SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! “Do you want a friend who will lie to you?” This ordinary question, posed as a statement, underlines the extraordinary war at the heart of Bad Press, written and directed by Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler. And like so many modern wars, cold as they are, this one focuses on society’s ramifications of transparency of information, or the lack thereof. It is an unassuming documentary that makes excellent use of editing to deliver a compelling narrative experience.
The film revolves around Angel Ellis, a reporter living in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, a town about as small as one can imagine. For years she has worked for Mvskoke Media, the voice of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. But when the town’s Free Press Act is dissolved, the necessary transparency for functioning journalism is all but destroyed. We then follow the ensuing fallout throughout the community, particularly the subject’s fight to redeem journalistic integrity, as well as those in power using the lack of it to their advantage.
Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler take great care in dissecting the matter at hand. They elevate the movie beyond the small-town trappings of its story. A lesser documentary would jump at easy talking points, such as racism, but the strength of Bad Press is how little interest it has in connecting trite dots. Of course, the notions of race are considered, but only just, and these threads are held up against the greater tapestry of deception by the Muskogee elders themselves. The film draws important distinctions, not about the color of the people’s skin, but about the honesty of their character.
“…when the town’s Free Press Act is dissolved, the necessary transparency for functioning journalism is all but destroyed.”
As a film, all these ideas are raised with a skillful eye. When the Freedom of Press Act is revoked, rather than indulging in a cascade of shots of heartbroken people, the viewer is shown a verdant field filled with cows. In the foreground are three rusted and broken-down cars. They’re talismans of the erosion of moral obligation amidst the tribe, but also a visual indicator that the issue of corruption is commonplace and has been for generations. There is a flow to the documentary that gives the viewer an informed perspective without sacrificing emotional truth.
The only issue not considered, and one that is necessary for any documentary of this type, is the question of how these situations are allowed to repeat themselves. For example, at one point in Bad Press, a lady in her mid-forties says that she has registered to vote for the very first time. Against the backdrop of corrupt elected officials, ideas like these are critical, but the film leaves something unsaid. This is especially egregious when the filmmakers are trying to elucidate on how easily people can be deceived into everyday action that encourages political breakdown.
Still, Bad Press is a resounding documentary because of its quietness. It considers all the topics of the day — misinformation, government overreach, election scandals, and the list goes on. The filmmakers do so by showing that even the smallest, quietest town matters and that moral decay is always allowed to fester in the little places first.
Bad Press screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
"…gives the viewer an informed perspective without sacrificing emotional truth."