The illustrated documentary short “Level 14” takes us inside California’s broken group home system, as seen through the eyes of Sule Anibaba. Sule worked as a counselor for nearly five years at a Level 14 group home that once housed some of the state’s most disturbed and vulnerable children.
This video recounts the day-to-day challenges and dangers faced by residents and staff of the home before it was raided by police and eventually shut down. Our partners at ProPublica produced this documentary, as well as a longform text piece about Level 14. ProPublica talked to investigative reporter Joaquin Sapien and multimedia journalist Carrie Ching about their investigation of the home run by a company called EMB Families First, Sule’s story, and how they translated such sensitive material into an illustrated film.
How did you come to decide that Sule’s story would be
Carrie Ching: Joaquin came to me with this story because it was so well-suited to the illustrated documentary style that I’ve been working with. It’s a powerful story, with strong characters and surprising twists and turns that make for a compelling narrative. It’s also a story about juveniles whose identities often need to be protected. Identifying them by name, face or voice was, in many instances, off the table. That’s a major obstacle for traditional video and audio storytelling. But it’s the perfect application of the illustrated documentary format.
Joaquin Sapien: Carrie had previously created a powerful, illustrated portrait of a similar facility gone awry called In Jennifer’s Room. It focused on the plight of a young woman who’d been sexually abused at a California home for the developmentally disabled. The piece was beautifully done — haunting and resonant — and clearly showed how those responsible for this woman’s care harmed her instead. My editor, Joe Sexton, saw parallels to the EMQ FamiliesFirst story. We were both excited to see if Carrie would be interested in producing something similar for us.
At that point, I’d already met Sule and several other key subjects. There are compelling characters in this story, so it was tough to decide whom to focus on for the illustrated segment. Ultimately, we chose Sule. He’s compassionate, he has a unique background and his story shows how even the most well-intentioned people can struggle to care for these children.
He’s also athletic and strong —6’1 and 215 pounds, and once had ambitions to play professional soccer — so the staff relied on him to restrain some of the more violent children. When I first met Sule, that part of his experience struck me. In spite of his size and strength, he still had trouble safely containing some children. I thought that said a lot about both the children and the challenge of keeping them safe.
Also, in the written piece, we don’t draw too much attention to the experiences of the employees known as “line staff”— lower level counselors who spent the most of their time directly supervising the children. Most of the line staffers were undergraduates attending UC Davis, and not much older than the children they were supervising. They didn’t have advanced degrees. They didn’t have much training. The work was grueling, turnover was high. And they were expected to care for some of the most troubled children in the state.
Sule telling his story through this illustrated film gives our audience a firsthand perspective of what that challenge feels like.
It can be tough getting people to open up in investigative reporting. What was it like getting Sule to tell his story?
JS: Like a lot of people I talked to for this story, Sule still felt some emotional turmoil from his time working at the home. He cared deeply for these children. It was hard to watch them put themselves in danger. At times, he felt both guilty and powerless. When we first began to talk, I could hear the sorrow and pain in his voice. I think it was hard for him to talk about. But, with time, he told me the process began to feel cathartic. He said he hadn’t talked to many people about what he witnessed there. He said it felt good to finally share his experience.
We also had to work through his nervousness about getting in trouble with his former employer. He never had any intention of being a whistleblower. But I found that once he got started, he didn’t want to stop.
Once we decided to illustrate his story in this film, I asked him to take some time, to think long and hard about it. I told him that I thought his words would help expose something important in a very powerful way, but the choice was his. He took some time. He talked to his fiancee, his family, former coworkers, and eventually decided this was something he wanted to be a part of. I’ve got major respect for him. He’s a courageous guy.
CC: Sule was hesitant at first, but once Joaquin explained to him that his story would help bring attention to California’s juvenile group homes, and possibly instigate change, he opened up. I think he was also relieved he wouldn’t have to speak on camera—that makes a lot of people squeamish. It makes them feel too exposed and vulnerable. Recording an audio story is much less intrusive than recording a video interview. I often spend the first fifteen minutes in the audio booth just chatting with people, getting them comfortable, telling them details about my own life, so they don’t feel like they’re the only ones doing the sharing.
We really wanted to use Sule’s real voice in the audio track, but it was challenging because he has a pretty thick Nigerian accent. It’s difficult to understand him sometimes, especially when you don’t see his face and body language while he’s talking. But he tells his own story with so much emotion and power, we were committed to making it work.
I interviewed him several times in the studio, often going over the same questions again and again to try to get a clear recording. It made the production process much more cumbersome—I had to edit together multiple interviews, which brings extra challenges in matching the sound in the various clips. But in the end, I think the extra effort was worth it. Sule tells a powerful story, and he has a wonderful deep voice. We included optional subtitles in the YouTube player to accommodate those who have a hard time with his accent.
How did the illustration factor into your interview strategy?
JS: After working at the home for nearly five years, Sule had a lot of stories to share. So Carrie and I had some tough decisions to make about which scenes to focus on during the studio interviews with him that would form the spine of the illustrated film. Once we figured those out and had Sule in the studio, Carrie asked him for a lot of specifics. We wanted to make the scenes as vivid as possible. We also had to blend Sule’s strongest anecdotes with critical facts about the demise of the home, so we asked him a lot of questions about how he experienced things like policy changes and staff cuts.
