With all the spontaneity of a professional wrestling match, the Woodhouse brothers, liberal Brad and conservative Dallas, argued their political points on cable television today and their mom called in to scold them.
While the “Oh, God, it’s mom,” comment from Dallas and Joyce’s admonition that they get all this piss and vinegar out their system so they don’t ruin Christmas at Casa Woodhouse back in North Carolina is adorable in a #ThisTown kind of way — it’s worth pointing out this is a bit old hat for the family Woodhouse. They even made a movie about it, “Woodhouse Divided,” that catalogues in detail their cable television and public spats, as well as, yes, family holiday arguments.
“If I’d made this movie, I’d have screwed it up,” said Stan Brock, the founder of Remote Area Medical and a man with nearly a half-century of film experience.
The movie he is referring to is “Remote Area Medical,” a documentary by Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman about Brock’s organization, which provides free medical clinics to the poor. Their movie documents one of RAM’s weekend pop-ups in Bristol, Tenn., in 2012.
The organization, which Brock founded in 1985, first set to work delivering health care in out-of-the-way locales such as the Amazonian jungle and the wilds of Africa. Brock, a former cowboy in South America and collaborator on Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom,” was uniquely qualified for a medical venture serving virtually inaccessible areas in developing countries. Now, nearly 30 years later, more than 60 percent of RAM’s clinics are conducted in the United States. Full story
In Immokalee, Fla., after driving around the country visiting farms, Sanjay Rawal found the solution — at least one of them.
He’d been looking, after reading the book “Tomatoland” by Barry Estabrook, for a way to show on film the struggles facing farm laborers. The result, his first feature-length film, “Food Chains,” debuted in Washington at the West End Cinema (2301 M St. NW) on Friday.
“In an age where we all take photos of our food with our phones, we care so much about our food, but we’re not protecting the hands that pick our food,” Rawal said. Full story
“In the end if you publish the source material, I will likely be immediately implicated. I ask only that you ensure this information makes it home to the American public. Thank you and be careful, Citizenfour.”
In her soft voice, Laura Poitras begins her latest film, “CITIZENFOUR,” reading from an email she received from a National Security Agency whistleblower, who later revealed himself as Edward Snowden.
“CITIZENFOUR” is the third film in Poitras’ trilogy about post-9/11 America. She had already started a documentary on government surveillance when Snowden reached out to her in January 2013, turning her film upside-down. “The stakes are real. It’s not just, ‘Oh here’s a good story, I have good access,’” Poitras said in a recent phone interview. “I know that he was absolutely putting his life on the line. … There was just a palpable sense that this was not just about getting a scoop.” Full story
Well, we all know what we’ll be doing in two weeks: sweating out election returns. And next week is Halloween. But what about this week — particularly if you’re not on the trail or otherwise — should you find yourself in Washington, D.C.?
Phillips Goes to The Wall
The Phillips Collection is getting a little help with its exterior decorating this week, inviting four Senegalese artists — Muhsana Ali, Fode Camara, Viye Diba and Piniang (Ibrahima Niang) — to paint a mural on the wall of the museum’s Hunter Courtyard that will be unveiled to the public Thursday at noon. “The Leading Edge Ideas: Inside the 21st Century Museum” is part of the Phillips’ partnership with the State Department’s Office of Art in Embassies and is designed to set the stage for this weekend’s International Forum Weekend. (Don’t act like you didn’t know it was International Forum Weekend.)
Lincoln Gets Pressed
Thinking about an Honest Abe costume for All Hallows’ Eve? Bone up, then, on a relatively unexplored chapter of the 16th president’s biography — his relationship with the press — Thursday at the National Archives. Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer will discuss his latest book, “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion,” with Frank Bond at the Archives’ William G. McGowan Theater at 7 p.m. Admission is free. In his review of the book for Roll Call, John Bicknell wrote, “With his usual sparkling prose and exhaustive research, one of America’s foremost scholars on the 16th president has given us a robust portrait of the nexus between American politics and the press. As much as it is a telling slice of Lincolniana — the kind of detail-rich tapestry we have come to expect from Holzer — it is also a lively history of mid-19th century journalism.”
The lively folks over at Congressional Cemetery get into the swing of Halloween things on Saturday with their annual Ghosts and Goblets party on the cemetery grounds. The event follows in the footsteps of the cemetery’s Dead Man’s Race 5K earlier this month and August’s Day of the Dog, which combined animal adoption with food trucks and local breweries at the historic resting place that also doubles as D.C.’s premier dog-walking park. The party starts in earnest at 8 p.m., though VIP access gets one in the gates at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $70, which includes drinks. To purchase tickets or learn more, go here.
