Politicians present a picture of a world that they want to support or bring into being. What does that mean for documentary filmmakers, as they also try to paint a picture of the world?
Since the beginnings of cinema verité, many directors have peeked at the “behind the scenes” of politics, dating back to the John F. Kennedy election documentary Primary in 1960. Instead of just slogans and speeches, the idea is to understand the person behind the politician, the power relations really at work, and the messy procedures of government and politics. This kind of film project has only grown more complicated with today’s 24-hour news cycles and the popular expectation that we can observe processes that are actually very difficult to portray. The Backstage of Politics presents the workings of politics through different angles and perspectives, from neighborhoods to nations, from novice campaigners to historic heroes.
David Osit’s Mayor offers a strong example of what a politician’s job is really like, and how that job requires rolling up your sleeves and tackling problems big and small. The camera follows Musa Hadid, Mayor of Ramallah in Palestine, as he deals with everything from municipal repairs to issues of sovereignty. There are hilariously mundane moments (a restaurant owner insists that he sit down and eat his food), but we also see actions by Israeli soldiers that reflect the volatility of power relations in the Middle East. Indeed, city government proves to be a valuable lens on politics as it directly affects daily life, as in Frederick Wiseman’s latest work, City Hall. Turning his eye on the American city of Boston, Wiseman assembles an expansive mosaic of the many different people and departments that manage housing planning, welfare outreach, road safety, and even historical commemoration. Through Boston (and its mayor, Marty Walsh) we witness the hard work of political representation, and the battles (in politics and in war) that are fought on behalf of citizens and country.
The selections in The Backstage of Politics can boldly delve into the uncomfortable side of politics, when people push agendas that put others at risk. Daniel Lombroso’s White Noise gets up close and personal with three advocates of white supremacy at a time when hate crimes are resurgent in the United States: Mike Cernovich, Lauren Southern, and Richard Spencer. Lombroso’s revealing interviews and TV-profile-style access show them marketing a popular twin philosophy of grievance and superiority with the help of social media, while also demonstrating a routine opportunism. The contradictions of American culture are vivid display in ’Til Kingdom Come from Israeli filmmaker Maya Zinshtein who explains the curious connection between evangelical Christians and Israel. Evangelical churches in America donate millions of dollars to Israel and get access to the highest levels of U.S. government, but the support stems from a belief in Armageddon and Israel’s place in the Christian “end times.” Zinshtein spotlights a young minister who is part of the system, and a fundraiser who is Jewish and recognizes the tensions, but presses ahead.
Many of these films exist in a “present tense,” but two especially turn the clock back and uncover questions about the past that still remain to be answered. MLK/FBI, from veteran director and editor Sam Pollard, exposes the shameful and dangerous surveillance of Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr. by the country’s most powerful law enforcement organization. Using audio interviews and archival clips instead of talking heads for most of the film, Pollard intimately retraces the timeline of King’s rise, and details the attacks by an establishment that viewed the civil rights leader as a threat. In Gorbachev. Heaven, the director Vitaly Mansky, a canny interviewer, has a series of cat-and-mouse conversations with Mikhail Gorbachev—once the bold perestroika-pushing premier at the time of the collapse of the vast Soviet Union, now living in spacious state-owned housing. It’s a fascinating exhibition of how history can resist reexamination; in his late 80s, Gorbachev is exceedingly careful about assigning precise responsibility for the world-changing period he contributed to.
If MLK/FBI and Gorbachev. Heaven scrutinize the history we thought we already knew, Carmen Losmann’s Oeconomia does the same thing for a very familiar subject: money. Losmann’s back-to-basics approach illuminates the complex machinery of world finance by asking fundamental questions such as: how exactly is money created, and how does these assumptions shape our economy and our lives? In a typically eye-opening sequence, an experienced German banker demonstrates how, technically, a few clicks of a computer mouse generates a loan, and how that kind of debt props up the economy. On the other side of the globe, Jill Li takes a granular look at how democracy works in Lost Course. Like Losmann, Li recognizes that a complicated subject requires a different approach, and she joins a contemporary Chinese tradition of long-duration documentary. In this case, she chronicles villagers in Wukan, South China, endlessly fighting government bureaucracy for their land rights, against a backstory of epochal shifts from communism to capitalism.
A couple of filmmakers in The Backstage of Politics pose provocative questions by juxtaposing older and more recent footage. In Natalia Labaké’s Dormant, 1980s home video shows her grandfather, an Argentine lawyer and politician, happily entwined with President Carlos Menem and the Peronist Party. Modern images of the same family members decades later suggests that the gender and power relations that were taken for granted were maybe not healthy for everyone involved. And in the montage-driven short Brazil Is Thee Haiti Is (T)here, Carlos Adriano connects the bloody brutality of Brazilian involvement in the UN peace mission in Haiti in 2005 and 2006, with Brazil’s current authoritarian government. Adriano’s film returns to a clip of one man challenging President Jair Bolsonaro, like a revolutionary refrain.
To conclude with the future: Raja Amari’s She Had a Dream tags along with a 25-year-old budding politician in Tunisia, Ghofrane Binous, who is running for a liberal parliamentary position. It’s a look at a younger generation on the rise in a traditional society, and in particular, a black woman who is doubly an outsider because of racism and sexism. Amari doesn’t pretend Binous is a hero, as she learns her way, and we see how rich and complicated her life with friends and family is, with or without politics. It’s another example of how documentary can be most authentic not by setting an image in stone, but by showing how the picture is always changing.