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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

LAFF 2009 Review: Convention

Documentary filmmaker AJ Schnack leads a team of filmmakers behind the scenes of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in his new film Convention. Although the convention was itself an historic occasion, ending with the first nomination of an African-American for the presidency of the United States by a major political party, this isn’t a documentary following Obama’s road to the White House, or even his road to the convention; rather, it’s a behind-the-scenes documentation of the vast amount of work and coordination it took the city of Denver to host this convention while assuring the safety and comfort of delegates, nominees and Denver residents.
With remarkable access behind-the-scenes (particularly given the security concerns), Schack and his team capture the human moments behind the convention machine: the young reporter assigned for her first-ever political beat to cover the convention; the editorial and writing staff of the Denver Post, working their asses off to capture this historic occasion happening in their own backyard while struggling to keep up with and compete against all the journalists from out-of-state; the city officials charged with organizing things at their end while coordinating with the team responsible for the convention itself, and a merry band of protesters there to remind those watching that the first step toward losing your freedoms is failing to use them.

The protesters are led by Barbara and Mark Cohen, co-founders of Recreate 68, an activist group formed to act as a clearinghouse of sorts for the various protests planned around the DNC. The Cohens don’t seem to particularly care much what political causes they’re supporting, so long as the right of the people to protest at the convention is upheld. In one rather amusing scene, though, the Cohen’s outdoor meeting with a group of activists is repeatedly interrupted by an anarchist/performance artist with a bullhorn; Mark Cohen confronts the fellow, asking him to stop interrupting their meeting, eventually getting fed up and telling the guy he’s rude for interfering with the group’s meeting. He doesn’t really seem to see the irony that he himself is in the middle of a meeting about protesting at a huge convention being held by other people who might themselves find him rude for interrupting them with his own agenda. But does activism ever truly see any view other than its own?
There’s also little irony around the contrast between Denver mayor John Hickenlooper’s stated commitment to the free speech rights of protesters and the Big-Brother-like way in which the protests and crowds are managed through headquarters; some protester types who take themselves very seriously might take offense at the way in which the police and government officials talk about them sarcastically (“I just love anarchists,” one says. “Snazzy dressers.”) Of course, those who might be inclined to not see the humor in that probably don’t talk about the Man in any kinder terms. And so it goes.
It’s quite fascinating to watch the machinations of this convergence of press, politics and protests all brought together as parts of the same big story, and all the bits and pieces are edited together such that there’s a narrative flow to the events that unfold. One audience member noted during the Q&A that the film seemed to him to lack any irony around the political process overall or President Obama’s adherence to his own campaign promises, but that’s not really what Convention is about; it’s simply about how all these players involved in pulling off this historic DNC in the Mile High City worked together to do so, and the convention itself, and particularly the nomination and acceptance of Obama, are almost the sideline to the story Schack’s looking to tell.
In that respect, Convention works well as a peek behind the scenes out how something as big as the DNC comes together, showing all the aspects you don’t necessarily think about as you’re watching speeches and flag-waving on your television, or listening to the person who might be your country’s next president make an historic speech accepting the nomination of his party.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon