In Focus: Pete Nicks on The Oakland Police Project

Pete Nicks shares his insights on the filmmaking experience behind the 2015 Documentary Film Fund Winner The Oakland Police Project. Nicks discusses the complex relationship between the Oakland community and police, the influence of the events in Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter, as well as the advantages of new filmmaking technologies. The documentary is a part of the larger initiative Open’hood, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating stronger, more active and more connected communities through storytelling. 

Click here to learn more about Open’hood. 

What was the inspiration for your story?

Open’hood is now in the fifth year of a multi-year initiative to tell the grand narrative of one American city. One component of that effort is a trilogy of films set in Oakland, CA examining the relationship between community and public institutions. The Oakland Police Project is the second of that series and was inspired in part by the growing urgency around the national movement for police reform. The OPD has a troubled relationship with the community dating back to the Black Panthers, a corruption scandal in 2000, and most recently the events surrounding Occupy Oakland. As this local relevance dovetailed with the national debate around police reform, and it became clear the OPD was in the midst of an historic effort to reform the department, the choice for our second film became clear. The project also fulfills Open’hood’s stated mission to allow the voices of all people to inform vital conversations of our day like health care, criminal justice and education.

What do you see as the greatest challenges for filmmakers today?

Cutting through the noise. This is without a doubt one of the most acute problems that every filmmaker must face. Getting the film made is hard enough. But now we must position, market and sell our films to audiences overwhelmed with choice. Content has flooded screens of all sizes and the onus is now on the filmmakers and their chosen partners to make the right choices on how, when and where to release their film. And as distribution models change like the weather, filmmakers are hard pressed to keep up and make the best decision. Today, the distribution partners you choose to work with and your strategic decision-making are equally, if not more important than the creative product itself.

What new opportunities are making the biggest difference to your filmmaking process?

Better, cheaper imaging technologies have a profound impact on my ability to communicate a much broader range of emotion and cinematic quality in my films. This is a fairly recent development and gives me far greater latitude than I had in the past. While the story itself is the single most important tool in the box, it doesn’t hurt to be able to consider filmmaking toys like 4K, drones, and GoPro cameras.

What was the best part about making this film?

By far the most valuable thing about making a film like this is the ability to go somewhere people have never been. Getting access to an urban police department, especially at this moment in time, was no small task. Trust between community and police is near an all-time low. But it has been quite a journey my team and I to experience this national debate about the police reform from a privileged point-of-view. It has certainly affected the way I see and understand the issue.

Did you always know where you wanted your film’s story to begin and end?

Nope. This process has taking many twists and turns, like any great story. In fact, we began work on the film before the events in Ferguson, MO even began to unfold. One of the challenges that we’ve faced is how to respond to the growing call for police accountability that was unfolding right before our eyes. Our initial scheduled shoots were shelved as the news stories about Ferguson escalated. We ended up filming nothing but protests for the first two months because all of our potential characters were working the skirmish lines. #BlackLivesMatter was never a part of our treatment for the film, but as events unfolded on the street and in the news we found ourselves debating how to cover this growing movement and how to connect it to the story we were trying to tell, which was framed around the simple question “who becomes a cop and why?” We have made some adjustments and will probably continue to make more as the film comes together in the edit room.

What do you hope viewers of your film will take away from it?

We hope the audience will feel the rawness of experience that the cop feels. That is our primary goal. The film will operate primarily on that level. Emotion. Feeling. Energy. But it was also work on another level, giving a much needed and deeper context for this important conversation now taking place about the role of police in our lives. The film will weave these intimate scenes of cops doing their work with the broader story of current events and the efforts of the OPD brass to navigate the very complex and political waters of race, power and accountability.

Describe what impact San Francisco Film Society or the Bay Area filmmaking community support has had on your film.

The commitment SFFS has given to me as an artist has had the most lasting effect. They have not only supported the financial needs of my films, they have brought me into a community that teaches, supports and encourages one another. These are now my colleagues, my friends and my inspiration. And that is what sustains the career of an artist more than anything. And for that I am deeply grateful.