A scene from Peter Nicks' "The Force"

Sundance ’17 Interview: Peter Nicks on “The Force” to Be Reckoned With

Peter Nicks has found the best subjects are close to home – physically, for him, and emotionally for the rest of the world. From his home in Oakland, California, it was Nicks’ curiosity about his wife’s job working at Highland Hospital that led to his debut feature “The Waiting Room,” a unique perspective on the health care crisis in America through the lens of patients filing into the emergency room to look at the systemic issues that have been raised by the uninsured who have nowhere else to turn. Arriving in 2012 when the debate over the Affordable Care Act was at fever pitch, the film couldn’t have been more timely or eye-opening, and the same could be said of Nicks’ latest, “The Force,” a dynamic, riveting look at the Oakland Police Department, from Academy training on up.

Remarkably even-handed and assured, “The Force” tracks the department still under federal oversight in the wake of charges in 2003 of grave misconduct and civil rights abuses and in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement where every arrest is cause for scrutiny amongst a fierce collection of community activists. As Ben McBride, a local pastor can be seen telling cadets in the film, “The past stole your identity and it has run up an incredibly high bill,” signifying the deep sense of distrust that has been sown over decades where police-involved shootings have been a regular occurrence. However in 2014, the year when Nicks starts filming, no such incidents have occurred under the watch of Sean Whent, the Chief of Police who preaches accountability and appears to have brought stability to the position that has seen five others come and go in the past decade. It also seems as if the rest of the department has fallen in line, as Nicks sneaks into training sessions where talking about the importance of the public’s trust is on par with policing tactics and scenes from the streets show cops committed to keeping the peace as peacefully as they can.

With unfettered access, “The Force” shows the incredible demands of the job – the split-second judgment calls when dealing with violent criminals and the community relations aspect that seems every bit as perilous as being in the line of fire while on patrol. But as Nicks’ camera continues to roll, anxieties run even higher when a series of unthinkable events start to rock the department, leading activists to call for a police commission run by the public and putting Oakland’s bid to get out from under the thumb of the Feds in jeopardy. At once a thrilling drama and a meticulous, deeply considerate study of the growing chasm between police and the community they serve, the film brings the boys in blue to light, illuminating the work they do and the work they have to do regain the public’s confidence.

Shortly after the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Nicks spoke about going along for the wild ride of “The Force,” how he created such a energetic and engaging work of nonfiction without resorting to talking head interviews, and giving new dimension to the way people view police.

A scene from Peter Nicks' "The Force"How did this come about?

This is the second in a trilogy of films that to some degree are inspired by “The Wire,” looking at the relationship between public institutions and the community in one American city. It started with “The Waiting Room” in 2012, which was about a public hospital waiting room and that film did very well – the response made me realize there was a real desire to [see] the stories of this city, which were matters of national concern, so that really led us to feel that going inside a police department in the style that we did “The Waiting Room,” which was nonjudgmental, non-polemical and observational could really resonate at a moment when this had become such a polarizing issue. [“The Waiting Room”] opened some doors that led to us getting some access [to the Oakland Police Department for] “The Force.” We saw it was a really important moment to try to understand better this relationship between the police and the community because the conversation has become so divisive.

Since it’s such a labyrinthine subject, how did you figure out the points of entry for this film?

When you start a documentary, you have your research and you [figure out] who’s going to represent the department and where within this sprawling department are we going to set all our cameras and really begin to observe. When we began, we were actually spending most of our time in the dispatch [room] where all the dispatchers take the 911 calls [since] we thought that was a fascinating stage for storytelling in the same way as “The Waiting Room.” But in the intervening weeks and months as the Ferguson decision came down and Black Lives Matter emerged, the ground really shifted dramatically in front of us. All of a sudden, we found ourselves filming nothing but protests for weeks on end and that really was the beginning of a shift in our approach to the filming. It led to a perspective of the community in a much deeper way than we had originally planned.

