January 31, 2023

REVIEW OF SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2023! “Do you want a friend who will lie to you?” This ordinary question asked as explanation underscores the extraordinary war at the heart of bad press. And like so many modern wars, cold as they are, this one focuses on the impact of transparency of information, or lack thereof, on society. It’s a modest documentary that makes excellent use of editing and imagery to provide a compelling narrative experience.

bad press centers around Angel Ellis, a reporter living in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, a town as small as you can imagine. She has worked for Mvskoke Media, the voice of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, for years. But with the dissolution of the city’s Press Freedom Act, the necessary transparency for functioning journalism has been destroyed. The documentary follows the resulting fallout across the community, particularly Angel’s struggle to restore journalistic integrity, as well as those in power using the lack of integrity to their advantage.

The film analyzes the matter with great care, rising above the small-town trappings of its story of which it is well aware. An inferior documentation would jump at simple topics of conversation such as racism but the strength bad press is how little interest it has in connecting hackneyed dots. Of course, notions of race are considered, but only marginally, and those threads are held against the larger tapestry of deception by the Muskogee elders themselves. The documentary makes important distinctions, not in terms of people’s skin color, but in terms of the honesty of their characters.

Angel in Archives appears in Bad Press by Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler, an Official Selection of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival US Documentary Competition. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute | Photo by Tyler Graim

“…focus on Angel’s fight redeem journalistic integrityand those in power who use the absence to their advantage.”

As a film, all of these ideas are elevated with an equally adept eye. When the Freedom of the Press Act is repealed, instead of indulging in a cascade of shots of heartbroken people, the viewer is shown a green field full of cows and in the foreground three rusted and broken cars – talismans of eroding moral obligation within the tribe, but also a visible indicator that the issue of corruption is commonplace, and has been for generations. The documentary has a flow that gives the viewer an informed perspective without sacrificing emotional truth.

The only question that is not considered and that is necessary for any documentary of this kind is how these situations can be repeated. For example, at one point in the film, a woman in her forties says that this is the first time she has registered to vote; Against a backdrop of corrupt but elected officials, ideas like these are critical – the film leaves something unsaid, particularly when it shows how easily people can be duped into everyday actions that actually foster political collapse.

Quiet, bad press is a resounding documentary because of its calm. It considers all the issues of the day – misinformation, government abuse, election scandals and the list goes on – but it does so by showing that even the smallest, quietest town matters and that moral decay is always allowed to fester in the small towns first.

bad press screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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