The Big Delve Documentary filmmaker Peter Yost on balancing "curiosity" with "caring."

Film director, writer and producer Peter Yost makes films with subjects that range, as he says himself, between “everything from sumo in Japan to solitary confinement to drones to Tibetan refugee kids to cockfighting in Louisiana.” He seeks to tell stories that capture some aspect of the human experience, be they significant cultural issues or more intimate individual encounters. These efforts have made him an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker who has produced work for PBS, National Geographic, and more. Yost will be at Washington University in St. Louis’s Steinberg Auditorium at the Kemper Art Museum Feb. 16 to speak at a  6 p.m. screening of his 2013 documentary Rise of the Drones.


I spoke with him over the phone about how he finds stories that matter, the ethics of telling these stories, and what’s changed about drones since he made the film.


Question 1: Often your films have a civic component dealing with contemporary issues. How do you identify stories that matter? 


It’s a tricky balance. It’s a combination of finding stories that I am really passionate about or interested in on some level, and also finding things that are, frankly, make-able. Sometimes it’s necessary to jump into something to see whether it’s actually realizable, or not. From the outside it might seem like, “Oh, how the heck are we ever gonna to do x,” but one starts nipping away at it and doors open—or they don’t.


I’m drawn to things that are just inherently interesting to me, and also important for people to see. I did a film a few years ago, for example, on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. I had just been reading a number of books and articles and becoming ever-more struck by how widespread this practice was, and yet how absent it seemed to be from our general discourse.


It struck me on a human level as a curious situation to be in. I just personally couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to go through that. It was this balance between both as a human being being curious about what people would experience in this world, and at the same time caring a lot about what our society was doing to people, wanting to draw attention to that and explore it.


I talk more just about human issues that can resonate on different levels.



Question 2: Your documentary Solitary Confinement ended up leading to reforms of the solitary confinement practice. How important—or is it important—to you that your work prompts some sort of action from viewers?


I took a lot of satisfaction in making that film and after the fact seeing that it probably did have some impact in the real world apart from just being something that people watched on a Tuesday night and then went about their business.


I’m wary of making, just for myself on a personal level, things that become propagandistic. Where I say “I believe x and therefore I’m gonna whitewash this subject in order to achieve goal y.” It’s not necessarily always wrong to do that, but personally I recoil from it. Whether temperamentally, because I’m a contrarian—I don’t like to just have a simple story; the world is more complicated than that—and/or because I’m just wary of propaganda in its extreme forms on all sides of the political spectrum.


People who think they’re saving the world by just putting forth one point of view—there are instances certainly where that’s a good value and has had great impact, and I’m not poo-pooing that. I can only speak for myself that I personally, even unconsciously, am motivated by a desire to get into a subject, try and find its “truth.” I put quotes around that because that’s always a vexed pursuit. Of course, my perspective and my prejudices and the viewer’s prejudices and perspectives are always brought to bear.


All I can do, or all I’m really wanting to do, is delve into something, try to find where there’s a core of humanity in something that feels interesting, important, surprising to people, and explore that and see where it goes. In certain instances—in Solitary Confinement, I think—that lead to changes, and I feel great about that. … But from my perspective, I went into it genuinely wanting to find out what was going on there.


We looked at everybody’s medical records, we had really unusual access. We had criminal records, medical records, psychiatric evaluations… We had every thing that existed on every inmate that we spoke to. We were able to speak to whomever we wanted. We spent a lot of time really trying to understand, not just cherry-pick and misrepresent the stories. This is perhaps invisible to people watching, but it allows me to sleep at night.


All I can do, or all I’m really wanting to do, is delve into something, try to find where there’s a core of humanity in something that feels interesting, important, surprising to people, and explore that and see where it goes.


It wasn’t just like we found one extreme case, here. These were fairly typical. The more I got into it, the more shocked I was by that fact. I think maybe that comes through in the film. I came out of that feeling like it was a stupid practice. It is a stupid practice. It’s expensive, it’s ineffective, it’s dangerous, it’s inhumane. Other than that it’s great.


A counterpoint to this might be this project I did about drones where, as anybody would, I went in with my assumptions and biases. The more I got into it, the trickier I think it is. There’s another side to solitary, it’s not all one way, but I found it was a policy harder and harder to defend the more I looked at it. Drones, there are huge problems with; they’re highly problematic and vexed and it touches on all kinds of things. But I think, in my personal opinion, it’s a more complicated issue. It’s not quite as black and white. In that way I think it’s a very different kind of film, for better or worse. It probably wouldn’t have that kind of muckraking effect.


