Videographer of the Free World

In the wake of the midterm elections I’ve been thinking about political movies. It’s a familiar genre that taps into those stirring clichés about democracy that make us get excited and patriotic around election times. I just watched Marlo Poras’ 2007 Run Granny Run, which makes great use of the political election structure, going behind the scenes of Doris “Granny D” Haddock’s scrappy, non-traditional run for Senator in New Hampshire in 2004. The late Granny D was running at the age of 94, a last-minute entry to the race against an established incumbent.

One of the things we see is the importance of TV commercials to the campaign; without big financing Granny D gets limited TV exposure – only a strange and funny commercial airing once or twice that features her paddling a canoe through autumn foliage.  She triumphs, though, in a TV debate, and through Poras’ video camera, which is obviously fully on her side.  We get to see some of the depth of Granny D’s commitment to her ideas about fair government and her inspiring, full-squeeze way of living.  She’s not a professional politician, but she’s a good performer, and her message comes across in the film, which lasts as a document even if Granny D can’t get all of New Hampshire’s votes.  

Unlike Granny D, President Obama doesn’t have any problem getting media exposure, but the White House is generating its own content as part of an extensive media outreach strategy.  I’ve been curious to know more about the first-ever full-time White House videographer Arun Chaudhary, and yesterday the New York Times published a profile. Chaudhary works for the White House making videos about the Obama administration to be posted online in documentary/press release/public outreach hybrid videos called “West Wing Week.” Here’s one about Halloween, the Chilean miners rescue team and the President’s visit to a small business in Rhode Island:

West Wing Week: 10/29/10 or “The Mysterious Case of Mysterious Case 55” from The White House on Vimeo.

The tone of is a lot goofier than I had expected – the videos are snappily edited and gently propagandistic. What’s more interesting to think about is the camera’s unique access to a major political figure, and the huge archive of footage that this videographer must be compiling. For each event mentioned in these dispatches, the viewer is invited to go the White House website to view yet another full video. It makes you wonder what kinds of more private or telling moments might be unearthed later on when the footage stops functioning as up-to-the-minute positive press. The article notes:

“Because of the Presidential Records Act, every piece of video the White House shoots, even the outtakes, is saved on huge storage servers, and will eventually become part of the official record in the presidential library.”

Arun Chaudhary mentions in the video on the NYT site (so many videos!) that his eye is focused more on the archive than the “West Wing Week”; he’s attuned to the long-term potential for his footage:

“When people in 20 years see the work that I do, I hope they’ll have a greater understanding of what the president is like personally and what the presidency is like as an institution,” Mr. Chaudhary said. “I’m hoping these moments I’ve saved and put out will even have a richer and more historical flavor.”  For instance, the video he shot of Mr. Obama and Elena Kagan, making bad jokes right before he officially nominated her to the Supreme Court? “What if that had been L.B.J. and Thurgood Marshall?” Mr. Chaudhary said. “In 20 years, that will be amazing…”

It’s possible that the huge volume of the footage and ubiquity of Obama video could make it less powerful, with less of the historically flavorful aura that Chaudhary projects and more of the daily-grind realities – if there were almost-real-time video records of older administrations, would people be less interested in iconic images of past presidents, and in using them to mythologize those presidents? Of course, that’s what editing is for, but I also wonder if the constant filming creates much self-censorship in today’s White House. In any case, the precedent-setting video record is in the hands of one guy with a camera and a laptop. It’s enviable access for a political filmmaker.

 – Nellie
NB. we do read other publications here at LEF but the New York Times has been having some documentary-relevant articles recently!

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