When a filmmaker finds himself in trouble for making a movie, sometimes the only solution is to make another movie.

For Boston-area director and activist Rod Webber, the trouble he’s in is pretty major, as his satirical documentary “2020: The Dumpster Fire” (distributed by South Portland’s NO Productions and profiled in this column back in October) has been met with a barrage of threats from law enforcement, culminating in a series of grand jury investigations that Webber says are the result of overzealous, politically motivated FBI agents and prosecutors (some right here in Maine). 

And while Webber’s follow-up short film about the ongoing ordeal, aptly titled, “Why Is This Happening? The U.S. Govt. v ‘2020: The Dumpster Fire’” (available on Webber’s YouTube channel) isn’t a solution in itself, Webber’s always been all about getting the truth out there – no matter the personal cost. 

In a long and animated phone interview, Webber gave me a lot of background on his long history of film-based activism and the legal harassment that’s gone along with that. But, to sum up the current predicament facing him, his filmmaking partner and wife, Lauren Pespisa, and nearly every member of his production team: After the film’s trailer came out, a right-wing “Proud Boy” claimed to the FBI that some CGI-destroyed mannequins in the trailer represented a death threat against then-president Donald Trump. (A mannequin with “truth” clearly scrawled on it has been repeatedly and falsely claimed by the FBI to read “Trump.”)

According to Webber, that was all the pretext certain right-wing FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force agents and prosecutors needed. Since January 2021, Webber and his crew have endured at least five grand jury investigations, while government agents have hounded not just them, but their friends and family, all pursuant to, Webber states, shutting down his signature brand of filmmaking dissent. And possibly putting him in prison. As Webber puts it, with customary bluntness, these tactics represent, “a classic cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Program) designed to silence the left and anyone willing to give a clear view of what’s really going on at these political events.”

Webber says, “I will concede the manner in which I ask my questions can be much more provocative,” than the average documentarian, and that’s certainly true. In films such as his documentary about perennial activist political candidate Vermin Supreme (“This Is Vermin Supreme”), and “2020: The Dumpster Fire,” Webber’s strategy is to provoke political figures with outrageousness. Masquerading as a flower-bearded “acid casualty” as he attempted to present presidential candidates with “flowers for peace” (the name of Webber’s 2016 short documentary) is just one way the filmmaker has sought to strip away the careful choreography of the traditional candidate press conference. 

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Webber serenades President Joe Biden and his entourage in a scene from “2020: The Dumpster Fire.” Photo by David T Grophear

“We’re more like the Yippies, or Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters,” explained Webber of his own band of intrepid provocateurs. Still, as viewers of “2020: The Dumpster Fire” see, there’s a serious method to the mischief, as Webber’s stated goal is always “to tell the king he doesn’t have any clothes.” Said Webber of his politically minded “performance art”: “That’s the role of the court jester, whether he likes it or not.”

Webber clearly relishes the trouble his forthright questions provoke, even if he’s had to take more than a few punches. After getting “roughed up” by Trump supporters at a New Hampshire rally during the 2016 campaign, Webber represented himself in court and won a sizable cash settlement from both the Trump campaign and the Manchester Police Department. That, along with his penchant for poking his camera in powerful faces and challenging the right-wing narrative about the Black Lives Matter movement and “antifa,” is what Webber states pretty convincingly in his latest film, is behind “2020: The Dumpster Fire’s” recent troubles. 

“When needed, I’m very happy to drop that facade and become a fly on the wall, to let people’s voices be heard,” he said of his harrowing time on the ground during the BLM protests (and violent police response) in Minneapolis. Still, Webber has been arrested some 10 times during his filmmaking, and has made some very dedicated enemies in various branches of the justice system, people who Webber claims are seeking to punish him for exposing the right-wing sympathies of many in law enforcement. 

In the 20-minute exposé that is “Why Is This Happening?,” Webber names names, including the Maine prosecutor currently pursuing a grand jury in the state. As with any documentarian worth his camera, Webber also brings the receipts, including a central FBI agent’s ties to white supremacist organizations, and a paper trail of incendiary untruths from him and others on the case. For Webber and his crew, this level of harassment over a film is unsettling stuff. Not just personally and professionally, but, as artists and Americans, existentially. 

“Honestly, it should be every (expletive) filmmaker who’d be outraged,” said Webber, “Every film magazine and publication screaming this from the rooftops.” As to why his story isn’t bigger, the acclaimed filmmaker can only speculate, “They’re scared the (expletive) away because we’re dealing with some shady forces here.” 

“2020: The Dumpster Fire” is currently receiving solid reviews, and is available to rent on everything from Apple TV to Google Play, while its follow-up, “Why Is This Happening? The U.S. Govt. v 2020: The Dumpster Fire” can be watched for free on Rod Webber’s YouTube channel. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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