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A scene from CONVENTION (IFC Films)

Directed by
AJ Schnack
Produced by
Schnack, Jennifer Chikes, Britta Erickson, Shirley Moyers & Nathan Truesdell
Released by IFC Films
USA. 96 min. Not Rated  

Convention is a dogged, but anti-climactic tribute to the increasingly irrelevant quadrennial political show. The 2008 meeting of Democratic Party delegates in Denver to nominate Barack Obama for president is presented mostly like an instructive lesson in large-scale event planning. Just that the result happens to have more significance for the real world than, say, the Academy Awards.

AJ Schnack coordinated a team of nine cinematographers, including four documentary Oscar-nominees who are particularly adept and insightful at the improvisatory cinema vérité style of closely following a subject and catching emotions as they emerge: Daniel Junge (The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner), Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country), Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert (The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant).

The film closely follows the personable and extremely efficient advance planners for the city as they scrutinize maps, appease demanding VIPs, and, most importantly, scan banks of screens from security cameras like an episode of 24, even as they get teary-eyed at democracy in action. No wonder they all got promotions afterwards.

The other two constituents the documentarians closely follow already seem quaintly old-fashioned. The Denver Post marshalls a reporting team for what they see as a big local story. A frosh Lois Lane struggles on a tight deadline against national journalists for access to Hilary Clinton insiders. Her christening under fire upstages the drama of the candidate’s withdrawal. (While the reporter has to learn to never let them see you cry, her male colleague is clueless in searching for her—hey, try the ladies’ room.) But there’s only mention in passing of the paper’s web and blog outlets adding pressure to the newsgathering, though the death of the competing Rocky Mountain News is noted.

Outside, the protests look so intramural now. The Recreate 68 crew is led by a group of gray-haired baby boomers, who rhapsodize about past protests, while the Denver organizers warily keep them away from the convention center. (The city liaison is polite; the looming riot police are more menacing). They are all trumped emotionally by marching uniformed Iraq War veterans, whose organizer mostly ignores the filmmakers and stays focused on presenting their anti-war position paper formally to Obama’s staff. Gosh, was it so short a time ago before the birthers and the Tea Party activists started playing to the cameras?

This portrait dovetails with Amy Rice and Alicia Sams’s By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, which only noted Denver as a stage for another, albeit moving, speech by Obama. But no convention is going to have the visceral impact of the chaos of Chicago 1968 as seen in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (and the Denver planners worked tirelessly to make sure it wouldn’t). Even the 2004 Republican convention in New York City served as more of a telling backdrop for fiction, including Mora Stephens’s Conventioneers, than the actual event did for nonfiction or history. And that may be what political theater is all about these days. Nora Lee Mandel
June 4, 2010



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