It's clear within the first new minutes of Chameleon why anyone would want to make a documentary about Anas Aremeyaw Anas. The celebrated Ghanian investigative journalist is not only responsible for breaking countless stories about corruption and crime in his country, but he does so using disguises and subterfuge while maintaining complete anonymity. He's gone undercover in a psychiatric hospital, infiltrated a brothel to bust up a child prostitution ring, and even posed as an imam. It's not at all hyperbole to think of Anas as some sort of superhero—especially since he keeps his face covered in public so that he can continue going undercover for stories, often at great personal risk.
Montreal documentary filmmaker Ryan Mullins had nearly unfettered access to Anas (minus his face, naturally) and his investigative methods during the filming of Chameleon, traveling with the journalist on high-profile busts and drawing on the investigative team's extensive surveillance techniques. But while the pursuit of these sometimes sensational stories makes for riveting footage and captivating documentary fodder, Mullin wasn't without his reservations. Anas' methods are, after all, tread into some ethical grey areas, and many have voiced their concern with his blurring of lines between journalism and law enforcement.
We spoke with Mullins about how the project came together, hanging around someone who gets regular death threats, and the logistics of capturing on film a dude who keeps his identity hidden.
VICE: The film is super interesting, largely because it seems like you had tons of access.
Ryan Mullins: I didn't think I would. But he was just super open to the process. Of course he'd worked with Al Jazeera and CNN in the past, and so he was kind of open to it. And he wasn't shy around the camera. But it just took a little while, I think, from me going back from time to time and just spending time with him, until he really kind of opened up.
What was it about him that got you interested, and how did this all come together?
I'd worked in Ghana. And a friend that I'd made when I was there sent me an article because I was looking for reasons to go back and make a film. It was the one that was in the Atlantic, called "Smuggler, Forger, Writer, Spy" and it told the story of kind of a superhero journalist. And immediately, the way it talked about him, how this guy couldn't show his face and got into disguises and went undercover, it immediately grabbed me as something that was very cinematic and intriguing.
The craft of it [appealed to me:] to be able to make a documentary that was in part documentary but had this fiction feel to it, like this 70s thriller feel to it. I'd always kind of been intrigued with doing a behind-the-scenes look at perhaps a newspaper or a media room. Figuring out the cases, reporting, investigating, the setback, and the scheming and all that sort of stuff really captivated me.
You definitely had a very colorful character through which to view that, rather than just a bunch of people pecking away at laptops. What was the initial contact with him, and how did that progress?
This friend of mine actually went to law school with Anas—he has his law degree. She sent me his number and vouched for me. First I texted him, and then I probably spent like 20 minutes on the phone with him before I turned to my producer and said, "Look, I've got to just get out there." And luckily—this was at the very early stages, we weren't even in development yet—I was able to go over and do a bit of shooting myself because I can kind of travel as a one-man show. That kind of eased the fears of my producer—that this was not going to cost a lot of money. We bought the plane ticket and I went over. It was mostly because he didn't go into many details over the phone. I would ask him certain things and he'd be like, "Just get over here. Just fly over here and come see for yourself."
I remember getting off the plane and spent the a few days acclimatizing myself because it had been a while since I'd been there. But the first meeting was so surreal—he sent me a location, which was his old office—and I walked up this flight of stairs to get to a door that has a finger[print] identification panel. His office is down a long corridor with all of his past exploits lining the walls. It's all very daunting. But I sat down with him and immediately, he was like, "Why aren't you shooting? Let's roll. Let's do this."
Obviously he seemed to be open to the idea of the documentary straight away?
Yeah, I think. He had a few ground rules: He was concerned with how he would be presented physically. Of course he doesn't show his face, so we had to figure out a way to do that. The way I wanted to make the film was more fly-on-the-wall verité, so a lot of the time it was getting into a different position so I could shoot him from behind. So all of that was kind of sussed out and laid out in the beginning—what he was comfortable with, what I could or couldn't shoot.
But after that, like I said, he was really open to it. He's comfortable with the camera, and very dramatic. So right away I felt like I was getting a lot of good stuff, but maybe not necessarily deeper stuff, because he puts on a bit of a persona. But over time, I felt like I was getting… a few chinks in the armor were showing.
What was it like going on the busts?
There's so much that didn't end up in the film, and a lot of times, that's just sitting around waiting for things to happen. That's the way we decided to go about making the film: It's verité, and we're not going to stage anything.
As much as it feels like a fictional or scripted film, it was very much waiting around for things to happen. My first shoot, the development shoot, a lot happened. I remember being there on the first or second day and there's that opening scene on the road going after this guy who'd jumped bail and he'd been after for like three years. That all happened within the first few days. So my head was spinning! I'd just landed and all of a sudden I'm in a cop car driving down this dirt road and guns are drawn. It was kind of surreal.
