Okmulgee, Oklahoma doesn’t look like a battleground for freedom of the press at the start of “Bad Press,” where most of the locals still rely on the daily newspaper for information about the community that they haven’t heard firsthand from their neighbors. Then again, that’s also why it could be that is easier to threaten than most when the primary source of news in the region, Mvskoke Media, the small but mighty outlet that covers Muscogee Creek, is placed in the untenable position of potentially covering their own demise when local politicians look to rescind the constitutional right in the year leading up to an election on the Native American reservation for National Council Speaker.
With their protections less than a decade old, truly independent media may be a relatively new to Muscogee Creek, which itself is still not that old after having elected their first principal chief in 1979. But “Bad Press” co-directors Becca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler show how it has become part of the firmament for the community, which may have always appreciated the positive stories about local sports and tribal celebrations that could be found in the pages of the Muscogee Nation News that was started in 1970s, but have benefited far more from being better informed by the investigations and oversight of council members that reporters such as Angel Ellis and Liz Gray undertook. It isn’t coincidental that when a bill is introduced at a council meeting to curtail access to the proceedings and insist upon the ability to review copy about their business, members who have had their sketchy dealings reported upon by the paper are eager to show their support and with a relatively low threshold can undo the will of the people they represent.
Following Ellis, a dogged reporter who worries not for her job but her entire profession as she sees the unraveling of her right to inform the public, the film chronicles the blowback of the bill when many of the candidates running for National Council Speaker in the next election seem to support a free press while those presently in power try to consecrate the weakened protections, and the lack of transparency about the entire process gives power to both the elected officials who can claim to be doing something different than what they are behind closed doors and the argument that the media is more necessary than ever. A challenged election and the battle over a new constitutional amendment ensue and while Ellis has to fight for every detail in one of her stories, Landsberry-Baker and Peeler offer an unflinching eye to all of it, showing the dangers of governments that operate without the fourth estate and the hope represented by journalists such as Ellis who knows it’s too important to too many to give up on a line of work without too many other rewards.
With the film making its premiere this week at the Sundance Film Festival, Landsberry-Baker and Peeler spoke about how they came to collaborate on the wild three-year journey, transcending the issues of access that they found along the way as much as the subjects they cover, and the inspiration they hope other journalists and communities will take away from the film when the issue has resurfaced in so many places here and abroad.
How did this come about?
Becca Landsberry-Baker: My husband and one of our producers, Garrett Baker, actually is good friends with Joe, so we knew he worked in documentary film as an editor and as a director and the story’s really a personal one for me, being a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation and also a former tribal media editor, working with the Muscogee Nation News when it was named that back in the day. I actually worked with Angel and Jared, and so I knew them, and the story has been happening for a long time, and not just in Muscogee Creek Nation, so I experienced some of the same censorship and challenges that we have with covering free press in Indian country. When the repeal hit, I knew this was such an important story, [Garrett and I] came to Joe and we [asked], “Do you think this is possible to follow this story?” Because we can’t just let it go uncovered and thankfully, he wanted to sign on.
Joe Peeler: It was a whirlwind. We met on a Monday and then I think Zoomed with Angel on a Wednesday, and then I was out in Oklahoma on Friday, flying out to film for a weekend and I met Angel and knew right away that she is the person who’s going to fight this fight and we’ve got to stick with it.
On an interview with Mvskoke Media, you actually mentioned you didn’t have a camera person for the candidate parade where there’s dozens of people to follow. Was that initial period like a trial by fire for you?
Joe Peeler: Luckily that was months into filming, but I was completely overwhelmed on that shoot. Really throughout the entirety of production, we had at maximum, five to six people as our core crew, so everyone’s wearing multiple hats. Our producer is running audio and I’m running camera and that might have been in summer of 2019, and it became very apparent during that shoot, we need to bring on a DP who knew what they’re doing, but that was definitely the biggest shoot at that point and the shoots only got bigger from there. On election days, we would have three teams all over Oklahoma filming different candidates, so I was very, very happy that we brought on Tyler Graim, our cinematographer.
Becca, I know that the transition from journalists to filmmaker is sometimes an interesting one. Did it come naturally or was it an adjustment?
Becca Landsberry-Baker: That may be a good question for Joe too, when working with me as a first-time filmmaker. I’m sure that came up.
Joe Peeler: I think you’re doing great.
Becca Landsberry-Baker: I think there is just such a natural connection because we’re doing the same thing. Essentially, it’s storytelling, but I had to learn so many things about the visual component of that because my background has always been in print, and I had done a little radio, but [my idea was always] show, not tell, so that was a big learning curve for me. And I’m very thankful for Joe’s expertise on the technical side, [which] paired with my storytelling and connection to the community, I feel like we’re a great team. It would’ve been impossible to tell the story without each other and I was just so thrilled to have the opportunity to share these characters with the world. They’re just so funny and I’m glad to get to share that native joy, to some extent too, in our story.
For stories in Indian country, especially, they’re just this rich, often untapped, diversity of stories and I’m really hopeful that more journalists, in seeing this film, take away is that we have the opportunity to tell our stories in this new visual format that we might not have explored before as journalists because we think that we don’t necessarily have the skillset. I really hope that we can open up more opportunities for other indigenous journalists to tell their stories in this way because it’s just so powerful.
