When filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini embarked on creating their documentary series “How Democracy Works Now,” they started with one simple question: what does it take for a great idea to become the law of the land? This question took them to Washington DC in 2001 as they began to follow the legislative path of immigration reform through the halls of Congress and across the country.
Robertson and Camerini wanted to look into the black box between elections and legislation, and understand what sorts of collaborations and pathways were actually there. The idea they chose, immigration reform, took them all over — Iowa, Kansas, California and Arizona, as well as Capitol Hill, and after more than a decade they are still filming.
The world premiere of the series — all ten completed films — will be screened at the 51st New York Film Festival this week. The Senate Speaks, the final film to make its debut at the festival on Saturday, October 12th, will be followed by a panel discussion featuring the filmmakers, key players in the immigration reform debates, the director of the New York Film Festival, and a special guest.
Speaking about the process of telling the story behind “How Democracy Works Now” Robertson and Camerini said:
When we started filming in Washington, DC, we were not insiders — more like travelers ready to bring back tales of wonder from an unknown world. But to make our movie, we had to get into as many different places where individual actors (people working in Congress, lobbyists, labor union leaders, advocates, and activists) were actually working as we could. We’d wanted to understand everything about how this country legislates a complicated social issue — and to see what it looks like when compromise happens — so that we could pass it all on. But we had no idea what that ringside seat would feel like. Making documentaries can be a pretty humbling experience. The tradeoff is the incredible privilege of getting inside a situation not as an actor, but as an almost invisible observer, moving in the midst of the action but with a full 360-degree view of the stage.
Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, a leading immigration advocacy group, will be a panelist for the discussion on Saturday. Sharry, who appears in the films, said:
Over the years Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini filmed thousands of hours of events, strategy sessions, and even phone calls – all over Washington DC and all over the country. We used to joke that it would be nearly impossible to turn endless meetings into interesting films. But then I saw the series, and I was blown away. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen about politics, fictional or not. The filmmakers connect the dots between the back room meetings and the public events. They portray the interactive dance of players, policy, process, politics and power. And they end up telling a story more authentic, more accurate and more compelling than any one of us subjects ever could. Yes, the series is about the particular – the fight to pass complex and controversial immigration reform legislation. But it’s also about the universal – how politics works, and perhaps doesn’t. Remarkably, it turns out that the footage from all those events, meetings and phone calls – in the right hands – make for a riveting and revealing look at the state of our democracy today.
Through this multi-film documentary series, the filmmakers give a ringside seat to their viewers. One reviewer writing for Forbes said, “Without question “How Democracy Works Now” is the best documentary film series on government ever produced. There is nothing even close.”
The edits of two more films in the series are on hold — the filmmakers returned this year to follow progress as the fight for immigration reform heats up again, said Robertson and Camerini. There is still more of the story to tell.