Shimmers of
Light in the Dark

A film projector lights up the darkness. Photo credit: Jeremy Yap

An Interview with Andy Peterson

“My experience of life is that growth comes through pain. I hate that it seems to be the reality, but at least it’s been the reality for me. Anything I feel I ever needed to learn came through some trial, some fire.”

It’s a little surprising to hear such words come from someone who wears their joy so well. As I got to know him in the context of unRival’s Artisans of Peace program, I realized that Andy carries his hard-learned lessons with a humble, gentle demeanor. His love for his family finds its way into every conversation, as does his compassion for those who are  enduring trials of their own. Where those trials are a direct result of prejudice and violence, Andy wants there to always be a storyteller in the room; someone helping the rest of us come face-to-face with the real costs of injustice–and helping us imagine a world beyond the fire.

Andy Peterson creates space for stories of fire and pain, and the growth that comes from them. He helps filmmakers with astounding stories find the support they need to get their visions in front of wider audiences. To these ends, Andy founded Docs/ology, an initiative for promoting these  extraordinary films through grassroots marketing & publicity. He is also the creator of the Justice Film Festival, a film and arts experience that celebrates social justice and emerging filmmakers from around the world. 

But it’s a tricky business. It’s one thing to market a Hollywood blockbuster, which attracts people to theaters more through hype than through substance. “In some of the projects I’m involved in,” Andy says, “substance is everything.” The subjects are often living people with estates and families that need respecting.

In a world that’s not above exploiting pain for the sake of profit, films about justice also need to do justice by how they’re promoted. This is where Andy plies his trade and pours his heart. We talked at length about the ethics of promoting justice-oriented stories, the place of art and storytelling in peacebuilding, and the responsibility every one of us bears to reclaim our own attention for the sake of compassion.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Andy Peterson
Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

What sort of trickiness about documentary filmmaking, about advertising for it and championing it, do you wish was better understood?

Portrait of Andy Peterson
Andy

My honest answer is: it’s really hard. It’s not sustainable to tell the most important stories that need to be told. And to use the medium of film to tell them–which I think is the most powerful way to tell these stories–is not financially sustainable for most. 

My experience has been that most documentary filmmakers are really poor, or really rich. There’s nobody in the middle. A true full time filmmaker just doesn’t really exist in the middle economic bracket.

So there are a lot of really talented filmmakers who just happen to have resources, come from money, are legacy children who got the benefit of a leg up on their education and resources, and [have become] very famous names in the documentary space. Then there’s lots of great examples of folks down on the other end who are just grinding, doing it for the love of the game. That’s what they believe they’re put on earth to do, and they’re barely getting by. 

Distribution is also challenging. From HBO to Hulu to Netflix, we have more platforms than ever. But there’s also more competition in that space than there has ever been in the history of documentary filmmaking. The available slots are pretty limited.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

Because those films are also competing with exciting blockbusters? How do they even do that?

Portrait of Andy Peterson
Andy

At one point in history, most documentary films were boring. Part of the reason was that there was no Hollywood style filmmaking involved. Now there is. Docs are incredible, great storytelling, great production, great techniques, everything. And with that has come the opportunity to add the talent factor you would find in any other Hollywood feature.

That has become a kind of marker of haves and have-nots in the space. Having talent attached – a famous face, famous voice, name, executive producer – makes a big difference when getting selected for festivals, distribution, etc. That part is tricky, too. A lot of really great films out there deserve an audience, but because they don’t have a celebrity attached, they’re going to have a hard time finding a home. 

Some of the many film projects Andy Peterson has worked with through Docs/ology.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

Have Justice Film Festival (JFF) and Docs/ology been able to do some of that matchmaking work?

Portrait of Andy Peterson
Julie

We have. I’ve got two examples of JFF projects we showed this past year in New York. 

One is an independently financed and produced film called Lovely Jackson. It’s about a guy named Ricky Jackson, wrongly incarcerated, took the fall for a crime he did not commit, refused to take a plea deal. It took over 30 years to [exonerate and] release him. But it finally happened. So it’s his story of being in prison, and of how his life was shaped by that. It’s beautiful, smart, important, and pretty innovative. It’s gotten into some of the best film festivals in the world, including JFF.

