NEW YORK — “How Democracy Works Now” is “War and Peace” for wonks.
The documentary film series by Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini is a multilayered, multiyear, multicharacter saga about the debate over overhauling immigration policy.
Leo Tolstoy’s seminal novel tells the story of not just the war between France and Russia but also the war of ideas between Western and Slavic values within Russia amid a sprawling cast of characters over several years. Napoleon and Tsar Alexander are important, yes, but the story comes alive because of characters like the midlevel aristocrat Nicholas Rostov and the peasant Platon Karataev.
Robertson and Camerini structure “How Democracy Works Now” with that same sweep.
It starts at the highest levels in Washington with figures like President George W. Bush and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. But what makes it unique is its journey through candid Capitol Hill staff discussions, intricate strategy sessions by political professionals and the repercussions of the debate from city council elections in Iowa to statewide ballot questions in Arizona.
The first 10 of 12 planned feature-length documentaries aired here at the 51st Annual New York Film Festival Oct. 10-12. Audiences watched a world unfold that few people even in the Capitol see in such breadth and depth.
“Nothing. There’s nothing else like it,” said Kent Jones, the festival’s director of programming.
“We’d never found a more interesting situation,” Robertson said here at a panel discussion on Oct. 11. And yet it almost never happened.
In the summer of 2001, Robertson and Camerini were preparing to travel to Azerbaijan. Their documentary about political asylum, “Well Founded Fear,” came out the year before and was shown at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.
Their Azerbaijan project was about a fashionable international development technique referred to as exporting democracy.
“It was a time when both the Europeans and the Americans were into sending retired civil servants to teach about how to create democratic institutions in [ex-Soviet bloc] countries,” Camerini explained to CQ Roll Call. He added that it was a way he and Robertson were exploring the question, “What is democracy?”
Then they met Frank Sharry, who was then the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, and one thing led to another. Sharry convinced them to stay stateside for the immigration debate.
“He seduced us and convinced us to stay in Washington, which was about as foreign to us as Azerbaijan,” Robertson said.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” she added.
It was perhaps that self-awareness that led the New York-based filmmakers to take in as much as the camera and their subjects would bear. It is as comprehensive a look at how politics, policy and personality intersect in American public life as there has ever been.
An Episodic Approach
The first film in the series, “The Game Is On” starts with Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox committing to update the immigration system at a 2001 White House ceremony, complete with all the pomp and circumstance of a state visit.
The final film, “Last Great Chance” ends with the 2007 defeat of an immigration bill on the Senate floor, Kennedy’s last great legislative battle.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.