Call it the little movie that could. “Fort Bliss,” a feature film about an Army medic/single mom returning stateside after a tour in Afghanistan and struggling with re-entry, is enjoying an extended theatrical release in Washington, continuing its rise from festival favorite and video on demand to big screens, thanks largely to grass-roots support.
The movie, directed by Claudia Myers and starring Michelle Monaghan, focuses on the challenges Monaghan’s character, Maggie Swan, has reconnecting with her young son and simply adjusting to not having bullets flying overhead. It’s a timely film, particularly as the country continues to grapple with questions about U.S. troops’ presence in Afghanistan and calls for more investment of blood and treasure in Iraq and possibly Syria get louder.
That doesn’t mean it was an easy sell. Josh Levin, general manager of the West End Cinema, said, “I originally turned it down. I turned it down cold,” when contacted by distributors about a run at his Foggy Bottom theater. He said it was an easy call “without any editorial comment about the films,” because he’s seen over and over again that when it comes to movies about Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s just no audience. “I just dismissed it out of hand.” Full story
As Sam White, an aspiring filmmaker, strolls through the courtyard at fictitious Winchester University, her teaching assistant tells her the best way to reach viewers is to make her film a mirror and hold it up to the audience. The film in which the scene takes place, “Dear White People,” does just that.
“I want people to ultimately see themselves,” writer and director Justin Simien said in a recent phone interview. “I think that’s sort of the role of art in general.”
White and Winchester are fictional parts of the satirical film that explores the lives of four black students at the predominantly white college. The film is smart, funny and provocative, with characters often making insightful statements about black culture that whiz by before you know what hit you.
“Dear White People” is the name of White’s college radio show, where she confronts racial stereotypes with quips such as, “The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.”
Though the discussion of race is evident from the title of the film, the movie also confronts how we identify ourselves and how we reconcile our often-conflicting identities with ourselves and society.
“I wasn’t interested in making a morality play,” Simien said. “I wasn’t interested in the conclusion being ‘racism is wrong.’” Instead, Simien shows the complexities and contradictions of young black college students attempting to define themselves today, particularly in predominantly white institutions.
The Sundance Film Festival hit certainly resonated with the audience at the National Museum of the American Indian on Sept. 24, which was the film’s first stop on its screening tour.
“Dear White People” drew enthusiastic cheers from the audience as the credits rolled.
The audience consisted of many young black college students from around D.C., but also a number of Hill staffers. Also spotted in the audience was Rep. John Conyers Jr., the 85-year-old Michigan Democrat who is also the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.
“Dear White People” was shown as 10,000 people from around the country attended the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 44th Annual Legislative Conference in Washington. Although the screening was not part of the conference, its timing was not a coincidence.
Marshall Mitchell, a spokesman for Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, which own the rights to the film, said the screening was planned around the conference.
Mitchell, a former Hill staffer, said the CBC conference “is a time when issues of importance to African-Americans from legislation to social justice are talked about in Washington, D.C., so the timing was perfect in terms of the release of the film and the ALC weekend.”
Mitchell reached out to local colleges and Hill staffers to advertise the screening and thought it would be particularly important to legislative staffers.
“It’s a relevant film to inform them of the culture going on on college campuses,” he said.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the Center for American Progress teamed up to host the screening, which included a discussion after the film.
“The world of Winchester is a microcosm for the larger American experience,” Simien said at the panel. He noted the pressures to fit into a sphere of black culture persist throughout one’s life.
Simien was inspired by his own experience in college, where he was one of the few black students on campus. “I often found myself being a black face in a white place,” Simien said. “And me and my black friends often found ourselves sort of toddling between the different worlds, modulating our blackness.”
“All of my characters are very messy and they’re complicated and they’re contradictory,” Simien said. That “messiness” is part of what makes the characters so relatable.
The characters also confront how white students interpret black culture in one of the most jarring scenes in the films when students paint their faces black, blaring hip hop and playing at being “gangster” by sporting toy guns and gold chains.
Simien said he chose a to highlight a blackface party because it “really articulated the horror of seeing the black experience interpreted through people who have no sort of contact with that experience.”
