Emerson College alumnus Craig Atkinson, MA ’08, walked away with a Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature from the Tribeca Film Festival for his film, Do Not Resist, about police militarization and surveillance in the United States.
Atkinson, who directed, shot, and edited the film, won $20,000 sponsored by Netflix. The prize was presented by filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, whose documentary short Music by Prudence won an Academy Award, making Williams the first African American director to win an Oscar.
“We were excited by the directorial debut of a cinematographer who already has created a great body of work,” the Jury wrote in comments. “Do Not Resist shines a light on the frightening story of the militarization of the police. In an impactful way the director uses his amazing access to look at power and force from the inside.”
The film looks at how tools and weapons used in counterterrorism, particularly surveillance equipment, have made their way into the hands of local law enforcement, who then use them on civilians.
“I guess I’ve been shocked by the entire project,” Atkinson said. “I was shocked at the material. I was shocked that we were so well received at Tribeca. Obviously, I’m excited about the extra attention with winning because I think it will give us some extra legs.”
Atkinson said that his father was a SWAT officer in Detroit from 1989 to 2002, and the filmmaker was struck by the tactics used in the “War on Drugs” vs. the way today’s SWAT teams operate.
“A lot of [equipment] is being used in the same way War on Drugs–era tools were being used, which is for low-level drug offenders rather than terrorism,” Atkinson said. “My request would be that we use the tools for their intended purpose…don’t turn them around on the public and use them for other reasons just because it’s more convenient.”
Atkinson has been the cinematographer on a number of projects, including the 2012 documentary Detropia and the documentary shorts The Education of Mohammad Hussein (2013) and A Dream Preferred (2015). But Do Not Resist is the first documentary he has directed himself.
He said that due to his father’s work on the Detroit police force, he thought he “understood the SWAT officer mentality” and could make a film that put the audience in the center of the action.
Atkinson said the most valuable thing his Emerson education gave him was access to the “great minds” of faculty and fellow students who gave him an appreciation for the full range of the filmmaking process.
“More than anything, [it was] the conversations and the exchanges that I had with students and faculty that I really took along with me, and it’s been in the back of my mind since 2008,” he said.