“This is the worst,” says Anthony Weiner, shaking his head. “Doing a documentary on my scandal.” As much as it chronicles the former New York Congressman’s ill-fated run for mayor of New York City, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s film is dedicated to confronting the strange fact of its own existence. This is a man who resigned from public office in disgrace after accidentally tweeting a picture of his crotch; what could he have to gain by letting a camera crew into his life? Or, as Kriegman asks from behind the camera during one particularly tense stretch: “Why have you let me film this?”
Without access, documentary does not exist, but the conditions of that access are more often felt than shown. In “Weiner,” and in “Pervert Park,” a documentary about convicted sex offenders, we’re constantly forced — explicitly in the former case, implicitly in the latter — to question why the people we’re watching would let anyone point a camera at them. The answers have profound implications not only for the films but also for the audience’s relationship to them. In watching a documentary, you become third party to the bargain struck between the filmmaker and their subjects, and short of walking out of the theater, there’s no way to withhold your consent.
Kriegman and Steinberg seem to have virtually unfettered access to Weiner’s professional and personal lives in a period that was bound to be uncomfortable at best — and if you know anything about the fate of Weiner’s political aspirations, you know the circumstances were far from ideal. (Hint: Anthony Weiner is not currently the mayor of New York City.)
Even before it emerges that Weiner has broken his very public promises to refrain from e-cheating on his wife, Huma Abedin, the film has taken us into corners of the political arena where cameras are rarely allowed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a frank depiction of the extent to which even established political figures spend much of their day begging wealthy donors for money, which makes an especially poignant contrast with Weiner’s repeated promise to fight for middle-class voters.
If there’s a simple explanation for why Weiner lets the filmmakers follow him, it’s because his mayoral campaign was largely an attempt to redeem his public image and make his last name something more than a punchline. (Six-year-olds will still snigger, but that can’t be helped.) Even when he clearly can’t win, he stays in the race because he sees it as the less humiliating option. It’s also because he’s a raging narcissist (although as a politician, that may go without saying) and a hot-tempered public crusader who derives obvious satisfaction from playing the part.
Kriegman was a natural fit for the project. Before his life as a filmmaker, he worked for Weiner during his 12 years in the House of Representatives, and was even chief of staff during the 2005-06 term. Weiner knew that cameras would follow him everywhere he went, but at least this way he’d know the people wielding one of them.
Like any politician, Weiner is a performer. In one of the movie’s most thrilling scenes, he confronts a hostile audience member during an event on City Island, and uses the man’s anger to get the formerly indifferent audience on his side. In an era where politics were a matter of wooing constituents in person rather than through the media, he might have been unstoppable. (That would also be a world where whiffing the distinction between a private online message and a public reply couldn’t end your career in an instant.)
The more intriguing figure in “Weiner” is his wife, Huma Abedin, a powerful political force in her own right who has, at least comparatively, shunned the spotlight. A longtime aide and confidant to Hillary Clinton, Abedin has as much invested in Weiner’s campaign as he does; in standing by her husband during his first scandal, she effectively tied her fortunes to his. It’s not for us to know how much her dedication was determined by genuine devotion versus political calculation, but it’s clear that being in the public eye doesn’t energize Abedin the way it does Weiner.
After Weiner has gotten sucked into another scandal, this one involving a 23-year-old who calls herself Sydney Leathers, the filmmakers ask Abedin ask her how she’s doing as she makes breakfast at home. “It’s a nightmare!” she exclaims, then flashes a perfect tight-lipped grin. Abedin was a model for “The Good Wife’s” Alicia Florrick, and this scene echoes one in the show’s finale where Alicia shoots the prosecutor a witheringly sarcastic version of her “demure” smile. She knows the role of the supportive political wife, and she’s done playing it.
Of course, “Weiner’s” filmmakers haven’t caught Abedin making breakfast by accident: The moment is staged, and even her breaking free of the pressure to keep up an implacable front has a performative quality to it. Abedin’s ambivalence make her the documentary’s most compelling character. The question then becomes not so much why the cameras are watching, as what we’re watching — whether we’re intruding on a private moment or seeing something staged for our consumption, and which of those we’d prefer.
The issue of who’s watching and why is even more acute in “Pervert Park,” a documentary by Frida and Lasse Barkfors that premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and is getting a tiny release this weekend at IFP’s Made in NY Media Center. Set at Florida Justice Transitions, a trailer park that is home to more than 100 convicted sex offenders, the movie tests its audience’s limits for stories of horrific abuse, both endured and committed, as well as our capacity for empathy. Can we overcome our revulsion for people whom many would consider the worst of the worst, or even allow that feeling to mingle with others?
Although some subjects confess their crimes directly to the camera, the Barkfors leave the determination of their credibility in the audience’s hands. The closest thing to an objective verification of their words are the rap sheets from Florida’s sex offender registry that come just before the closing credits. Ordinarily, that’s all we’d want to know. If someone fitting that description tries to move into your neighborhood, you don’t want to hear their story — you just want them out. But by the end of “Pervert Park,” it’s no longer so simple. The movie’s most complicated subject, Tracy Lynn Hutchinson, has committed almost unspeakable crimes, but she was also — like most of the movie’s subjects — a victim of them in her own childhood. We can hardly forgive her, even if she says her victim has, but it’s no longer so easy to condemn.
Whether it’s the nature of this particular facility or the subjects the Barkfors chose, it’s striking how rarely the convicted sex offenders in “Pervert Park” ask to be forgiven. They’re at different points of reconciling themselves to their crimes — in a rare moment of levity straight out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, a man in a group therapy session becomes indignant about rumors that he masturbated to child pornography, huffing, “I was a flasher!” — but one thing they have in common is they want to be known for more than the one thing that will likely always define them. “Pervert Park’s” extremely limited release makes it difficult to oblige, but it’s worth seeking out: The movies, and its subjects, deserved to be seen.