There are friends of mine who are very liberal and found that problematic. They’re like, “Why didn’t you take advantage and just slam them?” And people on the other side might’ve felt similarly the other way. My answer to both would just be, “Because that’s what I discovered.” For me, trying to remain true to that process of discovery is what informs these things.



Question 3: For Rise of the Drones, Solitary Confinement, and a number of your other films, you’ve been given permission and access. But at the same time you are telling a story that might not necessarily reflect well on the group that’s given you that permission. How do you walk those lines—in having a sometimes editorial approach as a documentary maker, but also still having that restraint? 


It’s important not to trade access for editorial control. There are a number of projects I haven’t done when people have wanted that. In Drones, for example, they wanted editorial control. They don’t really let people shoot this stuff at all. It was quite unusual; we had to get access signed off from the Joints Chief of Staff. It went to the very, very top echelons of government. At that point, usually then they would say, “Okay, so we’ll let you come in here,” but certainly there were things that we couldn’t show. We couldn’t shoot screens that have live military information. You’re gonna give up something. You can’t say, “No, I want to go through your underwear drawer. I want complete and total access.” That’s a little ridiculous if you’re in a sensitive area. There are safety concerns and that sort of thing.


But beyond that, in terms of the editorial content, anything substantive, they had no control over—even though they did ask for it.


First, it’s important to have a line drawn, and be clear with yourself, with whoever’s commissioning the film, and with the people where you’re shooting, that these are conditions and that these are all happening. “You might think that this is an advertisement for x, y, or z, but it’s not; you have no say, ultimately.”


… the answer to that is just be looking for the truth. If you’re informed by that and are trying to do justice to that, then I think you have to take the leap and believe that that’s in their best interests and in everybody’s best interests.


In terms of actual control, that’s important. And then there’s the subtler question, when one is hanging in the place for a while, one has relationships—you’ve gone out to dinner, people have taken time off and are allowing you into their lives. How are you representing them? That’s more of a human question. Again, the answer to that is just be looking for the truth. If you’re informed by that and are trying to do justice to that, then I think you have to take the leap and believe that that’s in their best interests and in everybody’s best interests.


Even in Solitary Confinement, I always said to myself that I was polite to people, I really wanted to hear people out, I don’t feel like we manipulated anything that anybody said, including the warden and the proponents of this. We let them say what they thought. I say, “Would I sit next to the person and watch the movie? And look them in the eye and feel that I did a good job in representing what I thought?” As a standard, certainly for pretty much everything I have done, I feel comfortable doing that.



Question 4: When working within these restraints and there are things you cannot show, if those things turn out to be important to the narrative, are there other ways to articulate them? How do you get around that, “Well, I can’t show this or I can’t talk about this but it is important to understand”?



There’s a difference between not showing and not talking. Maybe there are some, and I’m just clueless, but I can’t think of instances where I haven’t been able to include something that I wanted to include for those kinds of reasons (because access was traded for it, or for political reasons). They tend to be much more about… something didn’t happen the way you would think it would happen.


Much more often from my standpoint it’s more a storytelling constraint. “This is an amazing scene or this is an incredible story or this is the most incredible thing, I would tell somebody about this and they wouldn’t believe it, this would go viral as a video online.” But it doesn’t fit in the story that we’re telling, or takes you out of it.


It tends to be, to my mind, things like that that fall out. That said, there are certain things you can’t shoot for whatever reasons. I did a film in North Korea and of course the access was incredibly limited. You get what you can get in weird ways. And then to fill things out, we shot a lot in South Korea, in the DMZ. Images can be caught in different ways. One can express things without necessarily literally seeing it or having access to it.



Question 5: Two-part question, part one: Is there something that you want people to come away from Rise of the Drones thinking or understanding?


It [Drones] was at this point made a few years ago. So it’s a slightly different world. Still similar, but when we did this it was really just starting to hit people’s consciousness.


I remember it was just that year that I got my hands on a little toy drone, for example. We were playing with it and shooting with it. Whole crowds of people would gather around us, just because people hadn’t seen it before. We took it to a park; we took it downtown and flew it borderline illegally. We were just messing around with this thing. It wasn’t the first drone or anything like that, but they hadn’t yet been given to everybody for Christmas for $100.


