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Understanding Politics: Capturing History with an Independent Lens

By Pamela Yoder

Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi and 200 presidential candidate Governor George W. Bush in 'Journeys with George.' Courtesy of HBO.

It's April, and the political season is in full swing as Americans explore the ideas, ethics and vision of a field of presidential hopefuls.

 For those of us who pride ourselves in making documentaries that are important and engaging, politics can be alluring subject matter. Fast-paced and dramatic, the medium has the impact to shape the world around us in a way that few others can.

But there is a problem.

Documentaries are, in their purest form, a slow and careful enterprise. News programs—the hyperactive cousin of the observational documentary—are in many ways more suited to the high-speed world of unfolding politics.

But wait. In looking back, just how well have we fared? Can we be the custodians of truth and history? Or can the truth only be found in the realm of the evening news and The New York Times?

Well, there are three films worth remembering as we ponder our place as documentarians in politics.

Crisis (1963) and Primary (1960)—both by Drew Associates—are black-and-white films that were at the forefront of cinéma vérité filmmaking. Just recently re-released on the DVD label Docurama, these films are towering achievements in capturing the real inside world of hand-to-hand politics. When watching the films today, I can't help but be struck by just how much politics has both changed and remained the same.

 The films are intimate—almost embarrassingly so by today's standards. Hubert Humphrey working the crowd in a local luncheonette seems more like a man running for mayor than for president.  John F. Kennedy, in Crisis, is everything you imagined he would be when faced with adversity—he fights to integrate the University of Alabama and battles nose to nose with George Wallace. Historians must be deeply grateful to Drew Associates for shooting and shepherding these two films; they are the birth of the vérité political film movement.

Thirty years later, the team of DA Pennebaker—a Drew Associates alumnus—and Chris Hegedus made The War Room, a film that is the rightful inheritor of this important legacy. The 1992 film captured the feisty, independent atmosphere that would come to characterize the Clinton White House. Spirited, smart and driven, the images of The War Room in many ways became the most detailed knowledge we had of the inner workings of a political campaign; I know that it shaped my understanding of both Clinton and American politics.

And then we have our current administration and the 2003 film Journeys with George (Alexandra Pelosi). Once again, an observant camera and a diligent filmmaker overcame obstacles and captured images and interactions that were shielded from the news cameras. In this film we see a George W. Bush as never before—one who is quick, clever, charming and almost endearing. His good-ol'-boy manner and playful sly wit never found a place on the evening news. While the media presented him as a poorly spoken rube, Pelosi's film captured a far more nuanced portrait of a candidate whom the media constantly discounted. In the end it would be that half-hearted attempt to understand him that would lead him to the White House.

So what has changed in 35 years? Presidents have become far more media savvy. Technology has become far more inconspicuous. But the basic tenants of documentary coverage of politics remain in place. Men and women who want to be president look to frame their story for the public, and filmmakers do their best to capture untold truths about the campaign and the candidates.

Seen from the standpoint of history, films like Crisis, Primary and The War Room are an essential part of the fabric of the times. Documentaries aren't a footnote to history; in many ways they're an essential part of it.

After all, the essence of documentary filmmaking is the trade-off between access--which allows documentary cameras to record for history—and the ability to publish in a contextual and coherent manner. And clearly, if there's one thing we need now, it's a coherent way to understand politics, both past and present.


Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at