The thousands of delegates, journalists, and protesters descending upon midtown for the Republican National Convention the week of August 30 should plan to look their best: Some of them might very well end up appearing at a theater near you. In addition to the countless mainstream news outlets covering the event, a hearty contingent of independent documentarians are preparing to roll cameras when the GOP and its concomitant multitude of dissenters hit the town. While the Republicans prepare to use Madison Square Garden as their carefully controlled television studio, indie filmmakers plan to catch the real stories outside on the streets.
“It’s not often that you find a great story right in your own backyard,” says Keefe J. Murren, who with Gabriel Rhodes is currently preparing to shoot the climactic scenes of their film, tentatively titled August in the Empire State. Murren and Rhodes have been following four characters for several months—activist Cheri Honkala of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, Andrew Boyd of radical street thespians Billionaires for Bush, Salon.com journalist Michelle Goldberg, and Republican congressional candidate Paul Rodriguez—and will have crews trailing each when they converge at the RNC. “We weren’t interested in making an advocacy piece for leftist activists,” explains Murren. “We were interested in the historical moment that our country was experiencing, and the divisiveness that characterizes politics at this moment. Our hope is to explore this current political division, not just in sound bites, but in a more complicated way.”
Murren and Rhodes know there’s a chance it could get very complicated. “One of the groups we’re following knows they’re going to be arrested,” Rhodes says. “They’re going to be marching without a permit, and they don’t expect to make it five feet before they’re arrested. Even though we’re not affiliated with that group, it could very well be that we’ll be in the police’s eyes, and we could end up arrested during the convention. It’s not a major concern, but it’s definitely something to be worried about. Especially when we’ll have five crews to coordinate—if one is in prison, it’s going to be a little hard.”
With ready-made real-life conflicts already set in motion, passionate characters who aren’t afraid of cameras, and a steady stream of political movies currently packing audiences into theaters, it’s not surprising that Murren and Rhodes aren’t alone. At activist events held in the past year, they’ve encountered numerous other crews shooting alongside them. “New York is the home of documentary, and the home of the media, and right now it’s a real hotbed for political action and election-year politics,” says Rhodes.
This pre-convention anticipation is the focus for Duy Lihn Tu’s project, which has been documenting preparations by protest groups RNC Not Welcome and Still We Rise. “The working title is Party Crashers,” he explains. “It will definitely deal with days of the convention, but that’s going to be a pretty minor part. It’s more about the mobilization and planning that goes into organizing a major protest. So the bulk of the story is the year or so we’ve been following before the convention happens.”
For Tu, who is producing and directing Crashers with Mike Schreiber, the experience so far has been eye-opening. “I’m not an activist,” he says, “so I never realized how much planning goes into organizing around the RNC. It’s not just showing up with your best buddies the day before because you’re angry.” In the process, he encountered a unique community of fellow filmmakers. “We’ve been covering this since last October, but recently more groups are showing up. My background is in network news, so early on I thought, oh great, people are scooping our story. But the atmosphere is very different—really friendly. Also I think that everyone is focused on different angles.”
One coalition of protesters is working to coordinate their own documentation. A collective called No RNC Video has been meeting for the past few months to plan a daily broadcast produced from a radical perspective. Comprising members from Paper Tiger Television, the Independent Media Center, the MNN Youth Channel, Big Noise Films, Deep Dish TV, and Whispered Media, No RNC Video will cover the showdown live in a series called Unconventional TV, running on MNN, BCAT, and satellite network FreeSpeech TV. The group is also preparing a footage database for use in any potential legal proceedings. “We’re working with the National Lawyers Guild to get people trained on what to do if they capture video evidence of police misconduct or anything else that goes against what the police claim is going on,” says Brendan Jourdan of Deep Dish TV. “Because of the massive amount of people who are going to be pouring into the city, it’s definitely going to be useful to have that set up in advance.” Since these groups often provide clips to later productions, some of what’s coordinated through No RNC Video may end up in theaters; Deep Dish, for example, shot some of the Iraq scenes in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.
San Francisco artist Ryan Junell isn’t so sure that media activists can affect the election. “They end up making propaganda for the left, which is not really useful in changing the opinions of someone on the right, or in the middle,” he says. Junell’s strategy is more “minimal.” He’s living in New York this month to get ready for his project, a “documentary video installation” of four projections depicting different groups: conventioneers, protesters, police and security, and non-aligned bystanders. After creating an atmospheric audio mix with electronic musician Jay Lesser, Junell plans to tour the piece through swing states. “I really don’t want an editorial experience,” he says. “I want to create an environment in which you can just reflect—a place where people from the right might be seduced into coming. They’ll see their values represented, but at the same time, it’ll slowly bring up other things. A little bit subversive.”
Stephen Marshall of the Guerrilla News Network likewise aims for a crossover crowd with This Revolution, a remake of Haskell Wexler’s feature Medium Cool, which famously placed actors inside the chaotic 1968 Democratic Convention. “There’s great stuff coming out these days from Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald, but in a lot of ways those films are polarizing,” says Marshall. “I’m trying to create a film which is entertaining enough and has a thriller aspect to it, which doesn’t have a Republican or Democrat bent, but speaks to an audience that is there for a bit of a ride.”
“The protagonist is Jake Cassavetes,” Marshall explains, “who is a famed war shooter just back from Iraq and is shooting the conventions when he finds out that his network has made a Faustian deal with Homeland Security to pass his footage over to quote-unquote ‘terror threats.’ That kind of draws from Haskell’s original script, in which he intimates that the main character’s footage is being given to the FBI for COINTELPRO.” When This Revolution began shooting at the DNC last month, “we were involved in a huge scuffle where the cops grabbed a couple of guys and beat them down and we got that all on tape. We shot the state troopers in SWAT gear coming out and lining up and marching around—I’m like, this is an action sequence with production values that I could never afford!”