So at that point, I think it was somewhat driven by a desire to just be like, “Whoa, look at this new technology” in ways that are very small and local and very big and international that maybe you haven’t seen before. And, “Here, this is coming.” Hence the title “rise.” I also thought that from a political standpoint, drones had been in the news, initially in the margins and increasingly in the center. Mostly as secret CIA strikes.


I think there was just a lot of rumor about them. There was the sense of just these evil, hovering things, without people quite knowing what they were or having seen one back then. Not even just in person, but also on television. It was all from a distance that you’d hear about in the newspaper.


It became very, very hard for us, for me, to nail down what was really going on with this secret program. The film was a commission from NOVA, which is a science strand; to some extent that determined what film would be. It wasn’t going to be strictly an investigation of the CIA’s secret programs. We include some of that in there a little bit, but it’s not the idea of the film.


The idea of the film was to give some historical grounding to people. If you think of guns and gun control as an issue, most people have an opinion one way or another. Most people also have a pretty firm understanding of the history of guns in our country, at least a reasonable one. “Oh, the Wild West. People used to have them, this is where they came from, that’s why this perspective is held as it is, and here’s what guns do. Here’s how they work: you pull this trigger and this thing happens.” Most people have some basic understanding of the history and the capability of guns, and then they can choose a position, weigh in, and argue based on that.


Whereas with drones, I had no idea where these things came from, what their origins were, what their history is, even really what they could do, what their capabilities were, and where they were going.


We tried to almost provide a primer for people, for myself as well. Just kind of have a context for people to understand this technology. Touch on the places where in politics and in our domestic lives they’re becoming a big deal, and to give people tools to make decisions about them so the next time they read the paper about these covert CIA programs, they’ll know what these things are.


Now, three years later, they’re everywhere. They’re written about all the time, the FSA’s still regulating them. You hear all these stories of domestic use. This film gave a moment in time to understand where they came from and where they’re going. And to equip people to make informed decisions instead of to just rant. Because I think it’s a world where there’s a lot of political rhetoric on both sides about them, but little of it was grounded in anything concrete.



The second part of my question is: Is there anything about that narrative that you published in 2013 that has changed because of the recent approach to drones? A newspaper article this morning said the UK police want to use eagles to take down domestically-flown drones—it is just such a different atmosphere.


Are they literally using eagles as in the birds?


Yes! The program started in the Netherlands and now they’re thinking about having birds of prey attack drones that are being piloted illegally in the UK, as well.


I’m open to other people’s ideas but I think the issues are similar to what they were then, just accelerated and squared in terms of quantity. Like much technological stuff, it happens faster and faster. The ubiquity of them domestically is perhaps predictable, but it’s striking.


A lot of people have opinions. In the film we had found, from what we could tell, what was the first domestic shoot down of a drone. Which I found to be a loaded and enticing story of these hunters from Florida shot it down over their property. That’s all resonant and maybe a harbinger of things to come.


It does seem like, domestically, there are more and more things like that happening. Even as you’re saying, the birds of prey. It’s taking all different forms but it’s a variation on that theme.


Internationally, for better or worse it’s been going on now for so many years as a “secret” program—the worst-kept secret in the world. It was just coming up with Hillary Clinton’s emails the other day. Some of these things that should’ve been top-secret classified on her server were sent to her personal email and they involved the “secret drone program,” which, again—not so secret! And yet it’s this weird almost Area 51-like liminal state, or kind of netherworld, where Area 51 really exists, it always did. I made a film about it, actually. It’s fascinating and they did all kinds of stuff, but it was also denied by the government for a long time and started all these rumors that weren’t based on fact.


The CIA drone program completely exists, of course, but they don’t really stand behind it and accept it.


It doesn’t seem to me to be quite as active an area of contention as it was then. Maybe there are other problems—ISIS and other things—have perhaps displaced it. Maybe not.

Kae Petrin

Kae Petrin is a Data & Graphics Reporter on Chalkbeat’s data visuals team and freelances for the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. They cofounded the Trans Journalists Association in 2020 with several dozen other journalists; ze has since run many of the organization’s internal operations. They have presented on queer and trans coverage best practices, data reporting and visualization tools, and the intersections of these topics for universities, industry conferences, custom-designed workshops, and newsrooms around the U.S. Ze also served as a board member and secretary for the St. Louis Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists from 2017 to 2023.