Beach people – Story Teller
by Ryan McDonald
About five years ago, documentary filmmaker David Keane created a reality show for the History Channel based on the lives of the Hatfields and the McCoys, the famous feuding families of nineteenth century Appalachia. It followed Kevin Costner’s hugely popular “Hatfields and McCoys” miniseries, which also aired on the History Channel. While work on the documentary, the network introduced the idea of the two feuding families getting together to produce White Lightning, a brand of moonshine supposedly based on ancestral recipes. (“The catch? They’ll have to stop seeing red to start making green,” an announcer intoned in one preview.) The business and the show became increasingly intertwined, and Keane decided to step away.
“It just became way too complicated for me. I think that brand is now selling beef jerky somewhere. It’s too weird to make up,” Keane said.
Keane sold his company, then later bought it back. Today, he enjoys the creative freedom to tell the stories he wants to tell. Most recently, that meant turning his lens on the place he lives. His latest documentary, “What Happens Next Will Shock You,” looks at the role of social media in politics, including the 2015 Measure O campaign to lift Hermosa’s ban on tidelands oil drilling.
Stop Hermosa Beach Oil, the largest and most influential of the No-on-O efforts, began its opposition with a series of meetings in residents homes. Someone in the group decided that it would be a good idea to document their work. So they reached out to Keane.
Keane opposed the oil project, and agreed to attend. But he was not prepared for the earnestness he would encounter. Entering his first meeting of the Stop Hermosa Beach Oil campaign, Keane felt like he’d shown up to a ball wearing boardshorts.
“I expected it to be, we’ll have a couple beers, some nachos, listen to music, and talk about oil. It was not like that at all,” Keane recalled with a laugh. “It was deadly serious. It was by the book. Whatever regulations or formalities you would need to have in a non profit organization, they were already in place.”
The serious tone was an indication of what was to come. Measure O lost in a landslide in March 2015. But in the time leading up to the vote, the prospect of drilling in the city produced a visceral reaction among residents. For those in favor and those opposed, a local land use question became a referendum on small-town identity.
“What Happens Next Will Shock You,” is skeptical, even pessimistic on the effects of social media in social movements. The documentary jumps from Hermosa to the forced resignation of the president of Missouri University, also in 2015, to the rise of ISIS, thoughtfully tracking the way the medium can distort the truth, and encourage loudness at the expense of subtlety.
With this project and others, Keane said, he is finding new ways to fulfill what he considers the highest calling of filmmakers: telling a story whose value is enhanced because it is true.
“There are so many opportunities to tell stories. Whether it’s an individual, an organization or business, everybody’s got a story. And usually people don’t even know how cool their story is until you start to tell it,” Keane said.
For years, Keane worked behind the camera in some of the world’s most hostile countries for journalists. He trekked through Columbian jungles to talk with paramilitaries, interviewed relatives of Osama bin Laden in Saudi Arabia, and remains one of few people permitted to film in the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, now called the “Den of Spies Museum.” (There are footprints on the ceiling, Keane said.)
Mark Bowden, a correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and the author of “Black Hawk Down” and more than a dozen other books of internationally focused reporting, is Keane’s cousin and frequent collaborator. He recalls his cousin working with Robert Young Pelton, a Canadian journalist known for his book “The World’s Most Dangerous Places,” which was eventually adapted into a series for the Discovery Channel.
“I used to call him ‘Mr. Danger,” Bowden said jokingly of Pelton. “He would travel around to most the dangerous, remote places in the world. He’d say to the camera, ‘Here I am, all by myself.’ And I’d be thinking, ‘No you’re not, there’s my cousin David right behind you.’”
Keane gradually stepped back from this kind of work, partly because of the heedless peril involved became less acceptable as he started a family. (He and his wife Arcadia now have two children, ages 9 and 11.) But Bowden’s crack also targets simplistic filmmaking that fetishizes danger and degradation while ignoring the deeper reason for strife—the kind of project Keane now hopes to avoid.
