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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.
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.
The series also offers glimpses of what made Kennedy such a legislative titan, from his soaring rhetorical flourishes on the floor to his easy charm and humor.
When one of Kennedy’s beloved Portuguese water dogs barks in a meeting of staffers and advocates after his bill fails on the floor, Kennedy responds, “That’s Sessions, barking at us.”
His reference to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., an outspoken opponent of the bill, lifts the glum group to laugh heartily. It’s a small moment, but an important one that shows Kennedy’s ability to do the most basic of political things: hold a room in the palm of his hand.
He goes on.
“This place is a very chemical place ... and there’s a rhythm to this place, and there’s an ebb and flow in terms of when things are possible, and then suddenly, the stars come in line and things are right and we get some results, and you can’t manufacture that time, and you have to have a lot of patience.”
It’s a statement that could just as easily apply to the work of Robertson and Camerini.
Graham was right. After an immigration overhaul fell short in 2007, it was six years until the Senate would pass like-minded legislation, this past summer.
Robertson and Camerini, still working on the last two films of the series, came back to Washington. They continue to film.
“There’s a lot of bias against government, against the way government works,” Jones told CQ Roll Call. “The energy that seeing politicians as anything but human is extensive and constant, and so what I hope for the films is that people would be able to discover them ... and maybe in the process reconsider what they consider possible in politics,” he said.
The art of the possible. The struggle of ideas. The people and their representatives. Human frailty and courage. The White House. Kennedy’s Capitol hideaway. The biggest stage. The loneliest meeting. It’s all there in “How Democracy Works Now.”