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Those two events, and those two officeholders, bookend the story. But the series’ signal achievement comes not just from showing how the generals conducted this war. It’s also the story of the ground troops — the staffers, advocates, opponents, backbenchers, political operatives, canvassers, city council candidates.
“We want to make you think about the fact that the two are intertwined,” Camerini said of politics and policy at an Oct. 12 NYFF panel discussion after the showing of “Brothers and Rivals.” That film chronicles how then-Reps. Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe, both Arizona Republicans, dealt with the blowback associated with their support of immigration legislation, including weathering hard-right primary challengers in 2004.
In another film, “The Kids Across the Hill,” Robertson and Camerini show how two Flake and Kolbe staffers, Margaret Klessig and Becky Jensen Tallent, begin writing their bosses’ immigration proposal in 2003.
The process gets complicated, particularly as they attempt to woo a Democratic co-sponsor and as they attract the attention of Kennedy’s longtime immigration counsel, Esther Olavarria. It’s a testament to how staffers bond, bicker and figure out how to proceed against long odds.
After the Oct. 11 showing of “Brothers and Rivals,” the panel entertained questions for Robertson, Camerini and Klessig.
“Are there any male staffers on the Hill?” one person asked, facetiously referring to the high number of women negotiating on behalf of high-powered men in the Capitol. Others marveled at the intensity and gravity of the work.
“That’s the reason so many people want to work on the Hill,” Klessig said.
It’s a world few get to see with the type of access Robertson and Camerini had.
They have a simple formula.
“We film longer, we stick around longer,” Camerini said at the panel. “We’re more boring.”
Klessig said that eventually she stopped noticing them. The result is an authenticity and rawness that underscores how the whole enterprise has human beings at the heart of it.
“They really did become part of the wallpaper,” she said, adding that every so often she would muse if the two “will ever be able to find this conversation in all the footage.”
The short answer: Yes.
Large Moments, Small Moments
The series has soaring moments, such as when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., beaming with pride, provides the filmmakers with their last film’s title.
“This is the last best chance to pass immigration reform on our terms as a nation, to make us competitive, to deal with 12 million people living in the shadows but not repeat it in the future, and to be competitive with the world. And to my colleagues, this is the last best chance we’ll have as a Congress,” Graham says in 2007, after a bipartisan group led by Kennedy and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., arrive at a grand bargain on immigration.
There are also crushing moments, such as when Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., dresses down immigration advocates for their support of legislation he believes lurched too far to the right.
“I’m disappointed in all of you. ... In the desire to get something, you’ve all been willing to cede and cede, and we’ve become a punching bag in the process,” Menendez says, reducing some of the advocates to tears.