In the film, you see Sean Whent, Oakland’s chief of police, preaching accountability. Did you think your own access might be tied to that?

Part of what we were excited about was that we were going to get to document this department that was in a very active process of reform. Because of past civil rights violations tied to “The Riders” case in 2000, where officers were planting evidence on people and beating suspects, this was a department under federal watch being forced to reform and the fact that they let us in was profound. We had this opportunity to really see intimately and up close what that looked like – how does a police department reform? As time wore on, we spent so much time with this department that current events just unfolded in front of our cameras – nothing obviously that we planned, but when you spend a long enough time in an environment, usually something’s going to happen and something did.

I don’t want to spoil any of the film’s many twists and turns, but did filming and access get more complicated as production went on?

It was always complicated. In any film [requiring access], it’s not like you have unbridled access all the time. Even though we had an agreement with the city, it’s a constant negotiation and we were actually surprised the department was still open to our cameras during the period when the [sex] scandal’s unfolding. That’s a testament to the willingness of this department to be transparent, but also to face and own up to the challenges of policing in the city. Despite how much of a PR challenge and a very practical challenge in terms of who’s going to lead this department they were facing, we were still able to have a relationship and we still do, [which is] an important thing to point out because not every police department would’ve reacted in the same way.

Sean Whent in a scene from Peter Nicks' "The Force"One of the scenes I deeply admired comes early in the film where you see how the police tend to a Black Lives Matter rally, but you cut away to watch Police Chief Whent ask about a murder going on in another part of the city where you see the need for the police to handle both situations simultaneously. As a filmmaker, it seems like footage of the rally may have been more compelling, so how did that choice come about?

Those parallel narratives were really an important realization as we spent time with the police – that they were holding this burden of responding to the call for accountability from Black Lives Matter and dealing with their protests [while honoring] their responsibility to keep the city safe and dealing with killings in the community where you’re seeing black lives, for the most part, being lost because of gun violence. This is part of where this division between the police and the community really gets exacerbated [because] the view of police is that black lives matter to them because they’re trying to prevent these murders on a daily basis – at the same time that people are protesting [that] “Black Lives Matter,” they’re rushing off to deal with homicides, so that disconnect we found to be deeply profound.

You find quite an interesting cop to follow in Officer Cairo – were you assigned to him or did you choose him to follow?

We really had our pick and our agreement with the department was that we asked just to meet as many officers as possible and we asked to do ride-alongs. They connected us with people, but we just kept seeing [Officer Cairo] out there over and over and over, so we asked, “Can we hang out with him and get to know him a little bit more?” He just seemed like the everycop. He was young, idealistic, and had an energy and enthusiasm that we felt would be interesting to track over time to see how the reality of policing impacted him. That’s ultimately why we picked him.

There’s a great sequence after he makes an arrest where you envision him playing back what just happened in his mind – it’s a bold, stylistic break for a film that’s told almost entirely in the present, but that’s part of what makes it so effective. How did that come about?

Lawrence Lerew, who edited the film and also edited “The Waiting Room,” is a very talented editor and the challenge with a sequence like that is when you’re approaching the film in the realistic, observational style that we were approaching it, it does not give a lot of room for stylistic flourish, so any time you do something like that, it has the risk of standing out. But we were very purposeful with that scene and a couple others where we repeated action – once through the perspective of my camera and then through the perspective of the officers’ body cameras. We did that to get the audience to understand and experience these incidences multiple times so you realize you only have one chance and one opportunity to make a decision as a cop, but there are so many different choices that can be made. To see [Officer Cairo] replaying that in his mind, we felt was really important.

Since it’s at the department’s discretion, was the police body cam footage easily accessible?

