Pete Nicks Turns His Lens on the Oakland Police Department

The filmmaker continues his institutional fixation, turning his camera away from the Highland Hospital ER to the Oakland Police Department.


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Pete Nicks on location for his untitled new documentary about the Oakland Police Department, which is in production.

Photo courtesy of Pete Nicks

A particular word pops up again and again when Pete Nicks talks about his filmmaking ambitions: community. Based in the East Bay and focused—no, fixated—on the future of Oakland, Nicks sees his documentaries as a catalyst for conversation and change from within.

“Films, in and of themselves, are spokes on the wheel on a larger initiative to engage community around story,” he explains.

All of Oakland will assuredly be engaged—in the fall of 2016, if all goes according to plan—by the documentary about the Oakland Police Department that Nicks just began editing. Looking even further ahead, he’s already chosen education as the subject of the third chapter in his series about East Bay institutions with national implications.

Nicks came out of nowhere in 2012 with The Waiting Room, a stunningly compassionate and revelatory portrait of Highland Hospital’s emergency room. Adopting an observational, nonjudgmental approach, the filmmaker showed committed individuals doing their jobs in the face of overwhelming demand and insufficient resources. This strategy, inspired in part by the films of Frederick Wiseman, cut right through the false generalizations and villains-and-heroes dialectic that colors much of the discussion of the nation’s public healthcare system.

“The simple act of allowing someone their humanity through observational, non-polemic storytelling is powerful in building empathy and reframing conversations around ideological or politically sensitive topics,” Nicks said. “I put that observational approach right alongside activism as an effective tool in moving the ball forward for communities to understand each other.”

The perennial challenge of social-issue documentaries is how to alter viewers’ perceptions and inspire behavior without being dogmatic, one-sided, and manipulative, even when the cause is just. Nicks’ style of filmmaking presents a situation rather than constructing an argument, with the aim of provoking discussion rather than kneejerk emotions.

“Activism is about action, right?” Nicks said. “Getting change in certain spaces. This is a more subtle approach, but just as effective in a long run. More of a Crockpot than a deep fryer.”

The Oakland Police Department is a hot-button subject that will test the ability of observational filmmaking to encourage collaborative, solution-oriented dialogue. The OPD has become a more progressive institution in recent years, to a large degree because it was forced to implement reforms as part the negotiated settlement in 2003 of the Riders scandal.

“They believe in transparency,” Nicks notes. “They’ve publicly stated that. In effect, our cameras are recording that process: What does reform look like today? Our goal was to answer the question: Who are the police and what does it look like to be a cop at this watershed moment in American policing?”

Nicks is ambitiously taking on national issues, but from a resolutely local point of view. He’s committed to moving Oakland forward over the long haul, and to that end, he established the nonprofit community organization Open’hood, Inc. in 2012. The MacArthur Foundation, Cal Humanities, and Tides, among other respected funders, have backed Nicks’ vision with grants. Another major endorsement of Open’hood’s work came in October when United States Artists named Nicks a 2015 USA Pritzker Pucker Fellow, which comes with an unrestricted $50,000 grant.

Ultimately, Open’hood is an unusual production company because its feature-length documentaries are intended to catalyze community action rather than simply stand as the product of a process.

“The people who will watch films in theaters is limited compared to other ways of telling stories and engaging community,” Nicks says. “In this day and age, we share and tell stories in a lot of different ways beyond just what a film can do.”

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