CC: Because we’re going to be re-creating the scenes described during the interview, I’ll often ask for a lot of visual details. For example, though we weren’t going to identify the kids, I wanted to make sure that we were being accurate about gender, race and age. So every time Sule told a story about the kids, I was asking for those details.
I’ll often ask about details such as where someone was standing in a room, or how many people were there, or what make and model a car was — I’m trying to imagine the visual scene as it is being described during the interview. Illustration is very good at conveying mood. So, I often ask how the subject felt about certain experiences, not just because I want the audio but because I want to know what kind of mood we should be aiming to create — sad, frustrated, hopeless, terrified?
How did all of this come together into the final film? And how is the process different than, say, shooting and editing a standard documentary?
Often when you’re working with a traditional video project, you look for your strongest imagery and lead with that. The illustrated documentary format is led by the audio. I come from a narrative magazine writing background, and in many ways my approach to storytelling is still shaped by those instincts. I want the story to unfold over time. I don’t want to give everything away at the beginning. There should be surprises along the way.
Many documentaries take this same approach, but with illustrated documentaries, which rely heavily on a character-driven narrative, I’m closely bound to the audio interview. So getting good material in the interview is key. I don’t like using a lot of voice-of-God narration — I use as little of it as possible, just enough to set up the context of the story. I want the subject to drive the film with their voice. And I think the illustrations work well with that approach because it allows the viewer to imagine the story from the subject’s point-of-view. It’s very intimate.
In terms of process, after reviewing all of the reporting and facts, I often start with a pre-interview with the subject, a conversation to get a sense of their voice and how willing they are to open up. Then we go into the audio booth to record, sometimes for multiple sessions. Then I have the interviews transcribed and edit them down into a rough audio cut with music and sound effects. I send this to the reporter and editor of the project and we discuss the arc of the story and the scenes.
Once we’ve agreed on the audio cut, I send it to the illustrator (in this case Marina Luz). I also send the illustrator a script with visual notes describing details I’d like to see included in the illustrations. The illustrator sends back a rough storyboard — scenes with stick figures and very little detail. We discuss whether the scenes work well with the audio. We also discuss accuracy and begin fact checking. Once the storyboard is approved, the illustrator begins drawing the final illustrations. I place them in the timeline with the audio and begin to work with simple motion and filters to bring them to life. At that point, we have a rough cut of an illustrated documentary film.
What about the illustrated characters — do they look like the people in your reporting?
CC: The only character in this film who is drawn to look like the real person is Sule. I took dozens of photos of Sule in various situations and gave them to the illustrator as source material. The children in the film are only faint reflections of the real children—they are drawn to be the approximate age, race, and gender of the children Sule worked with at FamiliesFirst. But we didn’t want the resemblance to be so close that the children would be identifiable.
Joaquin, this was your first film. How did the reporting and writing process compare to the more traditional stories you’ve done?
JS: It’s a completely different medium, but at the end of the day, it’s just another form of bringing the facts to the public. So, for me, the reporting process in itself wasn’t that much different. Once we won Sule’s trust, persuaded him to be a part of the film, and determined which aspects of his story we wanted to bring to light, Carrie pretty much took over. She got him down to the studio, interviewed him repeatedly, took photographs, and worked with the illustrator.
One challenge was purely logistical. Sule lives in Davis. Carrie interviewed him twice in Davis, but also in Berkeley, about an hour and a half away. He drove down to meet her for a third interview, which wasn’t always easy for him. He was in school. He had a newborn baby. And he got surgery on his knee in the middle of the reporting process. We asked a lot of him and we’re very grateful.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the intersection of investigative journalism and documentary film (especially in light of HBO’s recent series The Jinx). Carrie, you’ve done several animated films now. How do you ensure that viewers understand that stories you’re telling are real?
CC: Documentary filmmakers are often criticized for staging re-creations in their films—some hardline reporters believe this is a bastardization of journalism. I think one reason my illustrated documentary work has been spared that criticism is because illustrations are very clearly not “the real thing.” In a video re-creation, the audience is often wondering, “Is that the real guy?” and “Is that the real house?”
With illustration, it is clearly a visual interpretation. The illustrations are based on a real audio account from a subject. Every effort has been made to verify the subject material and the story being told, as is necessary with any form of journalism, whether it’s print, radio, television, or some other format. Often, as with Sule’s story, you are also hearing the subject’s actual voice. Sometimes that isn’t possible — for example, if a subject’s identity needs to be protected or perhaps the person is deceased. In those cases, ideally I would be working from interview transcript material and using a voice actor.
The illustrations are purposefully simple and spare—they are representing people and places, not attempting to portray exact details. But I also try to gather as much visual source material as possible, including photographs, maps, blueprints, police reports, X-rays — whatever we can get our hands on. A substantial amount of reporting goes into the production of an illustrated documentary film such as Level 14.
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Amanda Zamora is ProPublica’s senior engagement editor.
Marina Luz is a designer, illustrator and artist based in Oakland, California.