By Sara Schieron
January 31, 2005 - 4:42 AM PST
Confiding that it was his "first time finding his stride" in his filmmaking, Joshua Seftel, has made some humble admissions about his documentary Taking on the Kennedys. Originally televised in 1996, Kennedys, follows the Rhode Island congressional campaign of the ever-diligent Dr. Kevin Vigilante against Patrick Kennedy, the most recent entrant into the political arena from one of America's greatest political dynasties.
Seftel, the documentarian whose first film Lost and Found has been compared to Resnais's Night and Fog, has received both critical praise and public attention. To date, the filmmaker has been decorated with over 30 international film awards. However, these honors bear little import in comparison to the impact his films have had on the issues they investigate. The year it was televised on PBS, Lost and Found was credited with not only raising awareness of the condition of Romanian orphanages, but also with increasing the number of American adoptions from Romania.
Committed to neutrality and humanity, Seftel's films have consistently taken the occasionally tragic and made poignant statements about things worth celebrating. Well, things we can come to celebrate after we stop crying and gain a touch of distance.
Were there any influences in your life that might have drawn you to the themes you deal with in your films?
I didn't want to be a filmmaker. I was going to go to medical school and I was interested in film, but I felt it was a kind of self-absorbed profession, so I was reluctant. I thought that if I could make films about human rights I wouldn't feel so guilty about not being a doctor. I wanted to embrace the fact that you could make change without directly raising money or creating change before your eyes.
Kevin Vigilante works the crowd.
Is it all about the material then, and not so much about the craft?
In the case of my first film, Lost and Found, I filmed in Romanian orphanages and the material was very powerful. My job was to get out of the way. Every film is different but in that case my job was to let the story unfold in a clear and straightforward way.
Inside the Romanian orphanages,
Lost and Found, 1992
You have said that watching Lost and Found is harder than being in the orphanages themselves.
I think it is. When you, yourself are in the orphanage you can do something to help the situation. You can pick up a kid and make them laugh or give them food; whereas, when you're a viewer, you're helpless, at least in that moment.
Is helplessness a theme in your work? You make it clear in Taking on the Kennedys that you value the underdog.
Well the underdog thing is happening. It's just archetypical. Even at an early age I loved that story. I saw Karate Kid a few nights ago and I was really touched by it. I cried a few times. [laughs] I think I especially like the teacher student dynamic.
Speaking of films with good montage sequences, you had a fantastic montage sequence covering the national dramas and tragedies of the Kennedys.
I really wanted to deal with the Kennedy mystique because Kevin Vigilante was campaigning against more than a person; he was campaigning against the legacy of the Kennedys.
You included some older newsreel of Patrick Kennedy which was taken following his decision to enter politics. You say in the commentary you find that footage particularly sad.
Well, he's with his father and his neck is braced from a recent spinal surgery. And the neck brace is just like the "albatross around his neck." I felt there was a sadness in that moment. I also felt there was a sadness in Vigilante deciding to go into politics.
Patrick Kennedy with his father Ted Kennedy.
Well, he's a doctor and he created this clinic, and in his work there, he's helping - hands-on helping - women with HIV and women who are battered and all of a sudden he's going to these ridiculous political events and spending all his time trying to raise money to make commercials about how Patrick Kennedy owes his old landlady $3400. Obviously the power of being a congressman is great and you can do a lot to make a big difference but the process of getting there is truly a comedy.
You mention in your commentary that you met Vigilante during the production of Lost and Found?
He was a volunteer. We both ended up on the board of a committee, so we saw each other at meetings a lot. We were acquaintances and we sort of fell out of touch over a few years, and I heard through a friend that he was running for congress. That's why I got back in touch with him. He was a doctor who was giving a lot of himself to help other people and he seemed like an incredible person.
Showing the voters he's a good sport, Kevin Vigilante enters a nail hitting contest.
You said, "I always thought he was a good guy so I was surprised he was a Republican."
I definitely was really surprised. He didn't strike me as a Republican. I still don't think he is. He just doesn't fit the stereotype.
You seemed to find a way to reconcile your differing political perspectives. This film is really not partisan.
I felt like the race wasn't very partisan. I felt like there was something very universal about it. This is probably true about a lot of political races, but this race was decided by the swing voters, so it wasn't about policy issues, it was about personality, strategy, money, name recognition, character assassination; and less so about policy. When I talked to people on the street, people said, "I'm not going to vote for Kennedy, he's a coke addict," or, "I'm not going to vote Vigilante, he sued an old lady," and who they saw were not Kevin or Patrick. They saw two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. People don't generally inform themselves of the issues. They hear the negative ads and they hear the radio and say, "That guy's a Kennedy, he must be good." The election wasn't about policy, it was about perception of character. If that weren't true, I don't think Kennedy would have spent $2 million on commercials for that campaign.
