How to Make a Political Documentary 


The end credits of Casino Jack and the United States of Money, the new Jack Abramoff documentary from Alex Gibney, run, as they must, over a clip of Tom DeLay doing the cha-cha to "Wild Thing" on Dancing with the Stars, the former House Majority Leader's thighs like sausages in polyester casing. The clip ends with the repugnant disgraced public servant pointing aggressively offscreen and mouthing, along with the Troggs, "I love you." Cut to black. The next credit is for Associate Producer Sam Black, with whom I went to high school.

Initially delighted, I was also curious: what, exactly, did Sam do to warrant The Hammer's affections? This led to a larger curiosity: what, in general, goes into making a documentary like Casino Jack, a film—like Gibney's Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, or No End in Sight, which he produced—in which a director, and his coproducers and researchers, seek to present a current topic to the viewer in an accessible and comprehensive manner? Sam Black and I emailed back and forth in advance of Casino Jack's release, this past Friday, to discuss how, exactly, a filmmaker and his collaborators go about giving a recent-history lesson.

The L: I'm curious about the research that goes into the documentary film. Once you guys at Jigsaw Productions decide to take on a particular subject, where do you begin? Primary or secondary sources, or both, and for what purpose?
Sam Black: We begin by talking to the people who first investigated the subject. The distinction between "primary" and "secondary" sources often breaks down quickly, as the investigators themselves become part of the larger story. For instance, Casino Jack does not treat the Washington Post's Sue Schmidt, who broke the Abramoff scandal in 2004, as removed from the central narrative of the film—in fact, her investigation in some ways drives the plot. For each interviewee, the goal is to establish that type of personal connection to the story.

The L: So when you're talking to someone like Sue Schmidt, how far along are you in the process? Are you talking to her on background and then doing the interview we see, or are you still in the process of gathering the story together as you do the on-camera interview?
SB: Both, actually. We reached out to Sue early in the process, and filmed her interview not long afterwards. But the process of gathering the story never really ends, and just because you have interviewed people does not mean that you stop talking to them on background. We were still finding new details even in the last few weeks of editing.

The L: There's a gratifyingly tremendous amount of archival material in the film. Where does that come from and how do you find it?
SB: It comes from national and local news archives, public records, independent filmmakers and photographers, and anyone who happened to point a camera in the right direction at the right time. The hardest work, but also the most gratifying, is digging up the material that remains off the media grid, and thus has rarely been seen. One good example is the footage of the summit of anti-Communist "Freedom Fighters" (read Nicaraguan Contras, Afghan mujihadeen, and others) that a young Abramoff organized in Angola in 1985. The networks barely covered the event, but we found a British cameraman who filmed the entire summit, and still had his tapes lying around. It took Zena Barakat (the film's producer) and me about two days to watch it all. The footage was so rich that it was tempting to make a whole other film about just that event. My favorite part is when several of the rebel leaders hold hands and sing kumbaya on stage. You can't write that stuff.

The L: Right, that really is fantastic footage, and wasn't much in circulation. I know your work has been mostly on recent-historical documentaries, but it seems that it must be the case that, the more recent the subject, the more documentation there must be, and the more available all that media must be, if you have the patience to sift. I think we as viewers of documentary films take archival footage for granted, like it's just hanging out in a subject file for filmmakers to check out, but that's surely not the case.
SB: Unfortunately it's not. For the more esoteric stuff, you have to play detective. You read everything you can about an event, scour the footnotes, and call anyone you can find who may have been involved. You develop relationships with friends of friends of your subjects, and follow every lead. And sometimes you luck out.


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