That interpretation persists in media portrayals of “popular black culture,” as Simien put it, which is used in marketing campaigns and films. Blackface parties are also a reality at some universities, which Simien reminds his audience by interspersing pictures from actual parties in the credits.
“I definitely made this movie to spark a conversation,” Simien said. The conversation will continue as the film hits select theaters on Oct. 17 and goes nationwide on Oct. 24.
A poster pasted on H Street Northeast draws pedestrian attention to a familiar palette.
The pastel and dark blues, beige and a solid primary red were once seen on Shepard Fairey’s 2008 “Hope” poster, which advocated for President Barack Obama in a presidential race where candidates collectively broke records by raising over $1 billion for the first time in U.S. history.
This poster was also designed by Fairey, with the same colors and style — but with a more cynical message. It advertises “Pay 2 Play,” a documentary that critiques and exposes a political system, using street art as one of many focuses, in which big money interests hold more sway. After initial success at the Angelika Pop-Up theater, showtimes for the documentary were extended until September 25.
“I think corruption is an abiding story,” director John Wellington Ennis said, referring to a common topic in many of his films. “It evokes back to childhood when you’re bullied or when someone takes something from you knowing that you can’t get it back.”
For Ennis, though, big money is just one way to gain influence.
Street art, he said, can be a powerful tool of political expression that can give a voice back to “grown ups” who are being wronged by the power money has in the political system.
“Street art struck me as an interesting parallel as sort of a last resort for people who have next to nothing to put out a message,” Ennis said. “It’s in a public space … and you don’t have to be in on something to appreciate it.”
(Courtesy Pay 2 Play)
“Pay 2 Play” documents the journey of the filmmaker from 2005 on, when Ennis went to Ohio to tell the story of the Coingate scandal. His father had been auditing the scandal on behalf of the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, and when Ennis, a comedian at heart, heard about what was happening, he felt he couldn’t pass up the chance.
“The details of it were so funny and over the top,” Ennis said. “I felt like, if I could tell that story, then maybe people could see how these things come back to running for office.”
Over the next decade Ennis put together the film, which includes the “secret” story of the game Monopoly and interviews with Los Angeles street artists, to explain big money in political campaigns, especially in the years after the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
“Eventually you see a whole bunch of different people and they’re saying the same thing,” Ennis said. “It’s fun to let the audience make those connections as they occur.”
Just like his idea of street art, he wanted the movie to be accessible to all sorts of people.
“You know, in the end it’s just going to be a funny movie that people will watch and have fun with,” he said. “There are so many people who come here to make a difference and I want this to be an inspiration to them.”
And, Fairey art isn’t the only thing Pay 2 Play has in common with big political campaigns.
Going forward, Ennis hopes to build a “limited activist” movement across the country, using online tools such as NationBuilder, a campaign tool developed by a former 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign staffer that streamlines volunteer organizing and fundraising.
“My brother Chris says I make two kinds of films: depressing and really depressing. So, that may be my range,” Rory Kennedy says, laughing a little bit. “I don’t really see it that way. … A lot of my films, and I would throw this one there, are about people overcoming great odds.”
That sentiment comes through in the documentary filmmaker’s canon. The youngest child of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., has trained the camera on subjects that certainly have depressing elements, but ultimately show underdogs hanging on. Her body of work includes movies about poverty in Appalachia (“American Hollow”), torture in a military prison (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”), breaking workplace barriers (“Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House”) and her own mother’s path after RFK’s assassination (“Ethel”).
Rory Kennedy’s latest movie, “Last Days in Vietnam,” fits nicely into the darkness/overcoming dichotomy. Chronicling the days in April 1975 as the North Vietnamese finally pushed the U.S. presence from Saigon, it doesn’t sound like brother Chris is too far off. But the movie combines archival footage with contemporary interviews of U.S. and South Vietnamese personnel, composing a story of courage and grace under fire.
“To me, one of the lessons of this film is, once you get to the point where it’s the last days, there are very few good options,” she says. And yet, the ingenious ways in which U.S. personnel went against the odds, and sometimes direct orders, to ensure safe passage for U.S. and South Vietnamese citizens alike, shows the few good options available were put to maximum use.
“I was shocked with how much I didn’t know,” Kennedy says. “The good news and bad news is that I’m not alone.”
