In the Fall of 2001, I was working at the SXSW offices, opening packages full of submissions. Being an avid film geek, and a sign of things to come for myself and that office, I often (and still do on occasion) would take a moment and examine each and every press kit that came along with the films. On one day, I opened a package from a New York filmmaker that was nothing more than an application, a VHS video tape, and a 5′ by 5′ color photograph. The color photograph, though, featured two people: our current President, George W. Bush on the right, and a young woman wearing glasses and holding a video camera, on the left. This was Alexandra Pelosi. The film she was submitting was called, Journeys with George. There was something about this image (presumably a candid shot) that promised so much: the Texas-ranch loving W. mixing it up with a young woman with smart, East Coast looks and a camcorder at the ready. Within a few seconds, I stopped my bosses in the office and alerted them to the promising nature of this still image… could this documentary actually offer a candid, campaign-trail look at our current commander-in-chief? If so, and if the filmmaking was decent enough, this could be a very hot property.
Within days, two people at the festival watched the doc, Louis Black and Charlie Sotelo. Both huge, scholastic fans of political documentaries, I didn’t take it lightly when they raved about the film. Charlie soon phoned Alexandra Pelosi to invite it, and much to our delight, she accepted. Rarely do you have this kismet moment, when a viable and exciting premise is made into an accessible and exciting film. We were scheduled to host the world premiere of Journeys with George at SXSW 2002. And, by the end of that week, we thought it was business as usual. More films to see, more invitations to make. And then, as soon as we released our bi-monthly newsletter with festival updates… everything about that year would change.
Featured front and center on all announcements was that same still photograph that first caught my eye. And next to it, in big black letters, proclaimed that Journeys with George would have its world premiere at SXSW 2002, as the Opening Night Film. This got minimal attention from film fans (how often is a documentary by someone we’ve never head of, an Opening Night Film?) but soon enough, people that never knew about SXSW (read: the White House), started making phone calls. Now, a quick moment of refresher.. this was the end of 2001, that nation was at a very hostile and explosive boiling point. We had just suffered 9/11 only months after many Americans felt Bush stole the election. To have an independent documentary that follows George W. Bush on, and off, the clock during the 2000 campaign was something everyone wanted to see.
Added to the mix was the fact that Nancy Pelosi (the most powerful Democrat in Congress), is Alexandra’s mother. So, everyone wanted to know what this filmmaker had unearthed, what possible foibles she may have unraveled. On some day, in some way, I’ll probably share some of the more provocative behind-the-scenes happenings that transpired on the march to the film’s premiere. That, I’m afraid to say, isn’t what this post is about. But, let’s just say for now, the movie premiered and premiered amazingly. (“Alexandra Pelosi’s casually astonishing ‘Journeys With George’ is that rare breed of documentary that could forever alter public perceptions of its high-profile subject.” – Variety) At the end of the day, once the film was seen by the public, it became clear that Journeys with George was neither the Bush attack piece nor the love letter, both sides of the spectrum had feared. It was a pretty captivating and entertaining look at life on the Presidential campaign trail. Sure, Bush is featured uttering a few questionable things, but nothing inflammatory.
The beauty of Journeys with George is that it was very nearly non-partisan. Sure, Bush looks goofy and irresponsible at times, but one could argue that he proved himself a charming presence for Pelosi’s camera. In other words, love him or hate him, Journeys with George caters quite easily with your views on Bush. He is who he is, and that’s what Pelosi captured. Were people in Bush’s staff incredibly nervous about Journeys with George? Of course, but there’s something to be said for the fact that Alexandra was savvy enough to craft a film that would get a fair shake. And, it did, going on to a deal with HBO and several Emmy nominations to follow.
I’m reminded of this whole story, and urged to recall it, since Alexandra Pelosi has been in the news and blogosphere lately, due to her mother’s sudden rise to power. She even recently wrote a piece for Time, about her experiences introducing her mother to George W. Bush (presumably during the making of the documentary). This all immediately sent me back to that year, at SXSW, when a lot of things changed. Thanks to her film, as well as stateside premieres such as Spellbound, Charlotte Sometimes, and Hell House, SXSW 2002 was a real “tipping point” year for us. And, like many times in my career at SXSW, it was an absolutely joy to watch things unfold from behind-the-scenes. And, I have Alexandra Pelosi and her documentary to thank for two things: 1. Affirming my belief that I should be in the programming/exhibition business, and 2. Affirming my belief that I would get an ulcer before I was 25.
I ran into Alexandra in Amsterdam last November, during IDFA. She was with her new – Dutch – husband, and enjoying her life underneath the spotlight. She made a follow-up documentary about the 2004 elections, called Diary of a Political Tourist, but like Borat… the secret was out and the politicians weren’t nearly as welcoming as an unsuspecting Bush had been four years before.
Now, is there some link between Alexandra and her politically powerful mother? I would argue that the only link between Alexandra (who I got to work with for the festival) and Nancy (who I briefly met at the premiere) is that they both appreciate the common good of getting the message out. Journeys with George is a sound and solid documentary, because it was not the anti-Bush propaganda some had feared. It’s great filmmaking, precisely because it calls into question everything you think you know about the President and his politics. I would bet that Nancy Pelosi will forge much of the same: political goals first, snarky commentary dead last. In fact, what Alexandra writes in her Time piece, seems to echo this:
George W. Bush and Nancy Pelosi both know that if you want to breathe the rarefied air at the highest echelons of the U.S. government, you have to ignore the media buzzards. When I was watching Fox News recently, and she walked into the room, I had to explain that Sean Hannity was spending the month leading up to the election warning America that Speaker Pelosi would destroy this nation. She asked, “Which one is Hannity?”
So as all of us spectators sit home on our couches watching the bloviators pontificate about the state of American politics, rest assured that George Bush and Nancy Pelosi are so busy that they do not hear a word of it. And if they did, they couldn’t care less. They have a country to run.