When a filmmaker finds himself struggling to make a film, sometimes the only solution is to make another film.
For Boston-area filmmaker and activist Rod Webber, the issues he finds himself in are significant enough, as his satirical documentary ‘2020: The Dumpster Fire’ (distributed by South Portland’s NO producing and profiled in this column back in october) was met with a barrage of threats from law enforcement, culminating in a series of grand jury investigations that Webber says were the result of overzealous FBI agents and prosecutors and politically motivated (some right here in Maine).
And while Webber’s follow-up short on the ongoing ordeal, aptly titled, “Why is this happening?” The U.S. Government v ‘2020: The Dumpster Fire’” (available at Webber’s Youtube channel) is not a solution in itself, Webber has always sought to bring the truth to light, no matter the personal cost.
In a long and lively phone interview, Webber gave me plenty of insight into his long history of film-based activism and the legal harassment that comes with it. But, to sum up the predicament he’s currently facing, his filming partner and wife, Lauren Pespisa, and almost everyone on his production team: After the film’s trailer was released, a “Proud Boy right-winger claimed to the FBI that some of the mannequins destroyed by CGI in the trailer posed a death threat against then-President Donald Trump. (A dummy with “truth” clearly scribbled on it has been repeatedly and mistakenly claimed by the FBI to read “Trump.”)
According to Webber, that was all the excuse some right-wing FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force agents and prosecutors needed. Since January 2021, Webber and his team have endured at least five grand jury investigations, while government agents have harassed not only them, but also their friends and family, all in accordance with, Webber says, shutting down his mark of dissent cinematographic. And possibly put him in jail. As Webber puts it, with the usual candor, these tactics represent “a classic cointelpro (counterintelligence program) designed to silence the left and anyone who wants to give a clear view of what is really going on in these political events.”
Webber says, “I will concede that the way I ask my questions can be a lot more provocative” than the average documentarian, and that’s certainly true. In films such as his documentary about perennial activist political candidate Vermin Supreme (“This Is Vermin Supreme”) and “2020: The Dumpster Fire,” Webber’s strategy is to provoke political figures into outrage. Impersonating a flower-bearded ‘acid victim’ as he tried to present presidential candidates with ‘flowers for peace’ (the name of Webber’s 2016 documentary short) is just one of the ways the filmmaker sought to eliminate the polished choreography of the traditional contestant press conference.
“We’re more like Yippies or Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters,” Webber said of his own group of fearless provocateurs. Yet, as viewers of “2020: The Dumpster Fire” see, there’s a serious method to mischief, as Webber’s stated goal is still “to tell the king he has no clothes.” Says Webber of his politically-minded “performance art”: “It’s the role of the court jester, whether he likes it or not.”
Webber clearly appreciates the trouble his blunt questions cause, even if he’s had to take more than a few punches. After being ‘roughed up’ by Trump supporters at a rally in New Hampshire during the 2016 campaign, Webber appeared in court and won a large cash settlement from the Trump campaign and the Department of Justice. Manchester Police. That, along with his penchant for pointing his camera at powerful faces and challenging the right-wing narrative about the Black Lives Matter movement and “antifa,” is what Webber pretty convincingly states in his latest film, is behind “2020: The Dumpster Fire’s “Recent Problems.
“When needed, I’m very happy to drop that facade and become a fly on the wall, to make people’s voices heard,” he said of his harrowing time on the pitch during the BLM protests (and violent police response) in Minneapolis. . Yet Webber was arrested a dozen times during his filming and made some very staunch enemies in various branches of the justice system, people who Webber says seek to punish him for revealing the right-wing sympathies of many members of law enforcement.
In the 20-minute briefing titled “Why Is This Happening?”, Webber names names, including the Maine prosecutor who is currently suing a grand jury in the state. As with any documentarian worthy of his camera, Webber also brings the receipts, including an FBI central agent’s ties to white supremacist organizations, and a paper trail of inflammatory untruths by himself and others on the case. For Webber and his team, this level of harassment on film is troubling. Not just personally and professionally, but, as artists and Americans, existentially.
“Honestly, it should be all (expletive) filmmakers who would be outraged,” Webber said, “Every movie magazine and publication shouting this from the rooftops.” As to why his story isn’t bigger, the acclaimed filmmaker can only speculate, “They’re scared of the (expletive) cause we’re dealing with some shady forces here.”
“2020: The Dumpster Fire” is currently receiving solid reviewsand is available for rent on everything from Apple TV to Google Play, while its follow-up, “Why is this happening?” The US Government v 2020: The Dumpster Fire” can be watched for free at Rod Webber’s YouTube Channel.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.