Among the things one might learn is that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, then a Navy officer, led a mission to move South Vietnamese naval ships out of the Saigon River and ended up facilitating the evacuation of thousands of refugees. (The details of the mission reek of a covert operation that combines elements of “Apocalypse Now” and “Exodus.”) Or that U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin frustrated the hell out of his charges by delaying evacuation planning but then quickly mobilized to turn the devolving embassy grounds into an impromptu pick-up spot that rescued thousands more. Or that Congress failed to grasp the enormity of the human rights situation and failed to help out because it was paralyzed by gridlock.
Wait. Never mind that last one.
“I love storytelling,” Kennedy says, explaining why she picked documentaries to be medium to her muse. In “Last Days in Vietnam,” Kennedy takes a set of information and facts, does some digging and weaves a story that sheds light amid the darkness. It’s like cinematic proof of Bob Dylan’s theorem in “Meet in the Morning.”
“They say the darkest hour/is right before the dawn.”
“No other family has touched as many Americans as the Roosevelts,” documentary filmmaker Ken Burns said at a Monday National Press Club lunch about his new film, “The Roosevelts.” The three share a “complicated, Russian-novel of a story,” that has never been shared as one multifaceted narrative.
This is your week to grab all the Roosevelt you can handle. “The Roosevelts” debuted on PBS stations Sunday night and the network will broadcast the entire 14-hour, seven-part series during primetime evenings this week, with the last episode on Sept. 20.
A few snippets of what you’ll discover in this Burns-epic of the presidential family: Teddy never stopped outrunning his demons. Franklin tried to be everything to everyone. Eleanor overcame a seemingly impossible childhood. The film covers from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962, while keeping a steady eye on the monumental changes America experienced in that century.
Burns, a documentarily filmmaker for more than 30 years, spoke of the Roosevelt trio with an earned intimacy at the sold-out luncheon. He introduced his reasoning for making this new epic, saying it’s been a conceptual dream for decades, shared with his colleague Geoffrey Ward, a writer and historian who also attended the event with Burns on Monday.
“We tend to form conventional and superficial wisdom about subjects,” Burns said. He wants this documentary to let viewers move past the labels associated with these towering figures in American history. He shows the Roosevelts to be human: flawed, influenced and driven.
Other attendees at the luncheon included Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, the U.S. chief of protocol from 1982-89 and the wife of the late Archie Roosevelt; Nik Apostolides, the deputy director of the Capitol Visitor Center and a co-organizer of the event; and Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of PBS.
At the end of the event, as attendees were nibbling on Teddy, Eleanor and FDR-themed cupcakes, Burns shared what’s next on his list of projects. He has five films in the works, with pieces on the history of cancer (due spring 2015), the life of Jackie Robinson, the war in Vietnam (due in 2017), the history of country music and a biography of Ernest Hemingway.
Want even more? There’s a free Ken Burns app on iTunes, with film snippets and music, centered on “themes” of knowledge. The full-version of the app, with more content, costs $9.99.
The documentary “Woodhouse Divided” illustrates the political divide between the real life political version of the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: the Woodhouse brothers, Brad and Dallas.
Brad, the former communications director for the Democratic National Committee and current honcho of Americans United For Change, and Dallas, former director of the North Carolina chapter of Americans For Prosperity and currently heading up Carolina Rising, are deeply steeped in politics, both nationally and in the Tar Heel State. If you work in Washington and have email, odds are good you’ve heard from one or both of them about how — take your pick — President Barack Obama/the Koch Brothers are destroying America.
They’re also tight and have a great deal of affection for one another, even if their arguments, which have played out mano a mano in the public sphere on cable television and the like for years, get heated. They always seem to be able to bury the hatchet immediately after trying to sink it in each other’s head over, say, health care. A much-told throwaway line for moderators of their shenanigans is typically, “Thanksgiving must be interesting,” or some variation thereof.
Well, starting in the run-up to the health care debate in 2009 to the fallout of the 2012 election, Miller traces their professional and familial dust-ups, including Thanksgiving dinner, which their fellow family members regard with seasoned eye-rolling.
“I try to get them not to talk about politics, but it doesn’t work,” their mother Joyce, a former staffer for North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford says in the film. “Sometimes, I would just prefer they not talk about their mother,” she also says, referring to an on-air argument that plays out before millions.
At a screening of the movie on Sept. 4 at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, the brothers kept up the schtick, like two pro wrestlers taunting one another across the mat. “I’m going to cut the microphone … and give it to my brother,” Brad said before the movie, introducing them as “I’m the Democrat. He’s the wing-nut.”
