The Two Filmmakers Who Spent 12 Years Shooting a Movie About Congress

The documentarians planned to take a year or two chronicling immigration reform. They’ve shot 1,500 hours of film and still aren’t finished.

Vision quest: Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson on Capitol Hill.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Oct. 10, 2013, 2 a.m.

Mi­chael Camer­ini and Shari Robertson won’t stop. Not after 12 years, 1,500 hours of film, and 21,000 shots — 3,200 alone of a single Sen­ate staffer. Not even after 10 of their films have been ac­cep­ted in­to the stor­ied New York Film Fest­iv­al. Two more works are still in pro­duc­tion. They are still shoot­ing. Even they can’t quite ar­tic­u­late why.

And all of it about a bill that hasn’t yet be­come law.

Camer­ini and Robertson’s doc­u­ment­ary series, How Demo­cracy Works Now, traces the tor­tured path of the im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ef­fort in Con­gress. Ten of the 12 planned in­stall­ments are be­ing shown in New York this week, mak­ing up al­most half of the fest­iv­al’s doc­u­ment­ary lineup. The film­makers, un­know­ingly, waded in­to Wash­ing­ton pur­gat­ory: Im­mig­ra­tion is an is­sue that won’t die but also won’t re­solve it­self. Like the sub­jects in their films, they are stuck, await­ing their Godot.

Their ex­plor­a­tion, which began in 2001, has turned in­to an epic jour­ney with an un­clear des­tin­a­tion. “I of­ten apo­lo­gize to them,” jokes Frank Sharry, a cha­ris­mat­ic ad­voc­ate of leg­al­iz­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, who is fea­tured prom­in­ently in the doc­u­ment­ar­ies.

Sharry is largely re­spons­ible for suck­ing Camer­ini and Robertson in­to a story that wound up be­ing far more com­plic­ated and much harder to doc­u­ment than they ever ima­gined. Shortly after the elec­tion of George W. Bush, who had cour­ted the His­pan­ic vote, Sharry told them that they should make a movie about the im­mig­ra­tion re­forms likely to oc­cur un­der the new pres­id­ent.

Sharry was emer­ging in his own right as an out­spoken, ir­rev­er­ent, and some­times ir­rit­at­ing evan­gel­ist for im­mig­ra­tion re­form. He was head of the bi­par­tis­an Na­tion­al Im­mig­ra­tion For­um when the three met for din­ner in Man­hat­tan in early 2001. He now runs the more lib­er­al Amer­ica’s Voice. All three of them re­mem­ber that Sharry hooked the film­makers at that din­ner with the fol­low­ing line: “It will be like Eyes on the Prize [the famed doc­u­ment­ary about the Amer­ic­an civil-rights move­ment] as it hap­pens.”

And it made sense. Im­mig­ra­tion was a front-burn­er is­sue then — un­til Sept. 11 of that year. “Septem­ber 12 was the day to quit,” Camer­ini re­flects. But they had already star­ted film­ing, and they didn’t want to walk away. In­stead, they went to Iowa and filmed a city-coun­cil race in which im­mig­ra­tion was a factor. They came back a year later to watch na­tion­al im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion un­fold from em­bryon­ic stages.

I didn’t meet the film­makers un­til 2003 in an ugly fluor­es­cent classroom in the base­ment of the U.S. Cap­it­ol. The oc­ca­sion was a press con­fer­ence at which three Ari­zona Re­pub­lic­ans — Sen. John Mc­Cain and then-Reps. Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe — un­veiled a bill to al­low un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants to re­main in the United States on tem­por­ary visas. The bill fore­shad­owed le­gis­la­tion that, a few years later, would oc­cupy the Sen­ate for months and spark protests around the coun­try. For me, it was just an op­tion­al press­er on a slow news day.

I’ll ad­mit it: I thought the film­makers were on a fool’s er­rand. Camer­ini ap­proached me with a re­lease form. “We’re doc­u­ment­ary film­makers and we’re in­ter­ested in the le­gis­lat­ive pro­cess. We chose im­mig­ra­tion as our is­sue.”

“Are you crazy?” I said. He laughed, as though he had heard that one be­fore. I signed their form, tried to look like a di­li­gent re­port­er, and for­got about them.

