‘Chameleon’: Hot Docs Review

Courtesy of GAT Productions
Alive with on-the-ground urgency and larger, more far-reaching questions. 

A documentary filmmaker follows Ghanaian journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas on three of his undercover investigative cases

The shape-shifter at the center of Ryan Mullins’ concise and involving Chameleon is journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas, a Ghanaian in his 30s who conducts elaborate undercover stings. In his successful crusade to “name, shame and jail” perpetrators of human rights abuses, along with the fraudulent and the corrupt, Anas has disguised himself as a sheikh, a woman and a rock, among other borrowed identities.

In the documentary, he never appears without his face blurred or obstructed, yet he gradually comes into focus. That’s partly the result of the few personal facts that emerge, but Mullins’ chief concern, like Anas’s, is the work itself. With adrenaline-pumping, fly-on-the-wall immediacy, the director-cinematographer-editor exposes the work’s perils, frustrations and triumphs as well as the ethical questions it raises.

Mullins is there for Anas’s exuberant appearance before teen students at his former school (eyes and nose covered by a curtain of beaded strings), and the filmmaker is by his side when he visits his grandmother and hands out cash to all her neighbors in the village. First and foremost, he follows Anas and his colleagues as they close in on three targets: a spiritualist accused of raping children, an illegal abortionist who forces women to have sex with him, and an abusive religious cult.

The film incorporates hidden-camera video gathered by Anas’s team as evidence, often over many months and across national borders. A female television producer who works with Anas speaks with conviction about the galvanizing effect some of that evidence has had on her. “The first time I saw it,” she says of footage of the abortionist, “I broke down.”

Anas’s investigations in print and visual media, as editor of the New Crusading Guide, have made him a faceless celebrity. Approached by Mullins, people on the streets of Accra sing Anas’s praises. It’s easy to see why a BBC reporter refers to him as “investigative journalist extraordinaire,” why he was name-checked by President Obama, and why his TED talk has been viewed more than a million times.

It’s also easy to see why his unorthodox methods make some bristle. According to an onscreen title that appears early in the film, he “works directly with law enforcement to ensure that justice is carried out effectively.” Imagine that being said of an American journalist. By the time Anas makes his final appearance at a target’s door, he’s accompanied by police and armed with an arrest warrant. Mullins captures exchanges with cops, who clearly respect Anas, in which he seems to be calling the shots. At one point, Anas needs to be reminded that the charges against a suspect are not his to decide.

And yet, culprits whose victims are powerless might continue to operate in the shadows if not for his tireless efforts. Mullins interviews a newsman who cites the Ghana Journalists Association code of ethics, which states that information should not be obtained through subterfuge. The journalist then tempers that guideline with the observation that, in a society of multiple cultures like Ghana’s, ethics are more a matter of resilience than they are absolute.

In Mullins’ footage, a sense of lack among Ghanaians is evident, but also a sense of forward-looking energy. If, as one observer notes, sub-Saharan Africa is a rich land whose people are impoverished, Anas is a hero, defending those who have no power and condemning those who abuse it. He’s not unaware of the gray-area complexities of his work, but he’s driven to pursue justice and determined to put himself on the line to achieve it. The justice he effects — the longed-for triumph of right over wrong — is the stuff of wish fulfillment that has driven Hollywood movies for decades, and storytelling for eons. It’s no wonder that some Ghanaians believe he has superpowers.

Production company: EyeSteelFilm
Director: Ryan Mullins
Producer: Bob Moore
Executive producers: Daniel Cross, Mila Aung-Thwin, Robin Smith, Steven Silver, Neil Tabatznik
Director of photography: Ryan Mullins
Editor: Ryan Mullins 
Composer: Florencia di Concilio

Sales: Dogwoof

No rating, 78 minutes