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.
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