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Convention

Director: A.J. Schnack
Cast: John Hickenlooper, Chantal Unfug, Allison Sherry, Curtis Hubbard, Kevin Scott, Barbara Cohen, Mark Cohen

(IFC Films; US theatrical: 4 Jun 2010 (Limited release); 2009)

Obama’s been elected and his calls for hope and civility are continually dashed, even by his supporters. In its finale, Convention restores some of the sense of pride and history behind his nomination and what’s come since, but it’s easy for that feeling to seem nostalgic.
A.J. Schnack


“What worries me is we don’t know what we don’t know,” says Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. “A lot of really smart people spend a lot of time on something and you’re never gonna perceive everything.” His philosophical roundabout is occasioned by the 2008 Democratic National Convention. And indeed, as he and select workers and protestors plan for the event in Convention, it becomes clear that, as daunting as the broad outlines of the event may be, some details remain just beyond anyone’s full control.


The film’s conception and structure reflect an appreciation of the multiple moving parts: filmed by a crew of estimable makers (Steven Bognar, Daniel Junge, Laura Poitras, Julie Reichert, Wayne Robbins, Paul Taylor, A.J. Schnack, and David Wilson), and pulled together by Schnack, the documentary—which opened 4 June at New York’s IFC Center—follows assorted individuals as they try to anticipate and then deal with surprises. All of the contingents—local government representatives, Denver-based reporters, protestors, and the party officials—have their own ideas of successful orchestration, their own concepts of “hope and change,” the eventual national campaign’s much-repeated themes. And each potentially conflicts with the others. The movie shows how they more or less come together in a dramatic show of “hope,” as Barack Obama ends his acceptance speech at Invesco Field. It also suggests that, before and after that moment, actual “change” remains an impossible ideal.


Indeed, some hope is premised not on changing, but on maintaining recognizable machinery. Urged to deliver “the best convention ever,” Katherine Archuleta, the Lead Planner for the DNC, notes, “The pressure for me and this team, it’s pretty intense.” This pressure is figured in familiar ways: close-ups of faces gazing into computer monitors, fingers tap-tapping on keyboards, and long shots of crowds in need of controlling, in streets, hallways, and arenas. Some early encounters suggest tensions, some specific, most utterly mundane: “How tough is it to convince people there’s not going to be trouble?” asks a reporter at a pre-event press conference with major local players, while the mayor takes up his calm-and-reassuring pose. Here Curtis Hubbard, political editor at the Denver Post, underscores what’s obvious: “The point for convention organizers… is they want to manage the story throughout. And they want the headlines to be good headlines that are on the messages they choose.”


As the film reiterates, the relationship between planners and reporters constitutes one strand of tension. At the Post, writers are reminded that even though they have assignments, and so, daily information flows from official sources, “That doesn’t preclude you all looking for news.” Allison Sherry nods, noting that she’s on the “Hillary Clinton delegate watch.” Her day will include “a candlelight vigil, which I find totally macabre,” she says, “Because she’s not dead yet.” But even as she heads out for this six o’clock event, she’s aware there will be stories that aren’t scheduled; still, her most distressing experience in the film is a run-in with editors while she’s trying to write up a story she’s reported on the convention floor.


Trying to put together interviews with delegates and party officials (that is, scripted material mixed with seemingly genuine responses from within the rank-and-file), Sherry is hard-pressed to come up with storylines that don’t deliver directly to expectations. Hillary supporters want a floor fight, so their 18 million cracks in the ceiling exact a cost from the Obama campaign, while party orchestrators want a display of unity. None of this can be “news,” the sort she’s been told to look for, but still, the headlines need to show that the Post can keep up with larger, national organizations (say, the New York Times), and so prove it is the local paper that might survive (as rumors are circulating that one of Denver’s two major dailies is about to go under) . And so the film cuts to Sherry’s headlines (for the first night, “Michelle’s View,” or after Hillary’s speech, “Time to Move On”) to indicate each day’s passing as well as her efforts to sort out the information she’s gathered. The side-story that


At the same time, pretty much, Special Assistant to the Mayor Chantal Unfug is repeatedly struck by the singular nature of her task. “This is the most complex political, sensitive, intriguing experience I’ve ever had,” she says, and I will never ever forget this time of my life.” To the end of ensuring she makes it through that experience, she learns to ride the mayor’s scooter, zipping and lurching under antic circus music. Unfug is repeatedly shown on the go: when she’s not on the scooter, she’s string along with cell-phone to her ear or cabbing until she can’t (stuck in traffic, she hoofs it to Invesco on the last day, then catches a ride on a golf cart: “You are a star!” she tells the driver who saves her).


Even as it’s not always clear where Unfug’s perpetual motion is taking her, the film focuses on efforts to contain the movements of protestors. City security officials watch demonstrators on monitors, trying to guess where they’re headed and guide them where they won’t disrupt the preferred “headlines.” Among the protest leaders, Mark and Barbara Cohen of “Recreate 68” make clear their own hopes to do just that, to disrupt. Their nostalgia is plain in their organization’s name, as is their desire to stage a kind of chaos, and the contradiction in terms looks integral to both concept and effect.


Organizers decide early on that each day’s events—marches, rallies, speeches—will feature a “theme,” like “anti-war” or “political prisoners.” As some protests lack numbers (“These are the worst protestors ever!” scoffs one security worker), others are propelled by undeniable personal energies. Some events are affected by infighting among the groups involved, others devolve into milling, and still others are swooped up by other organizers, who have more surveillance technology and cagier planners. When the anti-war group is invited to meet with Obama’s people, everyone feels they’ve attained a goal: “This is the greatest protest I’ve ever been to,” enthuses one. “We actually achieved something and no one got hurt.” That this meeting occurs off camera is to the film’s necessarily ironic point. Less splashy than simple declarations and appealing slogans, negotiations and compromises take place out of sight.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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