Chameleon, the Ryan Mullins-directed documentary on vigilante Ghanaian journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas, is filmed like a spy mission. Mullins takes us behind enemy lines in and around Accra to follow the famed Anas as he cracks the cases that lead to the arrests of sex traffickers and cult leaders.
We first see Anas over his own shoulder stalking the rugged terrain. The grainy handheld shots capture the movement of his step. Even though you can’t see his eyes, you can feel the careful attention he is paying to his surroundings. The bounce in his step animates the otherwise still night.
In the streets they know his name. They know he is a masked man and master of clandestine operations. Even Barack Obama has praised him as ‘a brave journalist’ in a speech. His name is attached to many high profile articles and breaking news stories, however, his face isn’t. Anas conceals his physical identity so the criminals can’t see him coming.
Working in concert with the police, Anas and his team of informants plant hidden cameras and tape recorders to investigate their subjects and capture evidence. Then, when enough of a case has been built, he presents the information he has collected to the heads of the police units who then work with him to make the arrest.
In one particularly slick montage, Anas is seen changing into different costumes. At one time he is an old man in rags with prosthetic facial features. At another he is a full-figured woman in a dress and heels. And, most preposterously, he is a rock. The beat of hi-life music plays in the background.
While Mullins’ film is full of energy, the most interesting element in the whole story is a hidden one. It’s unclear to the viewer how the filmmaker is presenting his subject. Most of the time he comes across as a hero. However, after seeing how Anas conducts his process, you can’t help but question whether Anas is a journalist at all. It is very hard to see him as a member of the independent press when his actions portrayed in the film are so closely tied to those working in Ghana’s law enforcement.
Rather than seeing him committed to the principles of creating the story for the newspapers, you see a curious man infatuated with the law and freeing his people of corruption. There is no documentation showing Anas’ rapport with the news outlets or even any talk of his creative process. Nor do you understand how his stories were discovered in the first place and why the community still needs him to write articles. Instead we see him directing plainclothes officers on how to bust a kidnapping ring.
The majority of the screen time is spent showing a couple of sting operations and then celebrating his success in breaking the story. There is not enough context provided in the film that shows how Anas’ actions raise the public’s consciousness in regards to corruption. Besides his obvious fame and bravery, we are left without the psychological impact his stories leave on the reader. We want to know how this position of influence is shaping the world.
The most powerful part of the film comes after an arrest where Anas leads a number of reckless policemen into a pseudo-religious camp full of kidnapped children. The police officers burst into the camp, round up the captives, and raze it to the ground. The shocked women and children are then loaded into the bus. When they sit down to be told what will happen to them and where they’ll live, many are revealed to be without family and stable homes. Anas and his colleagues appear saddened by these truths and unprepared to ensure safety for all of the victims in the future.
This, for a split second, shows a certain failure on the part of Anas to look beyond the rescue itself. And while we see the direct impact of his actions to those involved in this specific case, it would have been more meaningful if we could have seen what this case signifies for the other criminals and victims still at large. Unfortunately, rather than building upon this sequence, it is framed as another battle of the good versus the bad and then we’re back to admiring Anas’ past accomplishments. It makes you question if this clip intends to criticize his methods in the first place.
While there are a few scattered interviews with a previously jailed newspaper editor, Chameleon does not play as a cautionary tale for investigative journalists. In the case of Anas, journalism is presented as less of an occupation and more of a means to an end. When he abruptly receives a law degree after the kidnapping raid unfolds it’s as if he’s dropped his tools to pick up something different altogether.
Chameleon screens on April 25th and 26th in Toronto as part of the 2015 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.