“Behind the Headlines,” Daniel Andreas Sager’s thrilling look at how German investigative journalists triggered a political earthquake in Austria that toppled the country’s government, is having its world premiere at Danish doc fest CPH:DOX, where it’s competing for the Fact Award, before unspooling at Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival and opening next month’s DOK.fest München.
Sager is now at work on his next documentary project, a film that will accompany international peace mediators, workers and analysts from the battlefield to the European Parliament and UN Security Council.
“Behind the Headlines” focuses on two main protagonists, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier of German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung — the reporters who broke the Panama Papers story in 2016. Sager remained embedded at the SZ for two years, initially following various journalists as they conducted research, interviews and followed up on potentially explosive leads. He traveled with Obermayer and Obermaier to Paris, Malta, Israel, Washington, D.C., and even tagged along with them and their colleague Georg Mascolo to Moscow to interview Edward Snowden.
The film touches on a number of stories on which the reporters are working, including the mysterious murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia, who reported extensively on the Panama Papers scandal and its connections to Malta’s political establishment, and the hunt by U.S. and Israeli spooks for a cunning arms dealer who, they allege, is supplying Iran with key missile technology.
Sager developed the project with producer Marc Bauder and the two spent a year in discussions with the SZ to get access to its investigative news team and approval for the project.
“We didn’t know what the cases were that they were working on but we were clear about wanting to show the journalistic craft, and really provide an open view of how journalists work, the processes, how they argue and discuss issues in the newsroom,” Sager tells Variety. It’s an approach that makes the film very cinematic in look and narrative. “We wanted to show how journalists work and not just talk about it” he adds.
“It was very important to have this long pre-production process to build up trust with them because everything is about safety and security and trust,” Bauder says. “We needed a long time span, at least one year with Daniel being embedded [with the investigative team]. These were the guys behind the Panama Papers story, so we were sure that a similar story would pop up.”
While the film originally intended to provide a more general look at investigative reporting and follow a number of journalists and newspapers working in the field, Sager chose to concentrate on the SZ and dig deeper at the one paper rather than taking a broader approach, Bauder adds. “I think it’s more interesting to have the time to really get inside of the daily work.”
The director’s focus narrowed on Obermayer and Obermaier after they received a secret video that would eventually bring down the Austrian government. The video appeared to show a meeting on the Spanish island of Ibiza between Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and Johann Gudenus, a deputy leader of their right-wing Freedom Party, and a woman pretending to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, in which they discussed possible political favors in exchange for financial support.
While Sager originally planned to spend one year with the SZ reporters, he ended up shadowing them for two years due to the slowly unfolding story. “A lot of the time was just waiting for something to happen,” he recalls. “It was a long process.”
Sager says the experience of making the film left him with great appreciation for the amount of fact-checking that goes into the reporting at the SZ. “Every fact gets checked from five different people. They put so much effort, so much passion, so much work into each story, and at the end it’s just two pages of text.”
Sager also praised the SZ for its continued commitment to investigative journalism at a time when other leading international news organizations have cut back significantly on investigative reporting.
“I think we need more investigative editorial teams everywhere and more financial opportunities for journalists to dive deep into research. The Süddeutsche Zeitung is the biggest daily in Germany, so of course they have the biggest budget for those kinds of things, but it would be good to have more of that.”
As part of CPH:DOX’s live event series, Obermayer and Obermaier were due to take part in a discussion on Thursday on how investigative journalists navigate legislation and stories while protecting sources.
Cologne-based New Docs is handling world sales for “Behind the Headlines.”
Sager is in early development on his next project, which will examine the role of international peace mediation and the role of peace workers. The director plans to follow peace workers and analysts into war zones, in their meetings with victims and fighters, and trace how the information they gather reaches decision makers and influences policy decisions at the highest levels of government.