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The Long Trail: 'By the People' Follows Obama to the White House

By Shelley Gabert

While Barack Obama's historic trek from the Illinois State Senate to the US Presidency was reported by hundreds of journalists covering the campaign trail, a new documentary, By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, which premieres November 3 on HBO, provides an insider's version of events.

Filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams, who produced and directed the film, had a front-row seat to Obama's amazing rise from underdog to frontrunner to victor and made the most of their incredible access to capture many never-before-seen private and personal moments with his family, campaign staff, organizers and volunteers.

"When we started shooting, all the odds were against Obama," says Rice, who also served as cinematographer on the documentary. "But he and his team kept their eyes on the prize, and our hope is that future generations, whether Democrat or Republican, can show their children and they can learn and gain something from this amazing story."

"We never tried to editorialize," adds Sams, "but we kept everything in the moment and just showed how it happened--how someone gets elected, the good times, low points, all of it." 

The finished film, as actor Edward Norton, one of the film's producers, puts it, is as much a portrait of a man as it is a portrait of a movement.


From Amy Rice and Alicia Sams' By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, which premieres November 3 on HBO. Photo: Scout Tufankjian


Other than Obama (and his wife, Michelle), Robert Gibbs, the communications director on the campaign and now White House Press Secretary, emerged as a character in their film along with Ronnie Cho, a young campaign field staffer. The filmmakers followed Cho from Texas to Indiana and Maine, as he moved up in the campaign. By the general election, he was promoted to a managerial position (He now works as assistant director of legislative affairs at the Department of Homeland Security.).

"We met him during our first trip to Iowa," says Sams. "He was charming, enthusiastic and good on camera. We just kept developing the relationship, but we didn't know about his background until close to Caucus night." Cho's family had emigrated from South Korea, and lived in a car for about a year of his young life; Cho was the first in his family to attend college. His cathartic release while on the phone with his mother during several key points of the campaign are very powerful, and he and the other staffers worked so hard, driven by their belief in Obama and his message of change and hope. 

Rice herself was also inspired by Obama, well before he became a contender for the presidency. A graduate of New York Universty, Rice, who grew up in Oklahoma, worked as a cinematographer on documentaries that aired on Sundance Channel and Discovery Health. In 1998 she co-directed her first documentary, From Ashes, about the challenges facing an AIDS hospice in Southern India.

While Rice knew she wanted to be a filmmaker, it was losing her older brother, David, who worked in the World Trade Center, on 9/11, that served as her political awakening and radically changed her perspective. So, when her other brother, Andrew, called her, wowed by then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama speaking at the Democratic Convention in 2004, she quickly turned on the television to watch his speech. "I was so impressed," she recalls. "I saw him as my generation's Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy, and I also thought he could be the first African-American president."

The next day Rice bought Obama's book Dreams of My Father, and the seed for the documentary was planted. In the fall of 2005, Rice called Sams, whom she had met when they both volunteered for the Change for Kids Collaborative Documentary, a series of short films addressing the issues facing New York City elementary schools.

"I'm 12 years older than her and much more cynical," Sams admits. "So while I thought her idea for a doc was a good idea, I didn't share her belief that he would run for president or that he could win." Sams began her career working on documentaries for PBS and has executive-produced Amreeka and Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's, and produced Toots and Hello He Lied, and Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches for AMC.

By the end of January 2006, Rice and Sams had hammered out a proposal, while Rice continued to write letters and call Obama's US Senate office, to no avail. Realizing she needed a new plan of attack, she turned to her politically active friends Stuart Blumberg and Norton, partners (along with William Migliore) in Class 5, which has produced films like Down in the Valley, The Painted Veil and the upcoming Leaves of Grass. They were on board and in April Rice and Norton were on a train to Washington, DC to meet with Gibbs, Senator Obama's head of communications at the time, and Obama's press secretary, Tommy Vietor. By May 2006, the filmmakers had received the go-ahead to begin shooting.

At the start, Sams and Rice shot about once a month, approaching the project like a political diary, a day in the life of a US Senator. But they did travel with Obama to Africa in August 2006, where his visit included going to a clinic in Nyangoma-Kogelo near where his father grew up. They also shot him watching the 2006 mid-term elections, which is one of the opening scenes in the documentary, where Rice's brother Andrew won a seat as an Oklahoma State Senator.

"It was while shooting during the promotional tour for his new book, The Audacity of Hope, when we started to sense something was up," says Rice. "His appearances were drawing huge crowds of people, many of whom were wearing ‘Obama Run' pins."

Obama announced his candidacy for US President on February 10, 2007, and a few weeks later, the filmmakers showed up at campaign headquarters in Chicago to shoot some wide shots of the war room. But Gibbs informed them that they may not be able to shoot anymore.

