Captures neither the drama or charm of its fascinating subject about the escapades of a journalist.
In 2013, I saw the very engaging documentary Plimpton!, based on the legendary literary journalist George Plimpton, who put himself right in the middle of his stories, like the time he joined an NFL team and told the story in a way no outsider could. But director Ryan Mullins’ documentary on Ghanese journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas takes this sort of immersive journalism up a few notches on the stakes ladder. Anas works directly with police in placing himself undercover, where he infiltrates prostituion rings, illegal abortion clinics, and religious cults all for the sake of getting the information out to the people and spurring on social change. His methodologies are controversial—not many journalists place themselves in dangerous situations each time they write—but no one can argue with the power of his stories. He’s like a real-life Clark Kent, except we actually occasionally get to see him write a story.
The filmmakers were clearly going for this larger-than-life superhero angle when focusing their lens on Anas, who takes on a series of “missions” through a mixture of formal recording during the planning stages and hidden cameras while undercover. This persona is built up with street interviews (“He can vanish at any time! He can fly!”) and a dramatic montage at the film’s onset, where he gets a prestigious nod of approval from TED Talks, where he’s shown giving a speech, and President Barack Obama, who mentions him in a speech of his own.
But the film isn’t quite as exciting as the hype.
None of the missions feel terribly dangerous. And, no, I’m not criticizing a lack of violence, but the film’s tone, which at times doesn’t seem in line with the gravity of the situation. The opening scene, where Anas and detectives capture a man who’s raped more than 12 children, seems bizarrely light. Anas is first shown in a van on a cellphone reveling with someone, “I’m got him. Yeeeeessss. Exciting!” To be followed by actually taunting the captured man in the van. “The kids used to say, ‘One day you’ll be arrested,’” he says, smugly. “This is the Day.” It really kind of rubbed me the wrong way. If you’re going for a superhero comparison, you need to balance it out with a little humility: Batman never sat in the back of the Batmobile talking about how cool the catch was. When we follow this scene with a visit to a school where he’s retelling his capers like a teen remembering his glory days on the high school football team, I almost gave up on this film for good.
Don’t get me wrong; I blame the somewhat cocky tone entirely on the film’s editing. Anas’ award-winning journalism is impressive. The missions, which we get to see from start to end, seem well-planned and carefully executed. And, most importantly, Anas is dealing with some very serious human-rights violations, saving lives and putting away very despicable men. He deserves to be the subject of a documentary. I think the well-meaning steps to build up the hype of “Anas, the unstoppable” just lost their footing a little. But, somehow, even with the superhero comparisons, we’re confronted with some surprisingly slow passages. The same mission planning I just commended actually makes up the bulk of the documentary, and when interwoven with additional interviews, sometimes it’s easy to forget what mission we’re planning for next. To compound the issue, the conversations aren’t always easy to follow due to the thick accents of interviewees.
But that’s nitpicking. The true problem here is that no one has a face. A visit to Anas’ hometown doesn’t reveal more about the mystery man other than the fact that he used to sell chameleons as a kid—an appropriate metaphor for a man who is constantly adapting to new situations. But it’s hardly revelatory. Every human being has motivations and weaknesses. We never penetrate the surface of Anas, the man. We also don’t get to know any of the criminals beyond their charges on paper. The undercover footage we watch alongside Anas doesn’t capture the actual ringleaders often, let alone their crimes. Instead, we get a lot of shaky footage of large groups of people and the outdoors, with the occasional brief one-on-one interview. As a result, each arrest feels a bit rushed: crime and capture, without those moments to feel invested in between.
We do get to spend more time on the last mission, a religious cult guilty of a slew of sex crime violations, and the payoff here works for the very reason I’m describing: We finally get a human face when filmmakers track down a 13-year-old girl and her mother. When she tells her story of being sexually assaulted by men who claimed she was possessed, her mother’s face turns from grief to shame when the girl says her mother also believed she was possessed.
This girl’s five-minute appearance steals the show. We needed a dozen more of these moments. These are the people Anas’ stories are truly aimed at illuminating. The film focuses too much on the James Bond elements. Sure it’s hard, even impossible, to get the stories from these people living in isolated conditions and who have been brainwashed and traumatized. But actually relaying those stories is probably why Anas’s stories are engaging—and why this documentary ultimately falls short.
Originally published as part of our Hot Docs 2015 coverage.