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Why Jan. 6 has been a challenge like no other for documentary filmmakers

Reluctant subjects, wary distributors, a polarized audience — and a long shadow cast by the groundbreaking congressional hearings

An image from the January 6 United States Capitol attack reflected inside a video camera.
More than a dozen documentaries telling the story of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol are trying to find a foothold in the market, but there have been hurdles. (Washington Post illustration/Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post; iStock)
9 min

Nick Quested watched along with millions of other viewers as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol doled out revelation after revelation in a series of live televised hearings last year. But for him, some of the findings were less than revelatory.

“Scooped!” he found himself thinking on more than one occasion. “Scooped! … Scooped again!”

A British documentary filmmaker, Quested spent several months following the Proud Boys, which positioned him for an intimate view of the far-right extremist group’s actions during the siege on the Capitol two years ago. His unreleased film is one of more than a dozen recent or in-the-works projects related to the Capitol riot — the kind of world-shaking event, fraught with unanswered questions, tangled narratives, stark human tragedy and startling visuals, that could be documentary fodder for generations to come.

But launching a Jan. 6 documentary right now is proving complicated for many filmmakers and producers. Some of the subjects are still too traumatized to talk about it easily. Some platforms and distributors may hesitate to take on such a project, concerned that the topic has become too polarizing or that it has already inspired too many films.

And then there was the Jan. 6 committee itself, which revealed so many compelling details about the attack through a rich narrative approach worthy of a hit prime-time serial — and, unlike filmmakers, had subpoena power to get certain subjects to talk.

The subtle stagecraft behind the Jan. 6 hearings

One of those, ironically, was Quested, who testified as a witness in the first of the much-watched hearings this past summer and shared some of his film footage in response to a subpoena. Now, as he continues to labor on his project, he prefers not to mull whether the Jan. 6 hearings stole his thunder.

“This is too important to be selfish about your film at this point,” he said. “This is our collective future that we’re discussing here.”

French American brothers Jules and Gédéon Naudet settled early on a distinct approach for their documentary “January 6th.” It took months of conversations before the U.S. Capitol Police and D.C. police allowed them unfettered access to interview officers who struggled to defend the congressional complex that day.

“We’re not journalists. We’re not doing investigative reporting,” Jules said. “For us, what has always fascinated us is that human perspective. When you’re going about your day like you do every day, and suddenly life changes in one second, and what it does to you and what it reveals to you?”

But coaxing that story out of the people who experienced Jan. 6 firsthand isn’t easy.

“This film has probably been harder to get people to be part of than any film we’ve worked on,” said Sean Fine, who with his wife, Andrea Nix Fine, is completing a documentary, financed by the indie studio A24 and expected to be released this year, about six people whose lives intersected that day. (The Washington-based couple won an Oscar for their short, “Inocente,” about a young, undocumented girl.) “And that’s probably because how difficult that day was. I think it speaks to how difficult that day was for the people.”

The Naudets found one particular cohort to be especially resistant: Republican members of Congress, many of whom have shrunk from publicly condemning the insurrection, with some preferring to cast it as a legitimate form of protest. Just a handful of the GOP officials the filmmakers approached agreed to participate.

“That was the first time we had a segment of people who would not talk to us,” Jules Naudet said. “We were disappointed in that, more because we wanted to really show everyone’s perspective and we thought it was worthwhile, especially these Republican members who did some really courageous things. But at the same time, we understand the politics of it.”

Howard T. Owens, CEO of Propagate Content, which produced the Naudets’ film, said he would not have taken on a project about the attack on the Capitol if it were not for the brothers’ evenhanded and apolitical focus on the emotional and mental impact on people such as first responders, reminiscent of their prizewinning work on their “9/11” documentary two decades ago.

“I told them it was going to be a challenging sale, that it was fraught with political undertones and overtones,” Owens said. “It’s knee-deep in the middle of a national conversation we’re having, and it’s not one most people want to have, broadly.” Discovery Plus, which picked up the project before they began filming, “took a risk on us,” he said.