It was a bit of a challenge. Part of the narrative of the film was the department’s decision to release body cam footage in a couple incidences in question, due to protests and that material had been released. Some of the other material, like Cairo chasing after the guy at the tire shop and the one where he confronted the guy whose sister had been hit by a car, we had to make requests of the department and it really tied into whether those instances were part of an active investigation. Since they were not, we were able to get access to the footage.

This is a silly question, but there’s a scene at the police academy where you’re filming a simulation involving smoke canisters inside a small room – how were you able to film that?

My associate producer was inside the gas house where the recruits are being trained on how to use gas masks with a small little DSLR camera and I was on the outside, so I caught when [one of the recruits] panicked and ran outside, but he caught the inside and I caught the exit. We didn’t do too much two-camera work, but that was one scene where the two cameras really worked for us.

Some of the field work you do at the protests and the ride-alongs appear to be really well-covered. Was that usually just one camera?

We had a small camera mounted inside the vehicles, so we had that angle and then I was seated in the car during the ride-alongs and sometimes we had a GoPro, so sometimes we had three cameras going. If you add citizen YouTube footage in some cases, we had four cameras to choose from, so it fluctuated. In different scenes, we had different set-ups and for the most part, it was a single camera rendering of what unfolded.

It’s interesting to hear you might’ve been keeping track of YouTube footage – is this a situation where you want to be aware of what else is out there while you’re filming or can you put your head down and concentrate on the narrative that’s unfolding in front of you?

What was most challenging was as we were making the film, we’re seeing all the stuff that’s happening in the news – this shooting, that shooting. There were several high-profile shootings [nationally involving police] – obviously Ferguson – that occurred during filming that constantly put pressure on us to decide how were we rendering these police. Are we doing a sympathetic view of them? Do we need to be more critical? That was a real challenge to feel the national mood out there – and granted, my perception of that mood was dictated by the news sources that I choose – CNN, the New York Times, my Facebook feed, which is populated mostly by progressive folks. So I was constantly trying to put that aside and stay focused on the authenticity of the world I was in and really observe and render that observation into a film free of my own bias or the pressures of how my friends were feeling about the police because they weren’t privy to what I was privy to. They weren’t inside this department. They weren’t seeing what I was seeing and I felt a responsibility to share honestly both the efforts of these officers in the department, but also the challenges they begin to face as time went on.

A scene from Peter Nicks' "The Force"You also manage to provide the right amount of context in every scene without any sit-down interviews. Was it a challenge?

It was a hard film to edit, [partially] because of the national mood [towards the police] and the question of how much of a sympathetic view of the police would the audience be able to hold. There’s such strong feelings about the police out there and such a strong belief [among some] that the police are hiding things that they’re doing that may not be appropriate that we had to tread very carefully in how we construct the world of the police. We had a lot of footage to choose from and at one point, we even experimented with me narrating the film – I’m a mixed race kid, part-black, part-white and went to a white private school and Howard University, so I was constantly trying to reconcile the belief within the activist community of who the police really are versus the experience of getting to know these cops. I personally developed a sympathy for them, so that was very difficult.

We eventually landed on this cinema verite approach with very limited context, so we decided to put some text cards in here and there and then we had some verite opportunities – like the academy classes. [Those] were great because they were happening in real time and even though they may have been a little bit slower in terms of the cinematic experience, they provided vital context to allow the audience to understand the world of both the community and the police department.

What has premiering this at Sundance been like for you?

It’s been an incredible honor for me to be here. I remember coming with my film professor [Jon H. Else] back in 1998. He won the Filmmaker’s Trophy with his film, “Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle” and I was in such awe. From that point forward, I wondered what it would be like to have a film at Sundance. “The Waiting Room” narrowly missed getting programmed, so having a film of my own at the festival for the first time has been stressful, exciting, and deeply meaningful. My family came a couple of days ago and it’s been great to have them here and share in this unforgettable experience with me. I’m incredibly grateful to Sundance for the opportunity.

“The Force” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Sundance Film Festival once more on January 28th at 12:30 pm in Salt Lake City.