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How a documentary filmmaker and an investigative reporter teamed up in Tennessee

*** Original post can be found here. ***

The independent filmmaker had more than a decade of access to a woman imprisoned for murder at 16. The journalist had years of reporting on the juvenile justice system.

When they teamed up, they found a way to offer breadth and depth to a complicated and contentious issue.

"Sentencing Children," a multi-part digital series, combines the documentary skills of USC Annenberg professor Daniel Birman with the reporting muscle of The Tennessean's Anita Wadhwani, an investigative reporter.

The result: several short films focusing on one young woman and a wider look at the system she's a part of.


Lois Vossen served as matchmaker for the somewhat unconventional partnership. As the executive producer of "Independent Lens," a showcase of documentary film that airs weekly on PBS, Vossen brought the idea for the partnership to Birman and Wadhwani.

When she approached Birman, Vossen asked if he could produce a handful of shorter videos and work with a print publication to tell this story.

"I found that intriguing," he said.

Wadhwani hadn't yet seen his documentary, but she was familiar with the story of the young women in the center of it, Cyntoia Brown. It seemed like a great experiment for them both, said Wadhwani, who has spent the last few years reporting on the deaths of children in state custody and the state's jurisdiction over the juvenile justice system.

Together, they planned out each installment of the series, which has two chapters so far. Future films will broaden out to other juvenile justice stories, as well, Birman said, including a look at victims' rights. But they're not duplicating each other's work. Wadhwani isn't writing the stories told in Birman's films, and his films don't mirror her reporting.

While his focus so far has been on one person in the system, Wadhwani's work broadens it out to look at the system itself.

"It's been a parallel collaboration rather than a hugely integrated collaboration," she said, "and I think that's really worked well."

And they both see the ways their work differs and the advantages the other has. Birman, for instance, has a long and solid relationship with his sources.

"They really like him, and they really trust him," Wadhwani said. "As a reporter, it's always great to get in touch with a source who is receptive to you because there's been an introduction."

As a documentary filmmaker, Birman has a lot of freedom to explore his chosen subject over time. He could never keep up with the rapid pace of news, he said.

"I think it's fascinating to see what Anita is doing with the stories," he said. "I think her take is going to be different than mine, as well it should. If we were telling the same story, there'd be no reason for us to collaborate."

The ways journalists and independent filmmakers work are similar but with different results and constraints, Vossen said, and the intersection between them is ripe for collaboration.

Independent Television Service and Independent Lens were funded by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Park Foundation to spark collaborations between journalists and independent filmmakers. That initiative includes partnerships at places such as The Washington Post, Salon, The New York Times and The Atlantic.

Better together

When you marry independent film with traditional reporting, you reach new people, Vossen said. This isn't just a hypothesis.

With the partnerships in the project, Independent Lens has seen an 88 percent increase in people who click through to the feature length-documentary, Vossen said. And there's a further possibility to share the project more widely on other Gannett sites, she added.

These kinds of collaborations are becoming more common, Wadhwani said, and drawing more interest. She hopes to be able to partner with other news organizations in the future, too.

Vossen agreed. We need a new way to look at these large, seemingly intractable issues, she said.

"I think it's a new model whose time has come."

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