The start of the congressional hearings in early June refocused national attention on the seriousness of the attack. But they proved to be a “double-edged sword,” as Quested called it, for many independent filmmakers.

At the same time, he said, “your goal as a journalist is to bear witness and tell people what you saw. For the committee to use [my work] is in some way probably the greatest forum you can have as a journalist.” More than 20 million people watching the hearing that night viewed the footage his crew shot on Jan. 6.

When Christoffer Guldbrandsen, a Danish filmmaker who had been filming Trump adviser Roger Stone for years before Jan. 6, initially resisted a subpoena, committee staff members “tried to make a big fuss over how beneficial it would be to take part in it,” he recalled. He balked at that argument and eventually agreed to share his footage, in deference to the seriousness of the inquiry and the fact that it would be eventually viewed publicly anyway, he said.

Roger Stone: The story behind the documentary

But the subpoena did bring unexpected benefits for another filmmaker. British documentarian Alex Holder had wrapped “Unprecedented,” his three-part series about the Trump family when the hearings began, but the public didn’t know about it until he testified behind closed doors and shared hours of interviews with the former president and his children that he had filmed on and around Jan. 6.

“In terms of filmmaking, it would be cynical to say that it didn’t have a positive impact,” Holder said. Discovery Plus pushed up his release date to just two weeks after he testified, and viewership far exceeded his expectations.

But he also received death threats and had to hire a security detail, Holder said. “The downside was the fact that I ended up becoming the story when I certainly didn’t want to.”

For the Naudets, who were not filming at the time of the attack, the Jan. 6 hearings had the unexpected effect of running up costs. Owens said that prices for some archival film footage skyrocketed to five or seven times higher than their original estimates, as the copyright holders took new stock of its potential value.

And for Quested, serving as a witness meant he lost the anonymity he long relied upon when embedding with subjects; some people, he said, now assume that by merely complying with a subpoena, he chose to collaborate with the government.

And despite the millions who watched his footage, a 17-minute short documentary he made showing the Jan. 6 violence was rejected by more than a dozen film festivals, he said. He won’t venture a guess as to why.

“I was disappointed. I thought that that 17 minutes is an emotionally provocative and encyclopedic look of what happened that day,” said Quested, who was also the executive producer of “Restrepo,” the Oscar-nominated Afghan war documentary from 2010. “I think that people should have been afforded the chance to see this in a group setting, because cinema is an art, but it’s also a community, a communal experience.”

Quested still hasn’t been able to get distribution for his feature documentary film, which he has expanded from his original storyline into an exploration of the causes of Jan. 6. “The pitches that we made were the best received pitches I’ve ever made, and we still couldn’t get a buy-in,” he said. He summarized some of the feedback as “oh, we’ve already done our January 6th film.”

But at least among the filmmakers focusing on Jan. 6, Sean Fine said, there is a sense of a collective community and collaboration, rather than competition. “I do feel like we’ve all been quite generous and open with each other about what we have and ‘can we use this, or can you help me with this contact?’” he said. “I don’t know if it’s the topic, but there hasn’t been a possessiveness about subject matter that I’ve found in other subjects, and I do think that’s pretty incredible.”

Both Holder’s “Unprecedented” and Guldbrandsen’s “A Storm Foretold” tell stories tangential to Jan. 6 but have become inextricably tied to the event because they had their cameras rolling at crucial moments. Guldbrandsen said the Capitol attack serves as an omen in his film, which has distribution deals in several European countries but not yet in the United States.

Everything that happened that day “was foretold,” Guldbrandsen said, “and would have been obvious to everyone if we had not been distracted and not just pushed it aside.”

Documentaries about Jan. 6 will probably continue to roll out for years or decades to come. Quested, for one, said there is still so much more to unpack. He recently traveled to Arizona to continue reporting on election deniers as he keeps working on his film.

“January 6th is over, but that’s not the end,” he said. “We’re firmly right in the middle of the second act of election denying.” He added: “And, you know — what’s going to happen in 2024?”

This article has been updated.