I didn’t know then that they were chron­ic­ling a much deep­er story, one I cer­tainly could not have un­der­taken, in which they fol­lowed Mar­garet Klessig, Flake’s aide, for months as she put the bill to­geth­er with Kolbe’s staffer Becky Jensen. I didn’t know that they were also con­stantly shad­ow­ing Es­th­er Olav­ar­ria, an aide to then-Sen. Ed­ward Kennedy, who was ra­cing to fin­ish com­pet­ing le­gis­la­tion in hopes of win­ning Mc­Cain’s co­spon­sor­ship, in a way a daily re­port­er nev­er could. They would end up with more than 3,000 shots of Olav­ar­ria alone.

I didn’t know that I would see these two un­as­sum­ing doc­u­ment­ari­ans on and off for the next 10 years as they roamed the Cap­it­ol. They looked like all the rest of us journ­al­ists, with press passes and cheap suits. Camer­ini perched an un­wieldy cam­era on his shoulders, and Robertson wore head­phones and spor­ted a boom mike.

“AN AMAZ­ING PLACE”

I wasn’t far off in ques­tion­ing their san­ity. A mar­ried couple with no chil­dren, Camer­ini and Robertson don’t an­swer to any­one but them­selves. They camped in Olav­ar­ria’s cramped of­fice for hours and waited for something to hap­pen. They filmed in the of­fices of Sens. Sam Brown­back, R-Kan., Saxby Cham­b­liss, R-Ga., Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. Some days, they would start shoot­ing in one of­fice — usu­ally be­fore 8 a.m. if it was a Re­pub­lic­an — and end after 9 p.m. in an­oth­er of­fice. At one point, they had nine con­gres­sion­al of­fice phones wired for sound. “We could kind of fol­low our noses,” Robertson says.

They had one goal: find­ing the end to their movie. They thought they had it late on the even­ing of June 27, 2007. The scene takes place in Sharry’s of­fice when Olav­ar­ria in­forms him and a col­league by phone that “the sen­at­or [Kennedy] is pess­im­ist­ic” about the next day’s vote. On June 28, the Sen­ate fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed to keep an im­mig­ra­tion bill alive. The film­makers dis­ap­peared after that. Im­mig­ra­tion re­form was dead. They had their story. Now they needed to fin­ish their movies. They spent most of the next few years edit­ing and hust­ling for fund­ing.

Then in late 2012 the is­sue re­sur­faced in Wash­ing­ton, cour­tesy of a His­pan­ic elect­or­ate that voted over­whelm­ingly for Pres­id­ent Obama, who then made im­mig­ra­tion a top pri­or­ity. The film­makers came back, too, even though they wer­en’t sure they should. “By the [doc­u­ment­ary] rules, we should nev­er have come back to this city,” Camer­ini says.

Why did they re­turn from their New York home? The best ex­plan­a­tion is that they fell in love with Wash­ing­ton and its play­ers and wer­en’t done ex­plor­ing its com­plex­ity. “This is an amaz­ing place to be,” Camer­ini says. “This,” he points to my re­port­er’s note­book and his cam­era, “this gives you per­mis­sion to be here. Be­cause you have a pur­pose, you can be here.”

Camer­ini and Robertson are pain­fully aware that even though they are awed with Wash­ing­ton, the rest of the world may not be. A week be­fore their films de­b­uted, Robertson ad­mit­ted she was ter­ri­fied that no one would come to the screen­ings.

Kent Jones, who pro­grams the New York Film Fest­iv­al, is equally aware of the risks, but he says he wants to of­fer fest­ival­go­ers an al­tern­ate view of the Wash­ing­ton por­trayed on the even­ing news. “The idea that rep­res­ent­at­ive gov­ern­ment is all a fix is really a pe­cu­li­ar fantasy,” he says. “For a lot of people who stick to their polit­ic­al guns and don’t want to see sub­tleties, who are wed­ded to the idea that [polit­ics] is all a sham, they’re go­ing to go crazy when they see this.”

OUT­SIDE THE BOX

Camer­ini and Robertson have a charm­ingly stub­born tenacity about mak­ing movies that don’t fit in­to typ­ic­al doc­u­ment­ary cat­egor­ies. They shun ad­vocacy films or polit­ic­al char­ac­ter sketches. Camer­ini re­mem­bers a meet­ing with tele­vi­sion ex­ec­ut­ives where he laid out 60 8-by-10 screen shots of their char­ac­ters. “They said, ‘Couldn’t you do something like fol­low­ing an in­tern for a sum­mer?’ “

The an­swer was no. Wash­ing­ton polit­ic­al cul­ture is too com­plex to be cap­tured in a simple, three-act play, they said. “We made it out­side of the com­mer­cial box,” Camer­ini proudly says of their series.

