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.

National Journal
Fawn Johnson
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
NEVER TRUMP
USA Today Weighs in on Presidential Race for First Time Ever
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"By all means vote, just not for Donald Trump." That's the message from USA Today editors, who are making the first recommendation on a presidential race in the paper's 34-year history. It's not exactly an endorsement; they make clear that the editorial board "does not have a consensus for a Clinton endorsement." But they state flatly that Donald Trump is, by "unanimous consensus of the editorial board, unfit for the presidency."

Source:
COMMISSIONERS NEED TO DELIBERATE MORE
FCC Pushes Vote on Set-Top Boxes
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Federal regulators on Thursday delayed a vote on a proposal to reshape the television market by freeing consumers from cable box rentals, putting into doubt a plan that has pitted technology companies against cable television providers. ... The proposal will still be considered for a future vote. But Tom Wheeler, chairman of the F.C.C., said commissioners needed more discussions."

Source:
UNTIL DEC. 9, ANYWAY
Obama Signs Bill to Fund Government
12 hours ago
THE LATEST
IT’S ALL CLINTON
Reliable Poll Data Coming in RE: Debate #1
14 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
WHAT WILL PASS?
McConnell Doubts Criminal Justice Reform Can Pass This Year
17 hours ago
THE LATEST
×