By Stuart Anderson
October 25, 2015
For years, university professors assigned the book Smoking and Politics to teach students about how Washington, D.C. works. From now on, professors will turn to the remarkable series of films on immigration made by Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini to explain American democracy.
PBS recently broadcast Immigration Battle, the latest documentary in Robertson and Camerini’s epic film series telling the story of how government works in America, using the country’s conflicts over immigration as the crucial story backdrop. (The two-hour presentation from Frontline and Independent Lens can be found here.)
Immigration Battle is a sequel to the 12-part series of films How Democracy Works Now. Two years ago, I wrote a Forbes column calling those films “the best documentary film series on government ever produced. There is nothing even close.” That series involved an incredible 1,500 hours of footage edited to produce 12 films. To make Immigration Battle, Robertson and Camerini filmed for 380 hours and spent over 200 days on location, primarily on Capitol Hill.
When it comes to documentary filmmaking, Robertson and Camerini are the opposite of Michael Moore, who inserts himself and his opinions into his films in the most “thumb on the scale” manner imaginable. In contrast, Robertson and Camerini employ only minimal voiceovers to set context and let the action speak for itself.
And the action is unlike anything viewers have ever seen. What other film shows staff members briefing members of Congress? And Members of Congress meeting with each other and talking politics and strategy on controversial issues?
Robertson and Camerini take a “fly on the wall” approach and smoothly edit the many hours of footage into a compelling narrative. As mentioned in an earlier article, I knew about their film project back in 2001, when I worked for Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS). Robertson and Camerini asked me to talk with Senator Brownback about filming the legislative process. (The filmmakers later also gained permission from other Congressional offices and I changed jobs before the shooting started and did not appear in any of the films.)
The action in Immigration Battle starts in 2013, 6 years after the defeat of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress. The film initially focuses on Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a strong advocate for both limiting deportations and gaining legal status for immigrants here unlawfully. I recalled meeting Rep. Gutiérrez when I worked in the Senate and he appears in the film as personable as I remembered him. The film benefits from following him around, since viewers could easily imagine if Luis Gutiérrez was not in Congress he would be starring in a prime-time series on ABC as either a police detective or a comical office worker.
One telling scene comes when Gutiérrez, relentlessly pursued by Spanish language TV reporters, finishes an eloquent statement in English and is asked by a reporter to say it again the same way for the camera in Spanish. Gutiérrez says he would do his best but that she has to understand English is his native language.
For increased perspective, the film wisely introduces viewers to Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Republican Congressman from South Carolina. Mulvaney is conservative but appears more aware than most Republicans about the looming demographic threat to the GOP if the party cannot increase its appeal to Latino voters. He tells a town hall meeting in his district that someday soon a Republican presidential candidate may not even be able to win Texas if he or she does not increase the GOP share of the Latino vote. And, he points out, no Republican is getting elected president without winning Texas.
A key lesson from Immigration Battle is that Members of Congress respond to opinions on both sides of the issue. Latino organizations and protesters influenced Democratic lawmakers and the Obama Administration to adopt pro-immigration policy positions. At the same time, enough people in their districts – and an untimely (or timely, depending on one’s perspective) primary loss by a GOP lawmaker – influenced Republicans to oppose those same policies.
One can complain that elected officials are too influenced by the opinions of those in their districts or others around the country. However, Immigration Battle raises an important question: Would we really want to live in a country where such opinions are universally ignored?
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com