Their de­vo­tion to a real­ist­ic dis­play of law­mak­ing in ac­tion, no mat­ter how com­plic­ated, has cost them in the film world. They were on the verge of fame in 2000 (well, as fam­ous as doc­u­ment­ary film­makers can get) when their movie about the U.S. asylum pro­cess, Well-Foun­ded Fear, was an of­fi­cial se­lec­tion at Sund­ance. After that, they dis­ap­peared from the fest­iv­al cir­cuit. Their im­mig­ra­tion series has lan­guished in ob­scur­ity. Last Best Chance, the in­stall­ment that chron­icles the death of the 2007 im­mig­ra­tion bill, had an HBO re­lease. A Skid­more Col­lege pro­fess­or shows some of the films to his class on im­mig­ra­tion policy. The films have had scattered screen­ings at dozens of oth­er col­leges over the years. That’s ba­sic­ally it.

Camer­ini and Robertson see their movies as re­quired view­ing for polit­ic­al-sci­ence stu­dents. Jones has big­ger goals. He told me he wants fest­iv­al view­ers to see the filmic value in cap­tur­ing un­guarded mo­ments — the kind you don’t get if you simply pop in­to a sen­at­or’s of­fice for an in­ter­view. “People are self-con­scious, and then they drop it. You don’t use the self-con­scious stuff,” he says.

Camer­ini and Robertson are trained for just this kind of lengthy, eth­no­graph­ic pro­cess. “You spend a year with people in the rain forest and then you start film­ing them,” Camer­ini ex­plains by way of ex­ample.

Wash­ing­ton’s den­iz­ens turned out to be as for­eign and exot­ic as any rain-forest tribe. The films use trans­la­tion head­ings cla­ri­fy­ing char­ac­ters’ jar­gon, like “D’s: Demo­crats” or “Whip Count: List of How Many Sen­at­ors Are Ex­pec­ted to Vote.”

Camer­ini and Robertson also nar­rate the films. They didn’t want to, but then an as­sist­ant told them she couldn’t make heads or tails out of a scene in which Sen­ate staffers de­bate the mer­its of the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee versus the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.

The res­ult is au­then­t­ic Wash­ing­ton, warts and all, play­ing like an epic tragedy on a big screen. Kennedy’s scarred nose and pock­marked cheeks are vivid as he jokes to his staff about CNN’s Lou Dobbs. Sharry drops the F-bomb on the phone with Re­pub­lic­an White House aide Barry Jack­son as they ne­go­ti­ate whose turn it is to give something up. Demo­crat­ic Sen. Robert Men­en­dez of New Jer­sey an­grily chews out a group of lib­er­al ad­voc­ates in his of­fice. Sev­er­al of them are cry­ing.

“PEOPLE WE LIKE”

The series is heav­ily slanted to­ward the sup­port­ers of an im­mig­ra­tion bill, for the com­pletely apolit­ic­al reas­on that those were the people who al­lowed Camer­ini’s cam­era and Robertson’s boom mic to in­vade their lives. The films chron­icle the her­culean pro­cess of try­ing (and fail­ing) to pass le­gis­la­tion, but the pro-im­mig­ra­tion ar­gu­ments can’t help but take over the screen when Kennedy’s aide is their star.

“We had a crisis of con­science when we star­ted edit­ing,” Camer­ini says of the sharp fo­cus on Kennedy and his al­lies. They even­tu­ally came to peace with it by re­mem­ber­ing a ba­sic ten­et of film­mak­ing that dif­fers from the “ob­ject­ive” goal of journ­al­ism: The cam­era can only fo­cus on one thing at a time. The trick is to de­cide where to point it and then fol­low where it takes you. “We want to make films about people we like,” Camer­ini says. “We can’t film every­body, and if so-and-so says ‘yes,’ and you are be­ing dif­fi­cult, even­tu­ally we run out of time.”

At one point, for ex­ample, the couple had un­fettered ac­cess to Brown­back’s of­fice. “Then there was a coup in the of­fice, and we were out,” Robertson says.

Early on, the two ap­proached Dan Stein, pres­id­ent of the Fed­er­a­tion for Amer­ic­an Im­mig­ra­tion Re­form, a group that wants to re­duce im­mig­ra­tion. They wanted to film FAIR’s in­tern­al meet­ings and de­lib­er­a­tions just as they were film­ing Sharry, Stein’s nemes­is. Stein seemed amen­able but later backed off, ac­cord­ing to the film­makers. Stein wrote in an email that they were “very pleas­ant people,” but it did not seem worth the time to sit down for an in­ter­view.