But so far that film is kind of in no-man’s land because they don’t have a celebrity executive producer attached. And there’s no famous voiceover in the film. It’s an important, well made, award-winning film–but it’s just struggled. 

Conversely, another independent film about illiteracy, called Sentenced, got screened at JFF and seen by an executive who decided they were all-in on it. It will be a game-changer. There is a major celebrity now attached and the film will be seen by millions of people because of the partnership that is being signed as we speak.

So yeah. Two emerging filmmakers with no real notoriety in the marketplace. Two beautiful, important films, independent money, grinding to finish, and one’s going this way, and so far the other isn’t looking like it’s heading in the same direction. And that’s tough. At JFF, we aspire to create a platform for emerging filmmakers and projects that need an audience and connect them to changemakers, people that can make a catalytic difference in the life-trajectory of a movie, help it be seen by more people. We want to raise up the next generation of justice filmmakers in a way that’s sustainable, so they can continue to tell those stories. 

Same thing on the Docs/ology side: our work is helping filmmakers navigate the ecosystem. We work with a lot of really talented creatives who can get a film across the finish line. Sometimes they get to that point and don’t really know what to do next. They’ve gone down paths that didn’t work and just need some help. They need somebody to help them birth the thing into the world. That takes strategy and the experience of relationships. That’s part of what we bring.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

I hear a real struggle emerging from what you’re saying. On the one hand, the conviction that film can change someone’s life. On the other hand, the enormous task of getting someone to sit down in the first place, convincing them it’s worth their time.

Portrait of Andy Peterson
Andy

I don’t know of anything else in our culture that can actually change someone’s mind like a movie can. Most every other interaction that we have on this earth, we are distracted by a number of factors. But most notably now, it’s devices. We literally don’t have the attention to allow our hearts or minds to be changed by anything. We can be shaped, we can be motivated, we can be persuaded, we can be sold. But [I’m talking about] the kind of change that happens all the way in one’s heart.

Long form storytelling, like long form journalism, can make a difference. But the soundbite culture we live in doesn’t do much other than divide up lines, as we know from the last couple political cycles. We’ve never had more clutter in the marketplace. There’s never been more voices screaming at us to pay attention. Advertising is always getting better, more efficient and more sophisticated. We’re entering a world where our devices are listening to us, and can serve us ads based on things we casually mention in conversation.

It’s wild. And super scary. As individuals, as parents, we have to help our children decipher what’s worth paying attention to. Soon, they’ll be living in a world that’s even faster, more sophisticated. And that causes a challenge of pure bandwidth, of trying to communicate any message that doesn’t feel like advertising. Some of us are tuned to omit any input that’s coming at us. 

In the context of marketing or promoting a film, really any creative work, that’s the first barrier. People are already suspicious. We have to earn a place in somebody’s life. That comes with the message, and how you package it. How do you earn the trust of the receiver? How do you make their attention feel valuable enough to click on your channel, your movie, your ticket sales, go to the theater? A huge part of my job is just getting eyeballs on 90 second trailers–which takes time.

" Even in the midst of pain and darkness and challenge and injustice, we can see the light of truth. You can grab onto it as a lifeline in a sense. We can celebrate and champion people and individuals and organizations who are doing that work, and can join their calling."

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

I’m starting to be mindful of how I reach for the skip button whenever YouTube plays a trailer. But there are those that actually get me to stop–that get me to say, within 5 or 10 seconds, “I want to see this all the way through.” What have you learned about those first 10 seconds, and the kinds of things that get people to stop and watch?

Portrait of Andy Peterson
Andy

You can’t let your trailer build. You have to be hitting it from the first beat. Attack, go, don’t be passive. The trailers that play in the theater have a captive audience. You can let your story build and grow with nuance and pace. Thankfully we live in a world where it’s still not okay to have your phone out in a movie theater. You have the opportunity to sit and really live in a story and let it wash over you.

That doesn’t exist in the online world; there’s no time for that. You have to come out fast and grab someone’s attention–and still, good luck. We’re cutting 30 and 60 second trailers now, because that’s all we know an online audience will tolerate. It’s tricky. Everything is compressed in the advertising ecosystem. You have to be really effective and efficient with a long form, nuanced story about something abstract or unknown, or something that doesn’t already have a big brand attached to it. You’re trying to tell a story about a vulnerable person, a vulnerable population or ecosystem, and you’ve got to make somebody care really fast. That’s hard to do.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

That seems like where you’d most finely walk the line between advertising and exploitation: the fact that you need to compress things to make someone care.

