Agora Talk by iMEdD at 25th Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival

The iMEdD Talk titled The intersection of journalistic investigation and documentary filmmaking took place on Wednesday, March 8th, at MOMus Museum of Photography, within the framework of the Agora of the 25th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

The event was prefaced by Thanos Stavropoulos of the Agora team:

“We have here with us Dimitris Bounias, project manager of iMEdD, who will moderate the talk with Micael Pereira”.

Micael Pereira is a senior reporter at the Portuguese leading newspaper Expresso and a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Pereira has been doing journalism since 1994 and is the correspondent of Reporters Without Borders for Portugal. Among others, he was involved in ICIJ’s Offshore Leaks, Panama Papers, Bahama Leaks, Paradise Papers, Luanda Leaks and Pandora Papers investigations.

At this point, Dimitris Bounias took the floor to introduce iMEdD to the audience:

“iMEdD (incubator for Media Education and Development) was founded in the beginning of 2019 with the goal of supporting brave, good and innovative journalism. Our endeavor has been possible due to the support of Stavros Niarchos Foundation. We are based in Greece, but our activity expands globally, via a series of programs, such as the incubator, which supports journalistic projects till their completion. We also provide educational programs on digital security, investigative tactics and the verification of material, in collaboration with international organizations. We also created iMEdD Lab, which creates and shares databases, as well as online applications for the audience and professionals to use. We also participate in transnational research, are founding members of the European Press Prize and organize the iMEdD International Journalism Forum, the first international journalism conference in Greece, which will take place on 28-30 September 2023, in Athens”, he mentioned.

“The point of intersection between investigative journalism and documentary production has been part of our vision and our endeavor since day one. We feel very satisfied that two of the projects we supported were screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival: Invisible by Marianna Kakaounaki, which participated at the Newcomers section in 2021, and The Other Half by Yorgos Moutafis, which world premiered in last year’s edition. We are glad to call the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival a partner of ours, as we build on our relationship each year. Last year, we supported the Podcast in Development award, based on journalistic research and documentation, which was awarded to Andreas Vagias for Mute – The Silent Violence of the Parting Walls. The podcast will be presented in a special hearing which will take place on Friday, March 10th, at 1pm, at Olympion’s Green Room. Mr. Bounias also added: “We also participate in the Festival with the podcast Chasing Indiana Jones in Manhattan by Aris Chatzistefanou”.

“We are here to explore, to learn from you, how documentary production may uplift journalistic research and its impact, and vice-versa”, he noted. “How can our research function as material good enough for an amazing documentary? Our goal is for this discussion to return to the roots of journalism and the role it holds as the Fourth Power controlling power and exposing structures that undermine our common interest”, he mentioned and welcomed Micael Pereira, referring to some points from his life and work.

“It is an honor for us to have Micael Pereira here with us tonight, someone with loads of experience, who uses professional tools and reshapes them into impactful visual stories”, he noted. With the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project – OCCRP, Micael Pereira participated in Suisse Secrets. He was also a member of the Cities for Rent group, a cross-border collaborative research for companies-owners of real estate, which was carried out by the Arena for Journalism in Europe and which won the European Press Prize of 2022 in the Innovation section.

“I became a journalist by accident. I studied Physics and I sometimes have the feeling that I am still a student of Physics, in the sense that in journalism we also develop questions to find answers”.

“I became a journalist by accident”, Pereira said. “I studied Physics and I sometimes have the feeling that I am still a student of Physics, in the sense that in journalism we also develop questions to find answers. It is my first time at a documentary festival, I am a beginner in the field, while my first documentary was an experiment for me”, he stated. “I have participated in many transnational research. The job can be done in different ways: whether you are a “lone wolf” or you do things in a traditional way. In the last 20 years, however, there is an increase in projects on which journalists work through stories. I would say that this culture of the last 20 years stems from the social justice movements of the 90s. When working with stories, you skip the issues you’d have to face if you worked by yourself, because you have a team with which you investigate crimes of a global scale. These crimes are committed at the highest degree, with people in power at positions on the top of the hierarchy, members of a world elite. Storytelling is a way for these problems to be solved. The peak was probably the Panama Papers of 2016, which changed the way I do journalism. It was a powerful experience for me and the rest of the team. We were trying to find funds, which were hidden offshore by powerful people all over the world. It was the right moment to put an end to tax exemption at the right time, after the world financial crisis of 2008: then, people saw (mainly in our countries, Portugal and Greece, and others) that the state lacked cash. The Panama Papers went after the tax-evaded funds”, he said in relation.

A project of ecological interest by Forbidden Stories in Paris was also mentioned in the conversation, a project which brought journalists together so that they could complete the work of their colleagues who were imprisoned or killed. Then, he discussed the Luanda Leaks, a project in Angola, which brought to light the tax-evasion of Isabel dos Santos, daughter of president José Eduardo dos Santos. The Luanda Leaks turned into a documentary by Frontline and won an Emmy award. These projects inspired Pereira to make documentaries.

The documentary Black Trail (2021) is an awarded European co-production with EIC network, about the reasons why ships continue to use polluting fuels. The documentary actually made it in Lloyd’s list, the yearly list by Lloyd for the 100 most influential personalities of world maritime shipping for 2021.

It all began with a piece of information a source passed on to Pereira, that the maritime industry was ignoring scientific guidelines and harming the environment. “At first, the issue seemed totally boring: we were dealing with ships and the fuels they burn. The project started taking shape when we discovered the black carbon, a material that was burning along with the fuel, which had damaging consequences in regards to health and the overheating of the planet. Then, the idea started to grow and I was sure at this point that the powerful figures of the case would not pay the necessary attention to the problem, which was urgent and required for important decisions to be made fast”, Pereira mentioned. 

“When you write, you can write however you want, but when you film, you can only film what you see”.

“When you write, you can write however you want, but when you film, you can only film what you see. I was exploring an unknown landscape. I was part of a team, there were many details we had to process in order to build a case. In the documentary I implemented the technique of radical sharing: traditionally, journalists conceal the findings of their research from their colleagues. But we share everything, including our plans. Everything was available to anyone working on the team. I don’t know any other team of journalists that worked this way. In the documentary, we included some backstage elements and attributed an action-film character to it so that it becomes more interesting. We wanted to integrate something more than just simple interviews. The area of journalism is overall obsessive when it comes to content. I don’t function that way. The most important thing for me is not content, but the relationship of trust you build with your audience. So, we used backstage footage, not to certify some truth, but to express the honesty with which we worked”, Pereira stated.

At this point, Mr. Bounias asked Pereira how he managed to balance the time-consuming process of filming with the urgency of the situation: “There was a big sense of uncertainty”, Pereira responded. “To be honest, we were months past the delivery deadline because it was such a time-consuming process”, he commented. Responding to an audience question about the way they approached interviews in the documentary, he said: “I wanted to feel sure that me and the team are doing the right thing. During the shooting, we had a disagreement with many people. The more we worked for the documentary, the more we felt we were doing a good deed and this made the disagreements look like good deeds themselves, in the name of a higher, urgent purpose. Overall, we remained open in regards to whatever the evolving discussion had in store for us”, he stressed.