Editor's Note: Behind the Lens is a digital video series featuring bold California indie filmmakers pushing the boundaries of their craft. Each episode captures the personal experiences that inform a filmmaker's work and the risks they take to bring stories to the screen.
Documentary filmmaker Peter Nicks doesn’t hold any illusions that his work will save the world. For him, filmmaking is just one element of culture that slowly propels humanity forward, together.
So when Nicks directed The Force — the story of two turbulent years in the Oakland Police Department, filmed while embedded in its ranks — he did so with a stridently objective eye. The film premiered in 2017 at Sundance, where Nicks was awarded the Directing Award for U.S. Documentary, and broadcasts nationally this week on PBS' Independent Lens.
The documentary is the second in a trilogy of films examining the city of Oakland through its public institutions, produced by Nick’s nonprofit Open’hood and inspired in part by the HBO series The Wire. (Nicks’ critically acclaimed The Waiting Room, told from inside Oakland’s Highland Hospital, was the first in the trilogy; he plans to embed in the city’s schools for the third.)
As filmmakers, Nicks and his team had unprecedented access to the OPD during filming, which began in 2014 as the Black Lives Matter movement emerged. “The department was trying to confront this problem of implicit bias,” Nicks says, “and at the same time trying to keep a city safe.”
“One of the things I noticed right away was the feeling of being in a police car,” Nicks says. People automatically look at the police with antagonism and mistrust, he noted, and the officers internalized that. But just as easily understood, Nicks says, is the perspective of community members who feel profiled and harassed by the police.
Bridging rather than widening that divide is one Nicks' primary goals. “As a filmmaker I want to try to bring people into another point of view,” he says. His own personal story, including encounters with the criminal justice system, he says, helped him approach complex matters with sensitivity and authenticity.
Watch our latest Behind the Lens spotlight on local filmmakers, as Nicks and his team capture Black Lives Matter protests, OPD trainees, community vigils, and police missteps, all the way up to the documentary's explosive coda: a sex scandal involving over a dozen members of the department. - Text by Sarah Hotchkiss
The Force is available for free streaming on PBS until Feb. 4, 2018, and then available on Netflix.