Portrait of Andy Peterson
Andy

Yeah, that’s right. The temptation is to turn up the amplitude on the most harrowing images you have. There are lots of ways you could do that that aren’t true to the story. Suddenly, your trailer becomes a caricature of your film. I think there are people out there who can justify that as well: “So long as we get them into the movie, we’ve done our job.” But again, what are the ethics of that? 

A marketing campaign, to me, is not science; it’s an art, its own storytelling journey. Great marketers are also great storytellers. They tell the story of the movie. How it’s marketed can become as important as the film itself.

There’s still lots of work to do. Lots of stories to be told. We have to keep going back to stuff that feels redundant. Find new hearts we can shape in new ways. Help manifest a generation that’s going to live with a different ethic and ethos of relating to people who don’t look like them, who don’t come from where they come from. If there’s a way our children’s generation can do better than us, that would be progress. It feels like it’ll be really hard so long as there are voices out there telling an opposite story. But I still believe the storytelling and the moviemaking can make a difference. And we will continue to help those stories come to life.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

How does one find a heart that’s ready to be shaped, instead of just ready to watch a sad story or a horror story?

Portrait of Andy Peterson
Andy

I guess my only answer would be that the heart that can be shaped is a broken heart. One that has experienced loss or tragedy, and can offer space and empathy to someone else. I feel we are sort of bred to be selfish, bred to survive, to protect ourselves and our clans. We have this built-in nature that’s attracted to people like us, who look like us and come from where we’re coming from. That runs deep. I think the only people that have a chance are people who’ve experienced the broken place that Earth is, and lost some of that [group bias] along the way. For me, it was having a child with a disability; that broke my heart in profound ways and shaped my outlook on the world, on what othering and otherness means. What vulnerability means and looks like, what justice and equity are.

My experience of life is that growth comes through pain. I hate that it seems to be the reality, but at least it’s been the reality for me. Anything I feel I ever needed to learn came through some trial, some fire. I think that’s why Jesus talks about how difficult it is for a rich man to find salvation. When life is good, it’s really tough to see the brokenness around you. But when our defenses are down, when we really are broken, the Earth falling out from under our feet and we’re really longing and looking for something to hold on to… the thing that does hold is truth.

That’s what nonfiction is about. Truth-telling. The meaning and weight that comes with having the truth presented to you. Even in the midst of pain and darkness and challenge and injustice, we can see the light of truth. You can grab onto it as a lifeline in a sense. We can celebrate and champion people and individuals and organizations who are doing that work, and can join their calling. 

Andy Peterson presenting at Justice Film Festival.

Andy Peterson presents at the 2018 Justice Film Festival in New York City, NY.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

You said something profound at one of our Artisans of Peace gatherings. You said, “I’m showing up as a person who doesn’t have it all together, amongst other people who don’t have it all together.” That’s the audience you’re talking to. What storytelling techniques resonate with the broken-hearted person who doesn’t have it all together?

Portrait of Andy Peterson
Andy

All I know is that vulnerability creates community. Any sort of campaign is about alliance-building and trying to bring people together to support a cause or follow an ideal. In my experience, you can’t do that by projecting this facade of perfection, of everything working. Most people don’t find their place in that story. I think we find ourselves when we sense we can fit, that we can belong, and we can only belong in a picture that feels like it’s missing something. In films that are justice-aligned, we see a broken system, a broken person, a broken place. We’re clearly trying to get someone to pay attention. But we want them to do more; we want them to act. I think the best way to do that is to communicate vulnerability: “We can’t do this without you.” This needs your voice, your expertise, your story to make things whole.

That’s the art side of this, as opposed to the science side. Science will tell you that X plus Y equals Z, and if we have whatever resources plus whatever catalyst, we’ll get a certain result. That’s not how the world works. It takes a bunch of broken people coming together, contributing what they can from who they are. That can make a difference. I think that can be beautiful.