“I’m just not that interested in pursuing pop culture TV,” Keane said. “I do get opportunities, but I don’t go out of my way. I’m more interested in old-school documentaries.”
When Keane says “old-school,” he is referring less to the technology than to the method of inquiry. He brought up “Charlottesville: Race and Terror,” an episode of the HBO show “Vice News Tonight.” The piece came out just days after a white nationalist rally in Virginia exploded into chaos, causing two dozen injuries and one fatality. Keane was astonished by the “sheer quality and look” of the 22-minute episode, and he credited new technology for enabling people to produce short, high quality films while issues are still fresh in the public’s mind. The film, depicting heavily armed brutes advocating violence in pursuit of racial purity, was released the day before President Trump declared, “Some very fine people” participated in the white nationalist rally.
“I haven’t researched it, but it was probably the product of something really nimble, lightweight, and easy to use. Some of those shots, you’d typically have to block that out…It was so cinematic. Regardless of the content politically, I thought it was cool how it was done. Getting people to open up, to spill their guts is hard. If you can truly be a fly on the wall, it really helps. But to be a fly on the wall and create great cinematography at same time is a game changer.”
Return to O
The title “What Happens Next Will Shock You” is a winking allusion to the trashy, click-bait captions attached to unusual or vaguely pornographic photos that can be found even in respectable corners of the Internet. The concept got him the first-ever interview with the former president of the University of Missouri, who resigned following a student hunger strike and social-media propelled protests. Though he didn’t say as much, Keane hoped the film would be an opportunity for people to examine the impact of social media on their own level of discourse.
Keane got key players from the oil issue to open up about the ways the fervor of online debate sometimes got the better of people. He interviewed Ray Dussault, a prominent pro-oil voice, who recalled being subjected to constant threats and insults, and said the experience took an emotional toll.
Michael Collins, one of the leaders of Stop Hermosa Beach Oil, recalled being seized with emotion as the campaign began. But as the group became more organized — and as it became clearer that Measure O lacked the votes to pass — leaders began urging oil opponents to take a more civil approach on the Internet.
“[Kevin] Sousa, Stacey [Armato], and I had a meeting, and we started calling some of the bad actors on our side, saying, ‘Hey, tone it down,’” Collins said.
Keane premiered “What Happens Next Will Shock You,” over the summer at ShockBoxx, a Cypress Avenue art gallery Collins runs with artist Laura Schuer. Keane invited both supporters and opponents of oil drilling, some of whom were interviewed for the film. After the screening finished, Keane handed out microphones to people in the audience.
The Q&A resembled a psychology experiment. It descended into shouting and name calling, in-person behavior mirroring what took place online. It became clear that some of the wounds of the oil campaign had not healed. And new ones, like the controversy over the city’s updated General Plan, had opened.
Keane was evasive when asked whether he anticipated, or even intended, the fracas. But he said it confirmed some of the film’s points about the lingering impact of seemingly ephemeral keystrokes.
“It makes people feel like they’re being attacked, as though your best defense is offense. And that can be a self-perpetuating thing,” Keane said.
What happens next with “What Happens Next” is uncertain, Keane said. He is hoping for another local screening, and would also like to take the film to the University of Missouri. In the interim, Keane is seeking other local projects. He is currently working on one for the Hermosa Beach City School District, focused on an assignment given to district 8th graders to write a 20-page short story for a third-grade mentee. Like most subjects that interest Keane, it is a tale that he hasn’t seen told anywhere else.
Lately, he has become taken with historical films that combine vivid reenactments and feature film-style storytelling, interspersed with interviews of actual participants, a la “Band of Brothers.” The combination of the two may not be the most traditional application of documentary aesthetics or ethics. But it hits home, he said, in the way only the truth can.
“It makes it a bit more compelling than, say, Hal Holbrook narrating while you’re looking at a static cannon,” Keane said, alluding to the documentary style of Ken Burns. “They’re both great, but I really want to be taken on a ride.”