But after that, things just evolved at his pace. A lot of times, I would be in Montreal and call him up to see what was going on. He'd be reserved to tell me exactly what, but he'd have a few inklings here and there so I'd fly over. But he's someone who has like a dozen or so irons in the fire at one point, so we'd follow one investigation that would fizzle out, but another one would crop up while we were there. So it was always a surprise to us what was coming.
Working with him so closely, what did you learn about not only his of investigative journalism, but doc-making in general?
I never imagined myself as someone who would be using hidden camera footage or making those sorts of investigative documentaries. My film prior to this was a film about special needs.
So it was like night and day. It opened my eyes to, maybe, heavier documentary filmmaking. Particularly with the subjects that he was pursuing. It was tough, because we had this idea about the film that we wanted to make, which was this stylized documentary that was fun, but then at the same time there were all of these heavy dark cases that he was following. So you kind of have to wrestle with that: Are you treating it appropriately or are we just having fun here? Give it the weight it deserves.
He's working pretty closely with the police, so how was the relationship? Is the police force on the up-and-up? They seem to be relying on his information a lot of the time.
Yeah, I'm a bit conflicted about it because there is that delineation between journalist and law enforcement. You kind of want that boundary there, and obviously he crosses it. They benefit from his work and he benefits from them as well. He sees that law enforcement isn't up to the task, so to speak, to fight corruption in the way that he would like to see done. And he's someone who has the means and the tools necessary to go after these stories that slip through the cracks—that wouldn't have gotten looked at had he not brought it to them. I was certainly conflicted about that relationship. You wonder sometimes about who's making the decisions.
Did you have bigger conversations with Anas about that? Is he open to talking about that stuff in depth?
I think he was more and more as the film went on and he saw my concerns being raised, especially in the last case where things kind of went wrong and the police went in quite hard. Even though the group needed to be shut down, I think the way in which they went about it was completely wrong. I questioned him on that and the motivations there—was he just in it for the story or did he actually have concerns about these kids? He's someone who feels he's willing to make those tough decisions about—necessary evil decisions, in order to see that justice is done or justice is served. These are kind of his words, but the ends justify the means.
It takes a certain amount of ego and, to a certain extent, self-righteousness to even attempt the things that he does.
Yeah, and I hope that comes across in the film. At the end of the day he does have a newspaper and he is selling newspapers. A lot of the personality and the larger-than-life superhero figure is about selling papers. He's very intelligent that way, and he knows exactly what people want. But then some people deem that to be sensationalistic.
But I can understand how the sensationalism allows you to keep doing the things that matter and that get results.
It's all contextual. Like, I have a problem with it—I studied journalism and it's certainly not the way I was taught to practice journalism. But that's what people want in Ghana. And that's what sells. But that's what works. He's kind of created this renaissance of people interested in journalism and investigative journalism, where he's giving talks at schools and he's almost like a superstar.
How dangerous is the work that he's engaged in? From what you saw, is he in constant danger and taking the precautions to deal with this stuff?
You know, to be honest, nothing that I saw firsthand. But you get the sense that he does take a lot of precautions and there are a lot of security measures that he's taken. The finger identification at his office and he does have a security detail sometimes. He hides his face. And this is based on his past work because he's had death threats before. But nothing that I've seen firsthand. In a lot of ways, he hides his identity for security, but also so that he can continue working as an undercover journalist—so people don't know his face or recognize his face.
The second part to that is that, because he's influencing this younger generation of investigative journalists, does that come with the caveat of: this work can be dangerous?
He doesn't sugarcoat it. He tells them pretty bluntly that it's dangerous. But also, if you want to make your mark you have to accept these dangers and these risks and this lifestyle. But also that this is just one way to do it. I think he's just influencing then in the sense that his work affecting real change. The president actually changed certain laws in the way that the port authority is run. That was a big story and directly influenced by Anas' work—the president cited that. So they're seeing that there can be this change. And the way he does it is sexy in way, and people like that.
You talk to his father at one point in the film. But what are his relationships like beyond work? Is he bound by the job to avoid certain situations?
Without getting too much into his personal life, he does go out and he has friends. He meets for coffee. He isn't kind of shrouded in mystery at all times. I think that he does live somewhat of a normal life. The persona is kind of his day to day, but he's also found ways to kind of lead a normal life.
Coming back to that rock star idea: good rock stars or actors create that persona for a reason, so that they can turn it off when they leave the stage.
For him it's great. He lives kind of the life or is acknowledged as a rock star, yet no one knows what he looks like. So he can blend into the shadows and doesn't have to deal with the other half of that popularity.
Chameleon plays at Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival on April 25 and 26.
Follow Chris Bilton onTwitter.