“It’s nice to be here in Washington. I have never said that before, because I hate it here,” Dallas, said to the largely Brad-friendly audience. The wisecracks, particularly from Dallas, continued throughout the screening. For veteran Washington hands, it was like a return trip to the old Union Station theaters, but instead of the audience yelling at the screen, the film’s principals were yelling at each other in the dark. The two boisterous bros always make sure the people watching know it’s in good fun, even if what they do seems to cross the line, whether it be a joke about one’s weight or slapping the other’s hand away.
At the end of the film, before the credits had finished rolling, the projection abruptly ended and the screen went black. “The End!” yelled a young girl, presumably a younger Woodhouse. The audience laughed, the tension, both real and forced, was relieved, as the blue Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robot and the red Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robot punched each other to a draw.
The DC Shorts Film Festival starts on Sept. 11, showcasing an international slate of 150 short-length films in 90-minute blocks through Sept. 21. Close-in venues like the Atlas Performing Arts Center at 1333 H St. NE and Landmark’s E Street Theater at 555 11th St. NW will host shows, but so will further flung ones like the Angelika Film Center and Cafe Mosaic in Fairfax, Va., and the Anacostia Arts Center across the river from Capitol Hill. For a full run-down of films, go to dcshorts.com.
The (Ken) Russell Building
The Library of Congress is in the middle of screening a series of the late Ken Russell’s films, and it’s a great bunch focused on music, laced with Russell’s trademark kinkiness and bathed in the peculiarity of the 1970s. On Sept. 12, the library screens 1970′s “The Music Lovers,” the story of Tchaikovsky’s marriage. A chamber piece this is not, as it focuses on the composer’s attempt to distance himself from his homosexuality, only to have it backfire when he marries a nymphomaniac. It’s a rarely screened part of Russell’s body of work, showing at 7 p.m. at the Pickford Theater on the third floor of the library’s James Madison Building on Independence Avenue. On Sept. 19, the Pickford shows Russell’s 1975 “Tommy,” the filmmaker’s adaptation of The Who’s rock opera starring Roger Daltrey, Jack Nicholson, Ann Margaret, Elton John and just about anyone tripped out from the ’70s music scene.
An Innovative Discussion
Not to jump too far ahead, but Roll Call Book Club returns on Sept. 16 at Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, where we’ll sit down with Aneesh Chopra to discuss his book “Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government.” Chopra, the first-ever chief technology officer of the United States, takes a tack most fear to these days: Extolling the good government can do in paving the way for new discoveries that can benefit everyone. From the Pony Express to the Internet, there’s a record. This free event starts at 6 p.m. at 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE and includes a free book, beverages and snacks. To register, go to our spot on Eventbrite.
Once upon a time, in a political galaxy not so far away, George Stephanopoulos was not the host of “Good Morning America” and James Carville was not a cable television combatant.
In “The War Room,” the 1993 documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, the filmmakers shadow Stephanopoulos and Carville when they were virtually unknown campaign operatives, manning a fly-by-night presidential campaign that would topple an incumbent president and create the vaunted Clinton political machine that prepares, even now, 22 years after Bill Clinton first took the White House, for another run.
The very term “War Room” is so overused now, whether it’s referring to a Senate leader’s communications HQ or an NFL draft coordinating center, that it is easy to forget that this movie popularized a term that until then was primarily associated with Stanley Kubrick’s absurdist apocalyptic comedy “Dr. Strangelove.”
Watching Stephanopoulos and Carville run the show is one of the real pleasures of “The War Room.” It’s a movie that shows men at work, doing what they love in a way very few people see. It’s also funny, moves at a brisk pace and has a great soundtrack.
A couple of years back, the Criterion Collection released the film anew, and it has much to offer besides a high-definition digital transfer. Interviews with the principals, “Return of the War Room,” a companion documentary from 2008 and political catnip like an interview with Stan Greenberg about polling make the Criterion edition a great supplement for this, our current midterm political season, as well as the coming Clinton restoration run.
Roll Call After Dark is about what Washington does when it's not at work.
The District of Columbia is a cultural capital where you can you get your kicks from movies projected on the National Mall, lectures on vermouth or Russian avant-garde art. There's always something to do.
Jason Dick is the Hill Life editor for Roll Call and has also worked at Greenwire, CongressDaily and National Journal Daily during his time in Washington. @jasonjdick