And so Camer­ini and Robertson wound up with 10 (and count­ing) fea­ture-length movies about Wash­ing­ton in­siders who did think it was worth the time. At the start, the film­makers had one cent­ral ques­tion: What does it take for a big idea to be­come the law of the land?

Turns out, the an­swer was: It takes forever. And then it still doesn’t hap­pen.

"AN AMAZING PLACE"

I wasn’t far off in ques­tion­ing their san­ity. A mar­ried couple with no chil­dren, Camer­ini and Robertson don’t an­swer to any­one but them­selves. They camped in Olav­ar­ria’s cramped of­fice for hours and waited for something to hap­pen. They filmed in the of­fices of Sens. Sam Brown­back, R-Kan., Saxby Cham­b­liss, R-Ga., Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. Some days, they would start shoot­ing in one of­fice — usu­ally be­fore 8 a.m. if it was a Re­pub­lic­an — and end after 9 p.m. in an­oth­er of­fice. At one point, they had nine con­gres­sion­al of­fice phones wired for sound. “We could kind of fol­low our noses,” Robertson says.

They had one goal: find­ing the end to their movie. They thought they had it late on the even­ing of June 27, 2007. The scene takes place in Sharry’s of­fice when Olav­ar­ria in­forms him and a col­league by phone that “the sen­at­or [Kennedy] is pess­im­ist­ic” about the next day’s vote. On June 28, the Sen­ate fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed to keep an im­mig­ra­tion bill alive. The film­makers dis­ap­peared after that. Im­mig­ra­tion re­form was dead. They had their story. Now they needed to fin­ish their movies. They spent most of the next few years edit­ing and hust­ling for fund­ing.

Then in late 2012 the is­sue re­sur­faced in Wash­ing­ton, cour­tesy of a His­pan­ic elect­or­ate that voted over­whelm­ingly for Pres­id­ent Obama, who then made im­mig­ra­tion a top pri­or­ity. The film­makers came back, too, even though they wer­en’t sure they should. “By the [doc­u­ment­ary] rules, we should nev­er have come back to this city,” Camer­ini says.

Why did they re­turn from their New York home? The best ex­plan­a­tion is that they fell in love with Wash­ing­ton and its play­ers and wer­en’t done ex­plor­ing its com­plex­ity. “This is an amaz­ing place to be,” Camer­ini says. “This,” he points to my re­port­er’s note­book and his cam­era, “this gives you per­mis­sion to be here. Be­cause you have a pur­pose, you can be here.”

Camer­ini and Robertson are pain­fully aware that even though they are awed with Wash­ing­ton, the rest of the world may not be. A week be­fore their films de­b­uted, Robertson ad­mit­ted she was ter­ri­fied that no one would come to the screen­ings.

Kent Jones, who pro­grams the New York Film Fest­iv­al, is equally aware of the risks, but he says he wants to of­fer fest­ival­go­ers an al­tern­ate view of the Wash­ing­ton por­trayed on the even­ing news. “The idea that rep­res­ent­at­ive gov­ern­ment is all a fix is really a pe­cu­li­ar fantasy,” he says. “For a lot of people who stick to their polit­ic­al guns and don’t want to see sub­tleties, who are wed­ded to the idea that [polit­ics] is all a sham, they’re go­ing to go crazy when they see this.”

OUTSIDE THE BOX

Camer­ini and Robertson have a charm­ingly stub­born tenacity about mak­ing movies that don’t fit in­to typ­ic­al doc­u­ment­ary cat­egor­ies. They shun ad­vocacy films or polit­ic­al char­ac­ter sketches. Camer­ini re­mem­bers a meet­ing with tele­vi­sion ex­ec­ut­ives where he laid out 60 8-by-10 screen shots of their char­ac­ters. “They said, ‘Couldn’t you do something like fol­low­ing an in­tern for a sum­mer?’ “

The an­swer was no. Wash­ing­ton polit­ic­al cul­ture is too com­plex to be cap­tured in a simple, three-act play, they said. “We made it out­side of the com­mer­cial box,” Camer­ini proudly says of their series.

