection between a filmmaker and his or her subjects. “We really wanted to kind of create a genre—cinematic investigative filmmaking,” Maing offered at one point, and that might begin to convey the significance and complexity of what he’s aiming for with his film.
Director Stephen Maing speaks at the premiere of 'Crime + Punishment.' © 2018 Sundance Institute | Jonathan Hickerson
Eric Hynes: Can you give me a timeline of sorts of how this production played out? I’m assuming you didn’t start out with exactly this many subjects, or planned to shoot for precisely this long. How did everything start to accrue and come into this shape?
Stephen Maing: During 2012 to 2014 producer Ross Tuttle and I made three projects—two shorts for The Nation and another one-hour piece that ended up on CNN, where we used anonymous NYPD officers as informants. After the pieces were done, it became very clear that a couple of the cops who had allowed us to record in silhouette were ready to go more public, to speak out with their identities undisclosed. So we kept in touch with them, and there was this opportunity to document the process of officers considering blowing the whistle on things that they thought were not going well in the department. To show it firsthand and in intimate detail. To do something different than what we had done before and create something that was much more rooted in human experience and was more character driven in order to show the impact of the policies rather than just have a discussion about them.
EH: As a filmmaker you’re often in the position of having to earn someone’s trust in order to get them to reveal themselves, but this sounds somewhat more advanced, in that they were already ready to show themselves to you. Did you have to make efforts to protect them from the risks of their own revelations, considering what you were capturing?
SM: You’re always worried about situations where your subjects are willing to show more than you are comfortable with committing to an official record. It’s why this took so many years to make. We had to learn and grow with them rather than rush to put something out. This film entailed years and years of verite filming—it’s easily over 1,000 hours of footage, probably around 300 shooting days out in the field with the various subjects. It took an incredible amount of time to just make sure that at various junctures they were comfortable with the film being made about them. And the truth is at varying times, I would film with one or two cops and they would sort of cool off a little, and then we would pivot to some others. Maybe it was because they were busy with work and family stuff, or were still acclimating to this whole idea of fully disclosing not just their claims, but their experiences. In a lot of ways, it’s much harder to share your emotional response to problems than to share the problem as you see it on paper. And so I think that was the big challenge for Ross and I, sticking around long enough, through the years, and continuing in a fully transparent verite mode, just countless, endless days in the field. I think a lot of doc filmmakers like to hone in on the strategy that allows them to shoot less with more potency. But in this case it was the exact opposite. I was shooting a lot and I was casting as broad a net as possible, because at the end of the day we didn’t want any single subject to bare the individualized kind of burden of the claims.
EH: How were you able to not only relate to them all, but maintain their patience and trust over the long haul?
SM: I think that they saw that Ross and I had really put in the time to get to know them and report on their stories in our previous projects. The idea and the hope was that over time they would understand that—while they were fighting the day-to-day battle—a kind of longitudinal history of what had unfolded would also be of value down the line. Even though it might not have always been apparent. A lot of times, I think they probably just shrugged their shoulders and wondered, “How much shooting is it going to take to tell this story?” And for me it was admittedly a very messy process. Which is inevitable I think, as there needed to be a very organic kind of strategy to flow amongst various groupings of communities and police reform efforts. All were centralized around this singular idea that in the department, there are minority officers who feel ethically conflicted with the pressures that they’ve received to go out and target the community for more enforcement activity. That is a very dry and simple statement that is not news to anybody. We’ve all heard that before, it’s been reported out before. But that could take on so many dimensions. And could mean so many different things and have such a powerful ripple effect, far beyond that single moment of recording of an officer pushing back against a supervisor.
A subject from the film walks the press line at The Ray theater. © 2018 Sundance Institute | Jonathan Hickerson
EH: Obviously they were all putting themselves on the line, and to some degree so were you. Did you feel a parallel sense that powerful entities didn’t want you to pursue this story or make this film?
SM: Yes and no. The totality of what we’re making here feels very explosive, but in real time, the thing that I was encouraged by, that made me believe that this film could actually be made and not be harmful to ourselves and the subjects, was that these guys did not come out in one grand gesture. This is years of effort to speak out and to file complaints—and to speak to the media. Adhyl Polanco and Pedro Serrano had been involved in the 2013 Federal Trial on Stop & Frisk—Floyd vs. City of NY. They testified during those hearings and were already being retaliated against for being whistleblowers. This is a very active, live story that the local media was engaging with, but the fact that we were covering it over such a long period of time gives it a bit more gravitas because there is this propensity for the media to splash something up on social media—here today, but gone tomorrow. Whereas our narrative structure is designed to radiate outwards and incorporate more and more corroborating stories of other officers and then other individuals—civilians on the street—to bring us into courtrooms and precincts, homes and law offices. This is something that I hope speaks more systemically than the individualized cases might have been able to in the past. So this kind of diversified burden of responsibility that these guys have taken on as a group is a powerful gesture. And there’s a little bit more safety in numbers.
