'Bellingcat': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Courtesy of Submarine 2019
A refreshing portrait of citizen journalism in the digital age.

A group of unlikely citizen journalists in a "fake news" world stand up to bad global actors in this doc from Hans Pool.

The title Bellingcat refers to a U.K. cartoon called Belling the Cat, in which a mouse tries to put a bell around a cat that would eat him — a fitting metaphor for the subject of Hans Pool’s latest documentary.

The film profiles an online collective of citizen journalists who have pioneered what they call “open source investigation” tools to verify the digital trail around major global events and publish the findings online. Their work has aided high-level government agencies in criminal investigations around the world, and The New York Times even hired one of their members to bring this reporting method to their newsroom. Deploying tools like Google Earth, social media and even VR simulations to complete their small- and large-scale investigations, the members of Bellingcat probe everything from whether a video of a Syrian bombing is real to the identities of the 2018 Charlottesville tiki-torchbearers.

Bellingcat is the kind of movie that should be depressing — the film is organized around an in-depth discussion of recent civil wars, terrorist attacks and government conspiracies that the collective has investigated — but refreshingly isn’t. Instead, watching these ordinary citizens, or “boring fathers” as Hans Pool calls them, work on their laptops with their kids at home, the film effortlessly projects an optimistic tone.

The film moves seamlessly between sound bites from foreign policy experts like President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry and more mundane scenes, as when Bellingcat volunteer Timmi carries his severely disabled daughter up a flight of stairs in his Berlin home. This routine juxtaposition of the private lives of these seemingly ordinary guys with images of global figures like Vladimir Putin nicely reflects the group’s astonishing proximity to power.

Hans Pool is both a cinematographer and a director, and it shows. The Dutch filmmaker (Putin’s Olympic Dream, Looking for an Icon) introduces us to six main characters — Eliot, Hadi, Timmi, Aric, Veli-Pekka and Christiaan — through a series of angled, tight shots where we’re not quite sure where we are or whom we’re looking at. These gradually push into closeups and wide shots that put the film's subjects in wider context, thus mirroring the work and the ethos of Bellingcat.

Formally started in 2014 by Eliot Higgins, a stay-at-home dad based in Leicester, United Kingdom — Bellingcat now has nearly a dozen full-time staffers — the group has undertaken a number of investigations that have a link to Putin’s Russia. They were among the first to provide verifiable evidence of Russia’s involvement in the bombing of Malaysian Flight 17, a July 2014 flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that was mysteriously downed while flying over Ukraine.

It’s the pairing of Bellingcat’s story of citizen journalism with the larger story of the state of media and its relationship to democracy that makes this documentary stand out. It’s frankly a relief to hear someone explain how we got here, how the culture of “fake news” came to rule the day, and then provide a clear example of how one group of people is standing up against it.

The film's two subject-matter experts, Jay Rosen (journalism) and Claire Wardle (social media and technology), provide a detailed breakdown of the links among the decline of media as an industry, the rise of “fake news” culture, the psychology of how humans process information, and what media literacy means in the digital age. It’s a fascinating yet sobering reminder of a time when the idea that facts exist wasn’t so thoroughly contested.

Pool doesn’t get into any missteps or failures on the part of the collective, and maybe there aren’t any, but one could argue that this omission undermines the strong stance for transparency in Bellingcat’s work. And what did the spouses and family members of the core Bellingcat team think of all that’s happened, including the fact that Putin now sees the group as a threat? These questions mostly go unanswered.

The Margaret Meade-ism “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has” is a cliché for a reason. Bellingcat provides both the heartening validation of that idea and the call-to-arms to stay the course that we need now more than ever.

Production company: Submarine
Writer-director: Hans Pool
Producers: Femke Wolting, Bruno Felix
Executive producer: Nick Fraser
Director of photography: Hans Pool
Sound: Pepijn Aben
Editor: Simon Barker
Music: Frank Wienk
Venue: SXSW (Documentary Spotlight) 
Sales: Amanda Lebow (CAA)

88 minutes