The 2022 Whistleblower Summit and Film Festival was met with sentimental, successful stories from whistleblowers, filmmakers and screenwriters alike that established a rewarding experience to celebrate 10 years.
This year’s summit included a Capitol Hill screening of the Netflix docuseries “Meltdown: Three Mile Island” presented by the Government Accountability Project,” a comedy show hosted by Marsha Warfield–renowned actress, advocate and comedian; a screening of the films Truth Teller” and the “United States of Distraction: Fighting the Fake News Invasion” on July 30th to celebrate National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, and a three day Hollywood Pitch Lab.
The Hollywood Pitch Lab was organized in collaboration with Northeast Filmmakers Lab and Bonsai Creative, and consisted of story pitches by one of three cohorts: whistleblowers, filmmakers and screenwriters.
Raw pitches were delivered by each storyteller on day one, with invite-only pitches on the subsequent days that were refined after one-on-one consultations for feedback.
Michael Camoin, Founding Director of the Northeast Filmmaker’s Lab, said that his relationship with the Whistleblower Summit began as a filmmaker himself, who presented the Audience Choice Award-Winning film in 2021, Sally Mae Not, an exposé on the student loan scandals in America.
Ironically, when co-founder of the Whistleblower Summit Michael McCray attended the Northeast Filmmaker’s Lab he drew inspiration from Camoin to recreate it for the Summit’s Pitch Lab.
“He [McCray] had found a community of like-minded people to help him tell his story better, clearer, faster; which is all the things the lab tries to do,” said Camoin.
McCray told Haydenfilms Talks that “Everyone has to be able to master the pitch,” which is why he selected three demographics for the cohorts.
Camoin echoed this thought, saying “Whistleblowers in particular need to learn how to tell their story to reporters, the media, as quickly as possible, and usually it is a very complicated story.”
The importance of this concept was discussed by Christopher Barkley, Co-Founder of the Bonsai Creative.
Barkley said that the question became “How can we help whistleblowers and filmmakers tell their stories without getting shut down?”
According to Barkley, it is about boiling a story down into something that an investor can sink their teeth into without being scared by.
Largely, the element at the epicenter of each story is each teller’s individual truth.
Barkley used a philosophical metaphor of a kid who stole a sandwich from a shop, where the police and the storeowner are asking the question of did the kid steal the sandwich; meanwhile, social services and the kid are asking the question of was he starving.
“Both are true, so what’s the truth?” Said Barkley.
Similarly, this year’s Summit theme came out to be a single question: “Does the truth still matter?”
This theme was selected in connection to 2022 being 50 years since the Watergate break-in.
Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell during Nixon’s presidency has been labeled as the socialite turned whistleblower and the most talked about woman in Washington D.C. due to her involvement in bringing the scandal to light.
Jimmy Cunningham Jr., Tourism Development Director of Pine Bluff Advertising and Promotion Commission, leading sponsor of the Summit, said that the Commission thought it befittin to help sponsor the event in Mitchell’s name, as Pine Bluff is her hometown.
But, Cunningham Jr. said that tourism can relate to the pitch-fest exercise because it in itself is storytelling.
“We have to bring the past to life; we have to interpret things from history that help us to understand and appreciate the importance of events,” Cunningham Jr. said.
Mitchell claimed that after attempting to talk to the press about the presidential scandal she was drugged and tied up by those trying to continue the cover-up; her continued use of her platform to discuss this coined the “Martha Mitchell Effect” terminology.
The Washington Post wrote, this refers to “the tendency to diagnose someone as mentally ill simply because the story they tell is so bizarre, without checking whether the bizarre story is in fact true.”
“Whistleblowers in particular need to learn how to tell their story to reporters, the media, as quickly as possible and usually it is a very complicated story,” said Camoin. “I would say that it took a little bit for the filmmakers to articulate their truth, and it grew powerful–more powerful–when they made it personal.”
THE STORIES OF THE SUMMIT
Each story that was told by filmmakers, screenwriters and whistleblowers are seared into the memories of the event’s organizers. They shared their experiences with these unnamed individuals to inspire others to find community and strategize their business actions.
Camoin recalled a story from the Lab shared by a male filmmaker who is related to a U.S. Postal Service worker turned whistleblower. During his pitch, the filmmaker showcased a physical photograph of the charred remains of their family garage; a threat to keep quiet.
The proof of the truity of this act and the human appeal of the story is what captivated the judges, said Camoin.