You alluded to it earlier, but did your own attempts to gain access to this political process help you understand what the Muscogee Press was going through?
Becca Landsberry-Baker: [Since] I am also the executive director of the Native American Journalist Association, I have a connection to not just the Muscogee journalists, but those covering Indian country and I’m part of that community, so that was a natural fit and when you’re covering politics, many times politicians don’t necessarily want to talk to the press. But it was an election year in 2019, so you can’t really ignore Muscogee voters that are wanting to talk to you about the elections process and where you stand on these issues, so I think it was very apparent that we were doing a documentary and if you didn’t want to talk to us, that will obviously be shown in the film. As you can see out of the 10 candidates, there was only one who we didn’t have for a sit-down, Lucian Tiger, and that speaks for itself when it comes to wanting to be transparent about where you are in that process of election season.
But there does appear to be a moment where even he participates when you get in this wild car with suicide doors with him for the parade. How did that scene come about?
Joe Peeler: That was as surprising to me as it was the rest of the team. During the parade, we wanted to get Lucian on camera, and I had seen that his car was parked around the corner, so I wandered over to his car and happened to run into him at the very same time. We were going to the same place up Okmulgee Main Street, and he invited me into the car. We wanted to keep my voice in the film so you could see the interaction and I hopped in the car. There was minor chit chat, mainly about his car – it is a unique vehicle, to say the least. And then he let me out and said, “All right, see you later.” He’s not a cold person when he’s speaking to you. He’s very amiable, so we had a nice conversation and we thought, “well, we have to use this footage, this is a very interesting character moment for him.”
It’s the perfect introduction. There’s a lot of twists and turns in this, but was there anything that happens that changes your ideas of what it can be?
Joe Peeler: There were so many plot twists that they’re not even all in the movie. There were times when we would land and get election news and we would think, “Okay, we have to figure out what’s going on,” because we would fly out to Oklahoma from Los Angeles. Tqo come to mind – when the council voted down the constitutional amendment, that was a big moment of where is this going to go? I don’t know if this is going to turn out well for Angel and Muscogee Media. And the other one was when the election was challenged. We just had no clue what was going to happen, and I think you feel that in the film is there’s this confusion on the ground, from the citizens to the journalists to other politicians of what is going on.
Becca Landsberry-Baker: When the election [results] were thrown out, I was just like, “Oh please, no, we have to shoot this all again,”because we had three different teams following candidates and it’s one thing to do it for the news, when you’re following an election and something happens, you report on it immediately. But for every important beat, we would have to fly back and see how these votes were going to go. We had over 400 hours of footage, and to try to distill down that into the most important beats, we would have a story shaped [where] we’re like, “Okay, this makes sense. This is where we’re going with it.” And then something big would happen, so then you’d have to go back and completely reshape the story.
The failed election, for me, both as a voter and a citizen, I was just like, this is not what I want and definitely not what I came here to document. But there’s lots of twists and turns in it, so it makes for a very interesting story.
It also seems because this was a reflection of both national and international politics, that could do a lot of heavy lifting as far as speaking to the confusion in the election. Did the parallels of the larger world end up helping shape what you could do with this film?
Joe Peeler: It was certainly apparent while we were filming that what we were capturing was a microcosm of what was happening in the United States. A candidate would show up and have a lot of money, and you would think, “Oh, this seems like a Bloomberg situation,” and then the challenge to the election, you’d think, “I’ve heard this before.” And that was happening a lot. Luckily, that helps the audience plug in to some of the more intricate political stuff that’s happening in the film. But we made a conscious effort in the edit to not bring attention to the national parallels and never say the words Trump or presidency or anything like that, to let the audience do that work of connecting and say “Look, we all have experienced this at this point, and here it is in a new lens.”
What was it like working through the pandemic?
Becca Landsberry-Baker: It was very difficult, but the story just necessitated that we continue this journey. Our original plan when we started filming in February 2019 was to have this movie finished by 2020, so we can play it [in time for] the 2020 election season. Obviously we were a little bit behind schedule, but something that’s not in the film that we were there for and documented was the passage of free press legislation in 2020, and there was just so much information we were trying to cram in the last couple of months of the edit, we ended up taking that out and focusing just on the constitutional amendment. The story just kept growing and we had to be there to follow it, and ultimately that was the right way to do it because if we had tried to rush the process, the movie just wouldn’t have been the same.
What’s this moment like for you?
Joe Peeler: Totally insane. This moment is crazy. It’s very exhausting. I think a lot of filmmakers getting finished in time for Sundance feel the same way, where you’re working 16-hour days every single day trying to just finish up all of the details and I don’t think any of us have had a chance to really relax and be excited and have fun, but hopefully that’ll be coming soon.
Becca Landsberry-Baker: Yeah, this week we get to celebrate and see each other again in person and sit down together and have a meal as a team, because we’ve just been working remotely together. So this will be a really special time, not just for launching the film and being able to share it with the world, but also to share this moment with the team. I’m very excited about that.
“Bad Press” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24th at 3:30 pm at Redstone Cinemas 1 in Park City, January 25th at noon at the Sundance Mountain Resort, January 26th at 12:40 pm at the Holiday Village Cinemas in Park City and January 27th at 9:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City. It will be available virtually from January 24th through January 29th.