Documentarian Alexandra Pelosi on filmmaking, politics and her famous mother

[23 August 2011]

By Julie Hinds

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

DETROIT — When Alexandra Pelosi talks about politics, she doesn’t run her words through a filter or stick to any pre approved talking points.

“I don’t know how to say anything in a politically correct way,” notes the 40-year-old documentary filmmaker while tackling a question during a recent phone interview.

Whatever the topic is, Pelosi approaches it with a candid, energetic style that puts others instantly at ease. The daughter of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has forged her own path by making several movies for HBO and writing two books, including the provocatively titled “Sneaking into the Flying Circus: How the Media Turn Our Presidential Campaigns into Freak Shows” (Free Press, $25).

Pelosi will deliver the keynote address Sept. 8 for the Women of Vision luncheon, an annual benefit for the National Council of Jewish Women, Greater Detroit Section. She plans to talk about topics like the media and politics, which the former NBC News producer explored in her breakout documentary, “Journeys With George,” a chronicle of then-candidate George W. Bush and the campaign press corps.

Her most recent movie, “Citizen USA: A 50 State Road Trip,” aired in July on HBO. Inspired by her husband, who’s originally from the Netherlands, it takes a look at people who have decided to move to America and become citizens. “I think it’s really important for people who are born here to realize how lucky we are and all the luxuries we take for granted,” she says.

Pelosi shared some thoughts recently on the 2012 campaign, her work and her very famous mom.

Question: As the author of a book that has “presidential campaigns” and “freak show” in the title, what’s your early opinion of the 2012 campaign?

Answer: I thought it couldn’t get any more surreal after 2000, but it only gets weirder every four years.

Q: What did you think of the Newsweek cover with Michelle Bachmann (which drew controversy for the wide-eyed photo paired with the headline “The Queen of Rage”)?

A: I thought it was offensive. I think that women are not treated fairly in the media. It’s one of those topics that keeps me up at night. I really don’t know why they chose that image. And of course, when they interviewed her, they never used the word “rage” or “angry.” The words that sell magazines are not the words they use to book the interview. If Michelle Bachmann knew she was going to be selling copies of Newsweek as the angry, raging woman, I’m sure she wouldn’t have agreed to participate.

Q: Having seen the sausage being made up close with these campaigns, do you think the current system is a good way to pick a president?

A: Of course not. I think it’s a freak show. There’s this strange obstacle course that we make the candidates go through. The test of running for office has nothing to do with the test of leading. Going to the Iowa State Fair and eating stuff on a stick is not the best way to pick a president.

Q: Which film of yours had the most personal impact?

A: I made a movie about homeless kids in California (2010’s “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County”). You can’t just film homeless kids in a shelter, in a soup kitchen and then go back to your daily life and live happily ever after without thinking of them. You can make a movie about John Kerry and then you can go on with your life, and you don’t really think about John Kerry ever again after that movie airs. It’s much harder to let go of Rudy, the 6 -year-old homeless kid in California.

Q: The movie that just aired on HBO, “Citizen USA,” did that make you view America a little differently?

A: My husband came from Holland. As a new American, he sees America with new eyes. He holds up a mirror and shows me how it looks. When tourists come, they see things that we don’t notice every day. That’s what my husband did for me. He showed me all the things we have in America that we take for granted, starting with cable news, where you can say just about anything you want about your president and not disappear in the night. There’s all kinds of things that we have in this country that they don’t have in other countries that we should really appreciate. That movie really helped me see America not in a new way, but in a way that helps me appreciate it more. I knew it, but it’s nice to take a moment to appreciate it.

Q: Did your mother affect your aspirations as a young woman? In what ways was she a role model?

A: She was a stay-at-home mom. She baked cookies and made handmade Halloween costumes and drove carpools and took us on field trips. She had five children, so she was at home with her kids. I don’t have a nanny. I do it myself. I go to work, but I take my kids with me everywhere. I guess the most important thing I learned from my mother was you have to raise your own children. I try to say this without judgment, but a lot of people really don’t want to do the job because it’s so much work. Kids are the hardest job there is, so they just hire someone to do it and then they go to work. There’s something about that whole how do you balance being a mother and working, and i f I had to choose, I’d have to choose my kids and I do.

Q: What topic would you tackle with an unlimited budget and an all-access pass?

A: A lot of people have camera crews. I just get in my station wagon. I’m like a tourist with a handheld camera. That doesn’t cost money. It’s more about the main question you’re asking, which is the great question of American journalism (ASTERISK) access. If you had access to anyone, who would you make a movie about? (Pause). I’m trying to think, who would I want to be around?

The most honest answer is I wouldn’t want to be around anyone that would want me around. Because it means that they know you’re there and they’re going to be trying to make propaganda. You basically want to be around somebody who doesn’t want you around. Anyone who’s going to give you the access, you have to be suspicious of. It means they’re thinking you’re going to make some valentine for them.

Q: Your style of filmmaking, is it basically a one-woman operation?

A: Yes, I do everything. I have a small camera. I don’t have a cameraman or a soundman. I just get on an airplane and go somewhere and talk to people. I make movies like all the 13-year-olds in America are making movies on their iPads, on their iMovie.

I have nephews who are between the ages of 10 and 14 and they’re making movies just like I’m making movies. Over the summer, I was shooting some stuff and digitizing it and editing it. I was sitting next to my 12- year- old nephew who was making a video of himself in the skate park, and I was working on something that is going to air on HBO next year.

Q: That’s fun and scary.

A: Very, very. I’m getting a little old for that, too, I know. I’m feeling like I’m going to have to reinvent myself soon because I’m going to be eclipsed by all the 14-year-olds.

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