Barkley shared a similar moving story of an emotional interaction with another male whistleblower who had attempts on his life by the major corporation he blew the whistle on. This is when Barkley referred to the philosophical metaphor of the kid with the sandwich.
The whistleblower had been paid off through a settlement and ultimately won the case. But, there were no repercussions for the corporation.
“But it did not fix the truth,” said Barkley. “And for him, that is what is more important.”
This triggered a conversation on the importance of providing context and perspective onto the stories of whistleblowers to aid in their humanization.
Cunningham Jr. referred to a third, Black pitch participant as a “master storyteller.” This individual shared his experience as a U.S. Marshall who was tasked with tracking down an escaped convict, and was met with issues regarding race and power along the way. In what could only be mentally depicted as the final battle, the Marshall arrested this fugitive and it came down to a hair of him being shot. And yet, the Marshall had come to befriend this convicted murderer.
Cunningham Jr. said that the dynamics that went into his telling helped outsiders appreciate his journey and get into the context of whistleblowing.
“We don't always get the details of whistleblowers–so we either hate or love whistleblowers–” said Cunningham Jr., “But when you know the story it helps you to appreciate so much more of what they put on the line and what they bring to the table.”
In the first episode of Haydenfilms Talks, the Summit founders McCray and Marcel Reid admitted that in their first ever runthrough of the Summit, they came to the realization that in order to draw in allies and policy-makers, they needed to get the emotional appeal through films.
“When you have something to tell you really need to surround yourself with people who are supportive, willing to listen to your story, believe your story and also help you elevate it to that next level,” said Barkely.
ADVICE TO STORYTELLERS
If you ask Barkley, whistleblowers are the “real deal” of storytellers; they have lived the stories that the creatives in the film industry can only think about and fictionalize, which gives an advantage to those who have lived through it.
“You intimately know the best stories in the world and have the most salient, most important stories to tell,” said Barkley.
He advises that the next steps include thinking about a film project from a salesperson standpoint, and how to sell it. Creating a brand first and a market second is the strategy Barkley recommends; this will ensure that the pitch does not raise questions or risks, but rather gets people excited to potentially do something risky.
Camoin reflects on the story of Frank Serpico, NYPD whistleblower, saying that Francis Ford Coppola, director of the film adaptation of Serpico’s story, “shared just how much he screwed up his [Serpico’s] story and did it for entertainment reasons; the more you can speak with people in the industry the more you can retain the integrity and truth of your story.”
This community of care is what embodied the Summit’s refuge for whistleblowers; it offered a space to those who have similar experiences and are pitching to those who are giving a space to tell their truths.
“If you are in the middle of it,” said Cunningham, “Look for support from those who have been through it.”
Camoin, Cunningham Jr., and Barkley all commented on the unique community and platform that the Whistleblower Summit and Film Festival provides.
Barkley said that stories can make a difference, change policy or raise awareness and the Summit’s location of Washington D.C. makes it perfectly centered.
“Small as it may be, it may be the most important festival in the country for the cause of liberty,” he said.
For those looking for more opportunities to hone their craft of storytelling, Camoin said that the Northeast Filmmakers Lab is meant to prepare filmmakers for summits like Whistleblower’s.
The Lab is accepting submissions for their upcoming contest until Oct 7, 2022 on FilmFreeway. Camoin encourages anyone who thinks they have a story to apply.
The Bonsai Creative is holding their academy award-qualifying film festival in Nashville, TN between Sept. 29 and Oct. 5.
To experience the stories of the summit tune in for the virtual Encore, including all films and recorded panels, from Nov. 13 to 19 on whistleblowersummit.com in honor of international fraud awareness week.
DISCLAIMER: Corrections to statements within video interview.
*Gaslit is a mini-series based upon Martha Mitchel, available for streaming on Hulu, Starz and Amazon Prime. Gaslit is unavailable on Netflix.
**Cunningham Jr. is representative of Pine Bluff Advertising Commission. Riverside.Fm is the platform being used to conduct this episode of Haydenfilms Talks, and does not have affiliation with the summit.
Whistleblower Summit & Film Festival stands strong in educating about and battling against fraud. Adding to the event will be an Encore Presentation of this year’s WSFF film lineup.
John Warren, Chief Strategy Officer of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, discusses the importance of International Fraud Awareness Week and explains how bystanders can get involved in the discussion.