EH: I’m fascinated by the tension the subjects must have felt between the short-term newsy stories that pop up over the course of the film, and what they were doing with you, participating in footage that might take years to see the light of day.
SM: It’s a really hard thing to stay committed to. Not just in terms of convincing people whose lives you’re filming over a span of four years, but even on a financial level. There is no financial incentive to draw the documentary process out beyond a year. Nobody is really apt to throw money at you to do that. So the burden of doing that just falls on the filmmaker. Yet I was dead set that if we did something with this kind of access that it needed to be deeply intimate. That it absolutely needed to feel authentic and true to their experience. And that it needed to allow for consideration that these guys were making a credible case for what they were claiming. I think that that’s the duty of long-form documentary filmmaking. Time spent somehow indirectly helps translate into making a rhetorical point that would be much more difficult had you just sort of air dropped in, got a really punchy interview, and shot some verite coverage.
EH: Considering your longitudinal, day-to-day commitment, how did you come to close the circle on the larger narrative, to arrive at this shape and put the film out into the world?
SM: Since we have been under this very distracting cloud of daily dystopian news coming from the White House, our attention has really been shifted much more so than in the years past, and a lot of these kinds of stories are just not getting nearly as much attention. They just don’t have the sustaining power of a Trump tweet story. It’s overwhelming and scary. As things were unfolding in 2016 and it was clear that the city was going to be pushing fiercely to have the class action dismissed, I just felt like it was really important that we try our best to insert the conversation that unfolds in this film into a citywide and ideally, national conversation around police reform. Since 2018 was always going to be the start of a new mayoral term and with that would be the reappointment of a commissioner or the placement of a new police commissioner, I didn’t want to just rubber-stamp the mayor to continue business as usual. And the nature of the class action lawsuit is that it could easily take 5-7 years to see a resolution. Thus this lack of resolution was going to have to be the conclusion to a piece we would make.
EH: It’s quite powerful, dramatically and emotionally speaking, to know that the officers’ lives and livelihoods put out on the line in the film are still out on the line. You’re not revisiting a case that’s been won, you’re seeing one that’s still being fought. It puts the audience in a more activated state, and that’s crucial I think. How do you think the release of the film is going to change your relationships with your subjects, since they’ve existed on such a private scale for so long?
SM: I think these guys simultaneously know that what they are doing is significant to some of the most urgent issues that we are facing right now as a nation, while they also maybe underestimate the great power of what they’ve done individually and as a group. They’ve largely lived and made these efforts in a kind of vacuum at times. They have a lot of support, but as I said before, the fact is that police reform will be hot for some weeks and months, and then the nature of the news cycle is quite cruel, and quickly moves on. I hope this will allow people to really see the continuum of all their efforts, and the calculated risks they’ve taken in order to expose what is really an urgent and pressing issue.
EH: You’re obviously deeply and uniquely knowledgeable about this issue, but you’ve also made sure not to make an issue-oriented film. Despite all that you’ve witnessed firsthand and are now presenting to the world, the film comes across much more like finely-wrought, exactingly detailed group portraiture than some kind of expose. I would imagine that’s both the yield of your artistic intentions and of the depth of what you were able to encounter over so many years with everyone.
SM: This is not just an investigative piece like any other you would see on Frontline or whatever. There are filmmakers who go out and acquire material by being active agitators. Whereas this is all about passive participation and observation. Just sticking around long enough. So that a two-hour car ride unfolds into some pretty heavy shit being said. I think in a lot of ways the place that journalism and documentary filmmaking should part is in that place where, as investigative journalists, you can go out and produce a proof of concept very easily. You ask the right loaded questions. But in long-form documentary, if you just stick around long enough, you’re going to get a more authentic rendition of that same thing. I don’t consider myself a journalist per se, but rather somebody working in that space. I don’t want this to seem like the culmination of “well here’s a piece about quotas,” and we went out and made that piece. This was something a lot weirder. A lot more unwieldy in a sense.
EH: You’re getting something authentic from them, but also you can’t be in a car for that long with somebody, or spend that many days with them, without being authentic yourself. I would seem to work both ways.
SM: That’s always the gift when you’re spending time with people eager to have you understand things the way they’ve lived it. And so it’s good to go in being the open, uninformed person that you are, despite having spent a number of years already working in the space. I think that the human element was something that [in those previous films] we still hadn’t really cracked. It was really nice to see their openness to participate in this, to see their conviction that this was the right thing to do. And by way of that, we got access to a very rich human story.