September 1, 2008

Conventional Wisdom: How to Cover a Political Confab

Political conventions are a natural subject for documentarians. High stakes, inherent drama and charismatic characters are just a few of the attractions these events offer. While it can be tempting to simply grab a camera and show up, there is an overwhelming amount of action unfolding at a national political convention. Careful planning and focus are necessary to ensure getting a cohesive story.

Filmmaker Robert Bahar (Made in L.A.) spent a whole summer filming at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in 2000. He says, "The thing about conventions is that they seem incredibly important while you're there. Every important politician in the country will show up at some point, and a huge global media apparatus is aimed at each convention. The trick for a documentarian is to figure out what part of the story is not being told, what is really new, what you specifically want to reveal and what will have longevity after the convention and even the election become history."

Award-winning filmmaker R.J. Cutler (The War Room) advises, "Shoot characters, not the convention. Conventions are like big parties and no one ever shoots a party that ends up in a film. Tell specific character-based stories and you'll end up with awesome material."

Part of getting that awesome material is making sure that you have access to the people and events you want to cover. While conventions may seem chaotic, in reality they are highly organized events with top-notch security. Cutler cautions, "Make sure you have the credentials that will get you where you need. Convention passes might get you into a seating area, but you might need floor, backstage, all access or camera passes to get you and your team where they really need to be."

Securing these passes may take time, and a lot of letter writing, so allow for this in your pre-productions schedule. If possible, you may want to head to the convention a few days early, both to get organized and to get B-roll of convention preparations. Once you have made it inside, determine where to get the daily schedule of events so that you can map out your shooting plan.

Clean audio can be a challenge at political conventions. Says Bahar, "Being down on the convention floor when it's crowded is a real experience. If you're going to interview anyone on the floor, be sure you've thought through how to gather audio in such a noisy environment. There's a constant din." Bahar also suggests checking into how the press pool works, as the pool will usually have a much better camera position than an individual will be able to obtain. Filmmakers may be able to get footage from the pool feed on-site that they would have to license at a later date.

Lastly, make friends with the other people you meet who are filming at the convention, as they can often come in handy while editing. Says Cutler, "When it comes time to cut your film, they might have the specific shot or moment of your character that you missed. It's a zoo on the convention floor and the chance of missing something you'll need is pretty high. If you've exchanged email addresses with other people who are filming, you might be able to get footage from them down the road."

For some filmmakers, what's happening outside the official convention walls is the real story. Joan Sekler covered the protests at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego, where as part of the Los Angeles Alternative Media Networks, she and her co-conspirators put together the film Breaking Conventions at lightning speed. She followed this up with a larger effort at the 2000 DNC in Los Angeles, which resulted in the film Crashing the Party, as well as a daily paper and radio show. Both films went up on satellite TV, and VHS copies were made and distributed around the country prior to each election. This year her plans include covering both the RNC in St. Paul and the DNC in Denver. At press time, she was in the midst of fundraising, citing the sheer logistics of feeding and housing a large number of shooters and editors as her biggest challenge.

Others have found safety a major concern. Filmmaker Jed Weintrob shot the hybrid documentary/narrative film The F Word during the 2004 RNC in New York City. He says, "As we got ready to go into production, I was prepared for large crowds and the possibility of violent clashes between protesters, anarchists and police. But I was not prepared to have a hulking Homeland Security officer dressed in black, point a machine gun at me and ‘ask' to see the video tape we had just shot. I also wasn't prepared to see people being arrested, sometimes brutally, simply for peacefully protesting."

 

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.

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