Why did you choose to exclude the results of the election?
The film used to end with Vigilante conceding by phone and Kennedy being swarmed by Rhode Island state troopers. I had this shot of troopers surrounding him and walking him though these doors and that was the end of the film. There was also narration saying that, "On the night of the election, Patrick's life was threatened." Maybe it was a prank call, I don't know. Anyway, it was a dark ending that focused on the results and on Patrick's future and the world he had just entered and what it was going to mean to him. The film... it's really more about the process and in some ways, the result are kind of an afterthought.
You ended on the moon.
I felt it was a lyrical way to end the film. We're all getting back to reality. For the time you're watching the film, you're in this dark tunnel and the moon is like the light at the end. In a way, Vigilante seemed to be accepting that it was over and that he can get back to his life and I think that resonates with the viewer. The fact that he notices the moon at a moment like that makes you appreciate him. It's like he has things in perspective. You realize he's going to be okay and in some ways maybe he's better off.
How was it doing the commentary on this DVD with a decade of distance standing between you and the experience?
It is harder to remember things. After the DVD commentary, I ran into my assistant editor and she reminded me about how, when we were editing, we used to hide our hard drives every night. We were really afraid that people would sabotage the project. We were getting calls from people who were telling us to be careful, "the Kennedys don't want this to come out," and this was from reliable sources, too. They told us, "Gingrich doesn't want this to come out," and we were terrified! Looking back, it's funny, but at the time it was hot and we were working on this controversial content and there were people who would have been really happy if all our work had been destroyed by fire. It was really scary.
What effect did Primary have on your work?
I watched it a bunch of times because of the obvious connection: it's about JFK, it's one of the first behind the scenes political documentaries. But the movie that effected me most was The Candidate. I felt it was a similar story in many ways. In The Candidate, the main character gets elected and the film becomes the story of an idealist who gets educated in the world of politics.
Education comes up a lot for you. It's interesting to me that you were more effected by a narrative film than a documentary because I felt your movie emphasized more of the emotional truths of the story and spent less time explaining circumstances or covering expository information.
You just called it a "movie." It is a movie. It has a protagonist and it has a major emotional change and it wasn't planned or plotted, it just happened that way. That's the stuff of a movie and it has all the elements that make up a fiction feature.
The Real Russell is also on the DVD. That film was about Bob Dole's home town, Russell, on the eve of the 1996 election. It looked kind of gritty. It was never televised, correct?
Actually, it was never finished. We were given an idea and CBS felt we had a new take on journalism so we went to Russell with a 3-chip DV camera. Since they didn't buy it, we figured, "Well, the film isn't going to be televised," so we decided to digitize on the lowest resolution and that's why it looks so gritty.
My favorite bit is the scene with Mike in Bob Dole's garage.
It was only natural we start our search for the real Russell at Bob Dole's childhood home. We were fortunate the town had some interesting characters, which is funny since the town was sort of a ghost town.
"It's always nice to make a long distance that someone else pays for."
Using phones he assumes were placed there for press purposes, Mike Lewis calls his wife from Inside Bob Dole's garage in The Real Russell.
The Real Russell also touches upon the collective insanity of campaign politics. Were you trying to keep your focus on that subject?
The approach I was taking with Dole project was sort of laissez-faire. We said, "Let's just go and see what happens and not try to control anything and just pray there's something interesting that we can make sense of." That's the most interesting kind of filmmaking... if something interesting does happen. I really enjoy going au natural. Sort of letting things happen. And it's a luxury that is less and less available to filmmakers. It was a blast to make. Mike Lewis was hysterical.
Mike wrote a book called MoneyBall about the Oakland A's and he wrote Liar's Poker. He's a big writer, New York Times bestseller, etc. He just had this great approach to writing. He finds characters and writes about complicated things in very personal ways with a lot of narrative and I was really drawn to what he was doing in the New Republic in 1996. I felt we had a similar approach.
The Seftels ponder their son's work.
I should say so. Your interest in finding characters and dealing with complicated subjects simply comes through in a lot of ways. Tell me about the "making-of" documentary that stars your parents.
I was playing a little with the absurdity of celebrity, but what really inspired me to do that was my desire to tell the story of the making of the film through the eyes of my parents. They're hilarious - maybe not intentionally, but hilarious nonetheless. With the decision to become a filmmaker, I've had to deal with a lot of their judgment, but now I'm in a place where I can laugh at it and celebrate the ridiculousness of it. Also, I love them and I thought it would be fun. In the end, the "making-of" is a much more personal statement than the film. But then, it could be. I had that liberty.
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"It has all the elements that make up a fiction feature."
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teaches film studies, produces film shorts and documentaries, and writes for occasional journals and web sites.
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