The key to their access was definitely their early start and making a good impression, and also due to Senior Campaign Strategist David Axelrod. "Once we won him over, he was great, and to his credit he never wavered," says Sams. David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, also came on board. "We were shooting nine months before [Obama] announced, but we were always nervous about losing our access and somebody coming in and taking over," Rice notes. 


Left to right: Barack Obama, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod. Courtesy of HBO


Certainly access ebbed and flowed, and due to budgetary and logistical issues, Rice and Sams had to make the most of their days shooting. "We had to choose what we really wanted to shoot and go from there," says Sams. "We weren't privy to his schedule enough in advance either, so we tried to listen and figure out what was coming up."

From the beginning, the filmmakers knew that this was going to be a small production and that they would serve as crew. "We had to do it this way to save money and make it intimate because there was no way, security-wise, that different camera people could show up," Sams maintains.

The filmmakers moved to Iowa and stayed there through the Caucus, which Obama won in January, and several of their filmmaker friends arrived to shoot some of the action. "We stayed in these little dorm rooms at a local college to save money and to be close enough to get to Obama's offices for the staff calls every night," says Sams.  

"We figured if we hung around long enough they would forget about us," Rice maintains. "And they did. And even though the campaign staff was trained to never speak to the press, we reminded them that we weren't press, so they eventually let down their guard." 

"This wasn't about a lot of ego or us being filmmakers," adds Sams. "We just tried to be there and be quiet and just keep showing up. But we definitely worked very hard to put ourselves in a situation where accidents could happen." 

One of those magic moments happened during a rally on the day Obama's grandmother died, and it's a rare showing of emotion that only Rice and a few others captured. "It's misty and chilly and the press are in the back on risers while I'm shooting with my tiny camera along with other still photographers in the photo buffer--and a tear comes down his cheek," Rice relates. "I get back on the bus and I'm waiting for the rest of the press to talk about this moment--and nobody does. They didn't get it because they were either too far back or the angle wasn't right." 

Remaining focused on the shot was often hard when it would have been easy to get swept up in the moment, like on election night. Their last day of shooting was with President Obama in the Oval Office.

"All throughout the film, the joke was Obama saying to us, ‘Oh, you guys are still around,'" Rice notes. "But on this last day, maybe because we had believed in him so early on and stuck with him, he just asked us what we wanted to shoot." 

By then, he'd also seen a cut of the film. "He really liked it but said, ‘I think it's great when Ronnie [Cho] and Mike [Blake, on the campaign staff; he is currently Associate Director for the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.] cried; you should put in more of them, and less of me.'"


Barack Obama in the Oval Office, with filmmakers Amy Rice (left) and Alicia Sams. Photo: Pete Souza. Used with permission of the White House.


After all the time spent around him, they never caught him smoking, but Sams was most surprised at Obama's consistency in demeanor: "He was calm and controlled and he's a very centered person and able to keep his cool." 

She was impressed with Michelle, too. "She's a great mother and is truly his partner in life. She doesn't sublimate her personality to his."


Michelle and Barack Obama, on the campaign trail. Courtesy of HBO

With 700 hours of footage, editing the film was a challenge--partly, Rice said, because we already knew the ending so it became how to keep the audience engaged. While they had talked with several editors in March 2007,  the top choice was Sam Pollard (4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts and Eyes on the Prize). But he wasn't interested because he didn't think Obama had a chance to win. His viewpoint changed, however, and in June 2007, he began screening footage, eventually cutting chronologically so the filmmakers could see it all play out again before they started discarding.

The filmmakers didn't spend time trying to find a distributor; HBO bought the film, practically sight unseen. "They saw it as a moment in history and they're the only ones who have it," says Sams.

Coming a few months shy of his first year in office, the timing for the documentary couldn't be better. It's a reminder of his enormous achievement and how much hope echoed from Grant Park in Chicago and throughout the country on election night, one that captivated and enthralled a nation. Screenings will be held in New York, Atlanta and in Chicago at the Cadillac Theater on October 30, prior to the premiere on November 3. The DVD will come out in January.

"I'm so happy with this film and so proud of it," says Rice. "I remember when my brother died and so many people came up to me and told me that something good would come of this pain. I realized my good is this film.

"It was so fulfilling making this film," Rice continues. "But I remember walking home after we finished post; I was fighting off tears, and I went through a real depression. It was hard watching all of their stories go on without us. But now that it's going to air on HBO--a filmmaker's dream--I'm ready to celebrate."

Shelley Gabert is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer covering entertainment, travel and culture.