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Diasporian News of Thursday, 25 February 2016


'Chameleon' looks at Ghana's James Bond of journalism

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It's not often that a journalist is compared to "James Bond." Not even the spy-level tactics that the Edward Snowden story required of Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras earned them the comparison.

But Ghanian investigative reporter Anas Aremeyaw Anas is called the 007 of his field in Ghana and Africa as a whole, where he's admired not just as a truth teller but a kind of crime fighter.

However, few know what he looks like, and when he appears in public he wears a mask of beads. His undercover exposes require myriad disguises as he works to reveal abuses by the government and religious organizations, often against women and children.

As the documentary "Chameleon" explains, he also employs gadgets more associated with a Bond film, such as glasses outfitted with hidden cameras. He once dressed up as a female executive to get an arrest.

What makes his work a natural fit for a film documentary are the multimedia nature of his reports, which are part video expose, part theater and part tabloid, in a mixture that doesn't have many counterparts in American journalism. He's part New York Times and part "Inside Edition."

Anas produces articles for the print edition of the Crusading Guide in addition to television documentaries, all of which must be timed and coordinated with police raids.

Anas' need to remain anonymous poses some problems for the director. For one, how do you make a visually engaging film without revealing your subject's face or too much about his identity?

Director Ryan Mullins generates a number of workarounds to avoid the stereotypical "blurred face" and altered voice.

He films walk-and-talks from behind, as Anas wears one of his many hats. He crops out Anas' head above the mouth as the journalist explains his techniques, or leaves Anas in the background of a strategy session, in view but out of focus. (The film is primarily in English, with some use of subtitles.)

The techniques complement Anas' work as he assembles his stories from outside strands, circling his target before going undercover and exposing them.

Anas himself describes journalism as "a means to an end," and the film doesn't create a personal portrait, only a snapshot of his working methods and the reasons behind them. In order to avoid exposing him, it doesn't dwell much on his biography. Even a visit to a relative's grocery stand feels like a treacherous mission.

The style hints at a central conundrum of any journalism, whether in print or documentary: whether you can ever fully know the subject.

Whether Anas crosses lines in his collaborations with police comes up more than once. In the midst of planning one raid, filmmakers capture him discussing which charges should be filed. You soon realize he's on the phone with a law-enforcement official who reminds him that the attorney general decides on charges, not Anas.

A fellow African journalist, Kwesi Pratt Jr., who's been jailed four times, wonders aloud about the use of subterfuge, but in the end says the American documentary crew comes with its own sense of ethics from its own country.

What's more important here, he said, are facts and the truth. Whether viewers accept that answer is up to them, but "Chameleon" is an engaging portrait of the techniques in question.

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