September 1, 2008

Barack Around the Clock: Obama Docs Abound

From Bob Hercules' <em>Senator Obama Goes to Africa</em>

The interest and excitement generated by Barack Obama's bid for the White House would be unprecedented, if not for a certain Catholic candidate who took office in 1961. While the spectre of John F. Kennedy looms, it is, despite continuing revelations, a fairly fixed impression. In 2008, the media has changed so dramatically that impressions of Obama are as fluid as quicksilver. There are currently four Obama documentaries in production and one, released in 2007, that is available for purchase.

Bob Hercules' Senator Obama Goes to Africa, described as "part personal odyssey and part chronicle of diplomacy in action," follows the Illinois senator as he travels from his father's family home in Kenya to a Darfur refugee camp in Chad to South Africa. Ostensibly, the film focuses on the senator's commitment to AIDS education on the continent, with forays into his family history, Kenyan political corruption and the legacy of Nelson Mandela, but it actually serves as a primer-Obama 101, if you will-showcasing his exceptional speaking skills and ability to stay on message.

According to Newsweek contributor Ellis Close, Obama needed to establish a credible foreign policy agenda, and the African visit gave him a higher profile on the national stage. Besides Senator Obama, the rest of the cast includes wife Michelle Obama, sister Auma Obama, Close and Mark Lippert, the campaign's foreign policy advisor. The film is capably shot by veteran news cameraman Keith Walker and edited by Melissa Stearn. Overlong at 52 minutes, Senator Obama Goes to Africa is more of a campaign infomercial than an impartial, in-depth examination of the man. The film is available through First Run Features (http://firstrunfeatures.com/).

On August 20, CNN presented hour-long documentaries about Senators Obama and John McCain, examining the lives of the two rivals contending to be the 44th president. The films premiered five days prior to the start of CNN's coverage of the Democratic convention and will be rebroadcast several times before the election. The network promises a non-partisan review of the candidates and their positions. In the press release announcing the films, CNN/US president Jon Klein said, "There is so much you don't know...and we aim to fill in the gaps."

While the CNN Obama documentary was not available for review at press time, the network has made a solid choice in White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux's hosting of the film, as she moderated the November 2007 Democratic Party debate for presidential nominees, as well as the August 2007 convention of the National Association of Black Journalists. Also, she was both praised and criticized for her coverage of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria, as well as her controversial and nearly buried interview with Laura Bush, during the First Lady's trip through several Southern African countries.

If Senator Obama Goes to Africa takes an insider's, pro-Obama stance and the CNN documentary presents itself as impartial, conservative think tank Citizens United, currently in production with HYPE: The Obama Effect, promises a right-wing interpretation of the candidate.

Per HYPE's producer and Citizens United chairman of the board and president, David Bossie, "We take our work very seriously and pride ourselves in telling the truth and telling it fairly--from our vantage point. We don't believe he's been properly vetted, and that the media's love affair with him has prevented the American people from getting vital facts about his record."

The trailer is available online (www.hypemovie.com/), and it is provocative. The segment opens with Obama's guest spot on the daytime talk show Ellen, where he enters the stage and proceeds to dance with host Ellen Degeneres, then cuts to his speaking to an applauding, entirely black audience, using his now well-known catch phrases, "We are the ones we've been waiting for" and "We are the change that we seek," as Stevie Wonder croons live on stage. In the four-minute plus piece, he is also described as a "socialist of the worst kind," a "representative of the ultimate left of the Democratic party" and an arbiter of a "disturbing pattern." Jimmy Carter comparisons are presented by two different interviewees, and a photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears for no apparent reason.

It is unfortunate but not surprising that producer Bossie and director/writer/producer Alan Peterson have taken such an incendiary tact. The more substantive material, such as Obama's ties to the Illinois/Chicago political machine and fundraising activities and property purchases in connection with Tony Rezko, are given a back seat to the hype. Production values are hard to discern from the trailer and advertisement, and the film appears to have been produced from existing footage. HYPE includes commentary from many conservative pundits and politicians, including former ambassador John Bolton, former senator Rick Santorum, former governor Mike Huckabee, Armstrong Williams and Dick Morris. The film was still in production at press time, but is estimated to run approximately 90 minutes. Citizens United declined to comment on the budget.

HYPE: The Obama Effect was scheduled to premiere August 24 in Denver, at the start of the Democratic Convention, followed by a screening during the Republican Convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul. The film, available for sale on the Citizens United website (www.citizensunited.org/), will also have a limited theatrical release in select cities through Election Day.

Cinematographer Amy Rice is partnering with producer Alicia Sams on their directorial debut, an as yet untitled feature documentary about Obama's historical bid for the presidency. Produced by Edward Norton and his Class 5 Films and executive-produced by Bristol Baughan and Ben Goldhirsh of GOOD, the film has been in production since before the senator's declaration of candidacy.

Now that the race is in full swing, the filmmakers are not comfortable commenting, but Norton did speak to Variety in March, where he mentioned that the inspiration behind the film was Obama's memorable speech during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The speech, which catapulted the senator into the national consciousness, was galvanizing for Norton and his partners: "We were all so struck by Barack's speech...and how exciting it was to see someone from our generation, not our parents, make his presence felt in such an inspiring way."

Norton, Rice and Sams approached Obama regarding a documentary in early 2006, and he and his team were responsive to the idea. Rice and Sams were then allowed to accompany him to Africa, while Bob Hercules was shooting Senator Obama Goes to Africa. Shooting for their project began after their return to the US. The filmmakers will be following Obama throughout the entirety of his White House run.

While it's worth noting that Endeavor Agency partner and active Obama contributor Ari Emanuel is putting together the film's distribution deal that Norton (an Endeavor client) and other Class 5 partners have reportedly contributed to the senator's presidential bid, Norton has indicated that his aim is not to glorify the subject. "The film has to say something about politics in America," he said. "And just because you have access doesn't mean you have insight."

Rice and Sams have accumulated hundreds of hours of footage, and as it is with many compelling documentary subjects, the separation of the wheat from the chaff in the editing room often eliminates pre-conceived notions and creates a most unexpected portrait. As shooting will continue right up to the completion of the campaign, Class 5 has declined to comment on the film's budget or general release date, scheduled for sometime in 2009.

Finally, Davis Guggenheim, Academy Award winner for the 2006 Al Gore documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, appears to have been tapped to direct Senator Obama's biographical convention film. Guggenheim spoke to a pool reporter while Obama was campaigning in Butte, Montana before realizing that he had said too much. He has remained mum on the details since stating he would have to consult with the campaign prior to commenting further.

Guggenheim is following in the footsteps of his late father, Charles Guggenheim, whose Robert Kennedy Remembered, the tribute film shown at the 1968 Democratic convention, went on to win an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject.

While Guggenheim did manage to capture a bit of Gore's hard-to-find humor and irreverence in Truth, the film itself, to this writer, was a bit stiff. It will be interesting to see what he's capable of creating with a limited running time and a subject as charismatic as Obama.

 

Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson is a writer and marketing/communications professional, who spent many years in the trenches as a publicist for documentary and independent feature films. She resides in Los Angeles with her family.