And it’s okay for things to just be beautiful, too. Not everything has to have this didactic approach. I think it’s okay for things to just knock us over with how beautiful they are, remind us of how big and small we are at the same time. Art helps create perspective, a middle space.

That’s why storytelling matters, and continues to make a difference in the world. I think that’s why we keep wanting to make stories. We want a little of that perspective. We want to see ourselves through a different lens, and we need it. Humans are not good at it. It takes time to learn how to let someone else’s needs come to the forefront.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

How else has film become better at telling stories?

Portrait of Andy Peterson
Andy

My sense is that there used to be a more textbook approach to storytelling. Literally only facts were included. It was pretty binary. In great nonfiction, though, there’s a little room for nuance, for gray, for questions. The audience has the opportunity to bring themselves to the story and decide–not what’s false, what’s a lie, but what’s that complicated messy part we also live in, alongside Capital-T Truth. 

Like, you can watch a film series about Michael Jordan, his six championships with the Chicago Bulls, this bigger than life figure and the cool cultural moment he was in the middle of. Known throughout the world, without question the greatest basketball player of all time, probably the greatest athlete of all time. All those things are true… And also, he was horrible to people. He’s telling his story as someone who doesn’t think that’s what he was. But as a viewer I’m going, “Holy crap, this guy’s a jerk!” (Laughs) It leaves you in this open space, able to hold both things together and go, “Well, I guess that part does also feel true.” We have to reckon with the reality that even these people we praise or demonize have both good and evil at play in them, too.

I think good storytellers leave room for that to be exposed. To see little shimmers of light in the dark and vice versa. That feels like something that wouldn’t have happened in decades prior. In that sense, Hollywoodization has been a good thing; documentaries now sit alongside scripted feature dramas, handled with the same level of craft and professional approach. The nonfiction storytellers are as talented as those creating elaborate fantasies and making worlds from scratch.

"One thing I value is the way the best documentaries evolve in the process of making the movie. Every filmmaker goes in thinking they know what the story is–and sometimes they’re right. In better films, however, something happens in the making. The story takes on its own life. "

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

What are a couple films you think people could watch to get a deeper look inside your head and your values?

Portrait of Andy Peterson
Andy

One thing I value is the way the best documentaries evolve in the process of making the movie. Every filmmaker goes in thinking they know what the story is–and sometimes they’re right. In better films, however, something happens in the making. The story takes on its own life. 

My favorite example would be I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (2002), by Sam Jones, about the Chicago band Wilco. It was supposed to be like any other rock-n’-roll doc, about this band making their new record, their rivalries and challenges. And then, in the middle of filming, the band got dropped by Warner Bros. Records. This was a band that was really blowing up, playing on David Letterman, all of the things. It’s a total reversal of the whole trajectory of the movie, because now it becomes about the literal survival of this band. What happens to this family now that they’ve lost their footing? Who survives that? Who doesn’t? How do they do it together? It’s a great example of why you should always keep the camera running. 

Another example is a movie called Free Solo (2018), which is the story of Alex Honnold, who climbed the face of El Cap at Yosemite without ropes or protection. It was the first known ascent like that, pretty miraculous athletic feat. There’s an easy-to-make documentary there. But where the film takes a great turn is that it becomes about the filmmakers, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin–Jimmy in particular. He was climbing buddies with Alex. They traveled all over the world together. The film really becomes about the role of a filmmaker in this story of a guy who’s attempting to do something that no one’s sure is a good idea. Everyone Is aware he could die. And they’re setting up cameras, knowing they might be a distraction, might play a role in the death of their friend, just by being there and trying to document what’s happening. The dynamic and tension of that is rich, and makes for really compelling filmmaking.

Those are some movies that express my values. They’re truthful, but they also leave room for some really healthy conversations. Was that okay? What’s the ethic of a storyteller there?

That’s the part of the truth I’m here for. The part that forces us to sit in our chairs at the end of a film going, “Did you like that? I don’t know! I think I did. But I need a minute. Let’s go talk about it.” And 45 minutes later, you decide it’s great. I want to be in that conversation, helping people tell stories that confound and leave them sitting in their seats after the credits roll and the lights come up, not really sure what to do with themselves.

They just take time–these things that are full of life and beauty and doubt and sadness and darkness and joy. And that’s where I want to live. 

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