The James Bond of Journalism

(Canada, 76 min.)
Written and directed by Ryan Mullins
Anas in a field. / Hot Docs
If some journalists fight on the front lines to tell a story, then Ghanaian journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas is amidst a war of his own making. Sometimes a reporter needs to expose the baddies, while other times he or she needs to counterattack with stealthy drones to bring the story into the light. Alternatively, does fighting a battle, rather than witnessing it from a far, ultimately put a journalist on the same plane as a provocateur like Michael Moore?

Filmmaker Ryan Mullins (The Frog Princes) presents a thrilling feat of documentary film and investigative journalism alike as he tackles the maverick reportage of Anas Aremeyaw Anas. Anas, dubbed the James Bond of Ghanaian journalism for his stealthy and heroic efforts, uncovers and exposes various corrupt and criminal networks in Ghana by disguising himself to infiltrate the enemy and gather the facts a reporter needs to tell a story. Mullins shows that Anas’s unorthodox methods are complex affairs akin to sting operations, but Anas goes the extra step and eventually involves the authorities in his scoops and works with them to bring the no-goodniks to justice while putting them in the headlines.

Chameleon, winner of the Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award at Hot Docs this year, follows Anas on several stories. Mullins never shows Anas’s face since the journalist demands privacy, discretion, and anonymity both to ensure his safety and to do his job effectively. The film shows Anas mostly from behind or with his face either fully or partially obscured by a wig/veil and the rest of his identifying marks blurred into an indiscernible enigma. The effect sometimes proves a hindrance when the audio slips and one can’t read Anas’s lips or facial expressions, and some of his explanations are simply unintelligible aside from the headlines that appear onscreen. However, the choice to make Anas an absent presence keeps the focus of Chameleon on the methods, rather than on the man. This choice smartly lets the film present a provocative and relatively objective viewpoint of Anas as it watches him breach numerous ethics of journalism, but save far more victims from harm.

Among the gripping investigations in which Chameleon shadows the James Bond journo is a wrenching story of an abortion doctor who preys on the vulnerability of his patients, as well as their ignorance, and rapes them before fulfilling the medical procedure. (He tells them it’s to avoid pain.) The most thrilling account, however, is the final episode in which Anas infiltrates a religious camp where the pastor brainwashes susceptible youths and leads a human trafficking ring. This sequence is intense and frenzied, but above all, urgent. Using hidden cameras and participants willing to put themselves at risk, Anas essentially stages full-fledged sting operations supported by the crossed-checked facts of investigative journalism. The authorities come banging on the door, rather than the reporter (although he’s there with them) and Chameleon shows how Anas’s deliver both a story and justice.

Mullins, who also shot and cut the film, structures the investigations around a lecture Anas delivers at a local school. Anas, only partially covered in these scenes out of respect for the students, passionately explains his cases and procedures, and he defends his methods while explaining why it’s sometimes necessary to negotiate ambiguities in objectivity and ethics to do what’s morally right. Anas is a compelling speak—it’s no wonder that his TED Talk featured in the film was over 1.1 million views—and the passion of his lecture shows a brilliant philosopher and activist who takes journalism the extra step.

Chameleon balances the portrait by inviting several talking heads to join in the conversation and say what good Anas is doing for Ghana. Everyone from Barack Obama to random passersby on the street praise the reporter for being so bold. Fellow journalists and peers, however, take a much more pragmatic approach and admire Anas, but convey that his work crosses into a grey area against which journalism defines itself. Some scenes of Anas, for example, show him far too invested in the story that a detached observer should be as he converses with lawyers about how best to charge the subjects of his investigation. One wishes that Chameleon brought more voices into the fray, and with less than eighty minutes of running time, there’s room for a fuller story, but this portrait of Anas shows that there’s a difference between observing change and being an agent of it. Chameleon fundamentally asks if the benefits of Anas’s methods outweigh the loss of a reporter’s objectivity. The film ultimately leaves it up to the audience to decide, but it’s hard to champion the passive observer when such an active force brings more compelling results and, one should add, a better story.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Chameleon is now available on iTunes.