On his travels from London to Austin for the North American premiere of his latest film at SXSW, Hans Pool felt as though he was more relaxed than everyone around him, carrying a book to read and watching as others would check their phones for social media updates.
“Sometimes I’m very nostalgic about a period when there was no internet,” confesses Pool. “I have no Facebook account anymore. I don’t use Instagram. I don’t use Twitter. I’m not completely out of the digital world, but I like it very much.”
Thankfully, Pool didn’t disconnect completely, otherwise he never would’ve made “Bellingcat – Truth in a Post-Truth World,” but one can understand why he’d want to pull the plug even while chronicling a rare heroic tale to emerge from the social media age as he tracks a quartet of eagle-eyed amateur sleuths from around the world that have come to form the collective Bellingcat, first formed by Eliot Higgins. Operating individually from their humble homes in Berlin, Finland, England, Syria and the U.S., the Bellingcat team has made a global impact on the collection of evidence, developing a process and an archive legitimate enough to be used in court, comparing images and other clues found on Facebook and Instagram as well as public records to build timelines and identify bad actors, whether it’s nailing down the ID of a white power protestor in Charlottesville by the moles around his neck or confirming Russian involvement in bringing down the commercial airliner Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH-17) as it was making its way across Ukraine by tracking the movement of a truck carrying the missiles that were used.
Much like the members of Bellingcat bring old-fashioned muckraking into the 21st century, the film energetically illustrates how the digital breadcrumbs they gather can coalesce into a bigger picture, with Pool deftly bringing together the strands of their various investigations to show how seemingly random online data intertwines to become corroborating evidence visually while offering up context from the Tow Center’s Claire Wardle and NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen. While alarming in how detailed their findings can be based simply on what’s available publicly, the galvanizing tale of citizen journalism counters the increasing feeling of helplessness that one can feel in the digital age when so many others have used the internet to confuse and obscure the truth. When Pool was at SXSW, en route to CPH: DOX where the film will be playing this week, he spoke about the challenges of taking what’s on a computer screen and illuminating the real life stakes involved and observing Bellingcat become a trusted source of information.
How did this come about?
It all started with an interview I read in a Dutch newspaper, given by a member of Bellingcat member called Daniel. I thought to myself this is really a good story because it’s really just a normal guy doing some research, not a professional, and he is getting really to the truth about the launch of the missile that hit the MH-17. He mentioned Bellingcat [in the article], so I said, let’s meet Elliot, the guy from Leicester, and he was traveling a lot, [but stopped in] Amsterdam, so I got an appointment and asked him what do you think about making a film about Bellingcat?” A week later, he said to me, “I want to do that with you.” I also know someone who worked [with] Bellingcat, not as a Bellingcat member, but she [knew] Elliot, so everything is just a matter of trust [in making this type of film] and he trusted me and the whole team.
Was there any concern after other films have come out about like-minded organizations such as Wikileaks and like-minded organizations that have been laudatory, only to find out later their practices may be questionable?
Sure, but that’s not the story with Bellingcat. I like them very much because it’s a tough time for democracies. You’ve got Trump in the U.S. and Brexit [in the UK]. In Turkey, there’s something going on. And it’s all about fake news, so it’s a very important job [Bellingcat is doing]. [NYU Professor] Jay Rosen, says in the film, “We need more Bellingcats” because democracy is very, very important and when you read a newspaper, you have to trust them. When there is a future when you don’t trust any newspapers, I don’t want to live in that kind of society, and the invention of the internet [was around] 25 years ago, and it’s very hard for us now to really use it in a very good way. We see bad things now coming up because when it was 1990 and I used it for the first time, I thought “My God, we can really share everything with each other, so it was really a positive feeling you get from the use of the internet, but now 20 years later, everybody’s complaining and everybody’s saying, “My God, how can we deal with this in a good way?” So for me, the work of Bellingcat, it’s really a wonderful job they’re doing.
How did you decide on what stories you wanted to watch them track? Was it simply what came along?
When I started the film, it was all about the MH-17, but it really is the story of the Bellingcat method, not only one storyline and that’s only a Russian story. For me, Russia is very interesting because it’s changed a lot, especially the last seven years. [Just] yesterday, there was a big demonstration in Moscow because Putin tried to get total control over the internet and it’s not shut down, but he’s trying to control it, so there is not so much opposition anymore and the truth in Russia is all controlled, so the backbone of the film is the MH-17 and that’s very strong.
But then then I decided to get a broader [view of the Bellingcat method] so we decided to put the conflict in Syria – the bombing of the Syrian market, we all didn’t know the ending of that story, and Bellingcat didn’t know, and some other cases. I was filming with Elliot when suddenly he told me, “We haven’t heard from [Bellingcat member] Timmi for three weeks – nothing – and we are very, very frightened,” and then I decided, “My God, this is part of the story,” and I went to the other members and ask them what do you think about it? Because you’re so vulnerable when you do research on your own. You’re not protected by big companies, so it can be very, very dangerous for you.
Logistically, was it difficult to travel around to various places?
I always travel a lot. I’m making a documentary about immigration in Canada now, so it’s my way of living, but for Bellingcat film, there was a lot of traveling. [There were Bellingcat members in] Helsinki, Finland and Germany, a guy in Charleston and [Elliot] in Leicester and also [Christian], a Dutch guy, but he’s got no home. He stays everywhere in hotels. He’s now living in New York, working now for the New York Times, so you see also they’re kind of amateurs, they’re now completely professional.
By the end, I was trying to decide whether that’s even a good thing.
Yeah, sure. Now it’s a big organization, and Elliot and Christian told me they just opened an office in the Hague in Holland, so it’s an organization now, so I don’t [refer to] them anymore as amateurs. It’s really professional and they’re using the Bellingcat method – it’s important to spread it out all over the world.
Was it difficult to illustrate what Bellingcat does?
That was very, very hard job because I started with five, six people behind computer screens, and that is very, very boring. They are just ordinary guys – not anymore, by the way – but when we began to film, you can only film on computer screens. So the narrative of the story was very, very important and it’s not about very, complicated, big problems. It is really about you and me because maybe you have a Facebook account, and you post some photographs of you, and it’s easy for a Bellingcat member to investigate you. That’s why I think after seven minutes of the film was you think], “Oh my God, everybody can track me.”
Then I decided [to focus on] everything that is so exciting for me, the disappearance of the German guy [Timmi] and when you see the Bellingcat Method when Aric [in America] describing his research about the transportation of the [missile] from Russia to the Ukraine when you really see every part of the Bellingcat Method, using the open information to find the videos, the photographs, and the Google Earth – I like that part a lot. In the editing, I decided to work with an English editor [because] I’m from the Netherlands and normally, you work with a Dutch editor, but now I decided to work with an English editor because they are so good at telling a story, so fixed on the narrative of the film. And this was very, very hard because for the first three weeks, he told me when I came up with with an idea, “Cut the crap, man. Cut the crap.” [laughs] “This is your story, so when you do something [narratively], you really have to add something to your story. Don’t do some beautiful shots that add nothing.” So he was very, very strict and when the film was finished, I thought it was really a blessing to work with the guy and make the film the way it is now.