Their de­vo­tion to a real­ist­ic dis­play of law­mak­ing in ac­tion, no mat­ter how com­plic­ated, has cost them in the film world. They were on the verge of fame in 2000 (well, as fam­ous as doc­u­ment­ary film­makers can get) when their movie about the U.S. asylum pro­cess, Well-Foun­ded Fear, was an of­fi­cial se­lec­tion at Sund­ance. After that, they dis­ap­peared from the fest­iv­al cir­cuit. Their im­mig­ra­tion series has lan­guished in ob­scur­ity. Last Best Chance, the in­stall­ment that chron­icles the death of the 2007 im­mig­ra­tion bill, had an HBO re­lease. A Skid­more Col­lege pro­fess­or shows some of the films to his class on im­mig­ra­tion policy. The films have had scattered screen­ings at dozens of oth­er col­leges over the years. That’s ba­sic­ally it.

Camer­ini and Robertson see their movies as re­quired view­ing for polit­ic­al-sci­ence stu­dents. Jones has big­ger goals. He told me he wants fest­iv­al view­ers to see the filmic value in cap­tur­ing un­guarded mo­ments — the kind you don’t get if you simply pop in­to a sen­at­or’s of­fice for an in­ter­view. “People are self-con­scious, and then they drop it. You don’t use the self-con­scious stuff,” he says.

Camer­ini and Robertson are trained for just this kind of lengthy, eth­no­graph­ic pro­cess. “You spend a year with people in the rain forest and then you start film­ing them,” Camer­ini ex­plains by way of ex­ample.

Wash­ing­ton’s den­iz­ens turned out to be as for­eign and exot­ic as any rain-forest tribe. The films use trans­la­tion head­ings cla­ri­fy­ing char­ac­ters’ jar­gon, like “D’s: Demo­crats” or “Whip Count: List of How Many Sen­at­ors Are Ex­pec­ted to Vote.”

Camer­ini and Robertson also nar­rate the films. They didn’t want to, but then an as­sist­ant told them she couldn’t make heads or tails out of a scene in which Sen­ate staffers de­bate the mer­its of the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee versus the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.

The res­ult is au­then­t­ic Wash­ing­ton, warts and all, play­ing like an epic tragedy on a big screen. Kennedy’s scarred nose and pock­marked cheeks are vivid as he jokes to his staff about CNN’s Lou Dobbs. Sharry drops the F-bomb on the phone with Re­pub­lic­an White House aide Barry Jack­son as they ne­go­ti­ate whose turn it is to give something up. Demo­crat­ic Sen. Robert Men­en­dez of New Jer­sey an­grily chews out a group of lib­er­al ad­voc­ates in his of­fice. Sev­er­al of them are cry­ing.

"PEOPLE WE LIKE"

The series is heav­ily slanted to­ward the sup­port­ers of an im­mig­ra­tion bill, for the com­pletely apolit­ic­al reas­on that those were the people who al­lowed Camer­ini’s cam­era and Robertson’s boom mic to in­vade their lives. The films chron­icle the her­culean pro­cess of try­ing (and fail­ing) to pass le­gis­la­tion, but the pro-im­mig­ra­tion ar­gu­ments can’t help but take over the screen when Kennedy’s aide is their star.

“We had a crisis of con­science when we star­ted edit­ing,” Camer­ini says of the sharp fo­cus on Kennedy and his al­lies. They even­tu­ally came to peace with it by re­mem­ber­ing a ba­sic ten­et of film­mak­ing that dif­fers from the “ob­ject­ive” goal of journ­al­ism: The cam­era can only fo­cus on one thing at a time. The trick is to de­cide where to point it and then fol­low where it takes you. “We want to make films about people we like,” Camer­ini says. “We can’t film every­body, and if so-and-so says ‘yes,’ and you are be­ing dif­fi­cult, even­tu­ally we run out of time.”

At one point, for ex­ample, the couple had un­fettered ac­cess to Brown­back’s of­fice. “Then there was a coup in the of­fice, and we were out,” Robertson says.

Early on, the two ap­proached Dan Stein, pres­id­ent of the Fed­er­a­tion for Amer­ic­an Im­mig­ra­tion Re­form, a group that wants to re­duce im­mig­ra­tion. They wanted to film FAIR’s in­tern­al meet­ings and de­lib­er­a­tions just as they were film­ing Sharry, Stein’s nemes­is. Stein seemed amen­able but later backed off, ac­cord­ing to the film­makers. Stein wrote in an email that they were “very pleas­ant people,” but it did not seem worth the time to sit down for an in­ter­view.

And so Camer­ini and Robertson wound up with 10 (and count­ing) fea­ture-length movies about Wash­ing­ton in­siders who did think it was worth the time. At the start, the film­makers had one cent­ral ques­tion: What does it take for a big idea to be­come the law of the land?

Turns out, the an­swer was: It takes forever. And then it still doesn’t hap­pen.

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