Brian Knappenberger's New Show Captures the Fight Against Injustice
The leaps and bounds in digital technology have made it easier than ever to connect, organize, and disseminate information. While the democratization of tech tools has been a boon for activists and organizers, that accessibility has a dark side too. With a smartphone in nearly every pocket, government entities can watch and track the moves of average citizens.
“We’re in a weird moment,” says filmmaker Brian Knappenberger, creator of the new documentary series Truth and Power, narrated by Maggie Gyllenhaal and airing on Pivot. “There seems to be this wave of anger and frustration in America, and I think there’s good reason for that.”
That tension is what makes Knappenberger tick. In Truth and Power, the filmmaker dives into the stories of average people taking on the extraordinary while trying to protect their privacy and their lives. (Pivot is a television network from Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company.) The show tackles some of the most pressing issues in the news cycle—from Black Lives Matter activists and hackers taking on spyware to former prisoners exposing corruption in the private prison industry—through the lives of the people fighting back.
It’s familiar territory for Knappenberger, the creator of the documentaries The Internet’s Own Boy: The Aaron Swartz Story and We Are Legion: We Are Hacktivists, which tells the story of “hacktivist collective” Anonymous.
“The digital forces that shape our world aren’t necessarily acting in our best interest,” Knappenberger tells TakePart. “We live different lives than we did 10 or 15 years ago, and some of the shine has come off. The impulse to create [the show] is to look at the people who are fighting back against powers greater than them—to show their sheer force of will and tenacity.”
To tell the stories of those people, Knappenberger started with both characters and concepts, letting one lead him to the other. One episode began with Knappenberger’s interest in Daniel David Rigmaiden, a 35-year-old from Arizona who discovered and exposed law enforcement and government use of the Stingray, a cell-phone-surveillance tool that landed him behind bars. Telling Rigmaiden’s story allowed Knappenberger to tell the broader story of emerging surveillance technology that infringes on the privacy and civil liberties of average Americans.
Another episode examines the private prison industry and the companies profiting from lucrative government contracts on the backs of people locked up.
“We were just really fired up about private prisons—that’s all we knew when we started,” Knappenberger says. “We didn’t know we’d find these two ex-cons who are taking on the prison industry.”
Knappenberger is referring to Paul Wright and Alex Friedmann, coeditors of Prison Legal News and directors of the Human Rights Defense Center. Both men served more than a decade in prison and have led the charge against privatization of the corrections industry since their release.
Telling the stories of people who are enmeshed in conflict with government powers has its challenges.
“A lot of times people want to tell their stories, but they are fearful that telling their stories might interfere with a current [legal] case,” Knappenberger says. “I want them to open up to me about what they went through, but they’re still in a potentially vulnerable position—there’s a tension there.”
Knappenberger works to ease that tension by learning everything he can about a subject’s story and experience before meeting with the individual to demonstrate his interest and curiosity and build trust. He has also screened clips for subjects that he thinks could impact their legal prospects. “The last thing I want to do is get them in more trouble,” he says.
Though he says he’ll always be attracted to digging deep into a subject and creating feature-length documentaries, Knappenberger said he was excited about the chance to create a weekly series that can respond directly to the news cycle.
Making the show has been a powerful reminder that amid the many challenges introduced by technology—the “dark side” he refers to—tenacious people are pushing back.
“There’s a general perception that people are apathetic about politics, that they don’t want to stand up and engage,” Knappenberger says. “When you make a show that’s about people risking something that matters to stand up for what they believe in, or expose corruption on a daily basis, it’s inspiring. People do care and are paying attention.”
Truth and Power airs every Friday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Pivot. Learn about protecting your civil liberties in the digital age by exploring "Know Your Rights," a Pivot-supported initiative from the ACLU of Southern California.