FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT: Eric Weiss and Bradley Berman, Directors of NAT BATES FOR MAYOR
NAT BATES FOR MAYOR is a straightforward, compelling portrayal of mayoral candidates vying for the vote in Richmond, CA. Directors Bradley Berman and Eric Weiss go in for the extensive, intensive coverage of the sparring city council, candidates pounding the pavement, and public figures outside of their local haunts, at times dreaming and seething. What results is an even portrayal of the people and the events that involve them as they unfold in the verité style.
The New England premiere of NAT BATES FOR MAYOR will take place on Saturday, March 24 at 5pm at CinemaSalem. Both directors kindly responded to some lingering questions ahead of the screening via email with SFF Blog contributor Rebecca DeLucia.
RD: What is the purpose of showing this loud conflict? What challenges did this present in terms of storytelling? What is your relationship to the lurid details of a story as it unfolds?
EW: The atmosphere inside the city council meetings illustrated the conflict between the parties. It was a very contentious time in Richmond. Also, local politics is good theater. You can’t fake that kind of passion. Our relationship to the details was somewhat detached. Some of the details we showed were vivid, yes, but it seemed to us that everyone stood by what they said. We weren’t trying to protect anyone or promote either side.
BB: The purpose of showing the craziness at Richmond City Council meetings is that it happened. There were two or more factions in conflict with one another. And unlike many other political environments, the leaders of this small city were not the least bit concerned about voicing their opposition in an over-the-top way. We didn’t have a “relationship” with the details. This is the way they behaved and our job was to show it. Most audiences find it captivating and humorous, which keeps them engaged in the story, which is a good narrative device.
RD: The people involved in the election that comprise the doc’s cast of characters are all forthcoming personalities; in fact, their professions require a kind of declarative default–making public statements, presenting a self for campaign circulation, etc. How did you deal with these factors in terms of researching and depicting subjects? What are some difficulties when balancing self-fashionings with more objective documentation?
EW: This is, first and foremost, a movie about people. We wanted to document the conflict between the parties rather than getting to some kind of declarative reality beyond the fact that one side wins and the other one loses. We learned a lot about the characters as the movie went on and we think that is reflected in the movie and passed on to the viewers.
BB: For this story, there was value in showing it as such (full stop). The Progressives believe that Nat Bates is a corporate stooge who is okay with pollution from the refinery. The African-American politicians believe the mostly white Progressives are outsiders, racist and don’t care about jobs or the well-being of the city’s long-time black residents.
RD: In this documentary, you show one party fighting an uphill epistemological battle regarding certain facts of campaign funding, political subversion, and near-sightedness, etc. while another relies less on facts and more on rhetoric, identity, and performative brio. How does this make you more aware of your role as directors authenticating and disseminating facts? How would you say you participate in myth-making, or would you say this is an inevitable risk of the documentary medium? What are some strategies for avoiding it? Can you imagine subjects or scenarios in which it may prove helpful or informative to participate in this myth-making?
EW: We certainly were not aware that we were making any myths. Suggesting that we have the ability to do so is very flattering. That assumption may also imply that we had a larger agenda at play, or that we sided with one side rather than another. We are both from the area, but not from Richmond, so it gave us some distance. We were lucky that the story played out in front of us and we took the parts that supported that story. Our role was simply to let the events play out and to see what kind of story we had at the end. Happily, it worked out. Our goal was first in service to the story and the characters. A suggestion would be not to have any preconceived notions and consider the story first.
BB: We found both sides’ approaches interesting in their own way. Our role was simply to let the story play out and to see if we had a story at the end. Happily, it did. The different tactics they employed to get out the vote also distinguished the two sides. The styles, strategies, constituencies and issues were very different and interesting. The facts were important if they help move the story along. This is not a movie designed to promote a political agenda.
RD: Your verité, or fly-on-the-wall, style seems appropriate for a project already so packed with large, effusive personalities. Do you think your reserved role in conveying the story directs attention away from yourselves as shapers of this story? Do you think this impacts the way people read your work? What sort of questions are you usually asked about your work? Are they more about events you cover, or your creative process?
EW: We had no interest in being the movie, or making a movie about people making a movie. Since the movie is not a polemic, per se, removing ourselves allows the viewer to make up their own minds. Maybe that’s why people respond to it. We saw a shift occurring before our eyes and wanted to capture the end of an era in Richmond’s political culture before it ended. If the story says something about the sorry state of American politics, the Democratic party, or something bigger, that’s a bonus. People usually ask us why we made the film and how we got the access to the subjects.
BB: We are a lot less interesting than Nat Bates, Corky Booze, and many of the other people in the movie. Our job was to get out of the way and to focus on the story–not the filmmaking. People usually ask us why we bothered to take on this project. We found the people and their situation to be fascinating.
Tickets are on sale now for NAT BATES FOR MAYOR and can be purchased at The Salem Film Fest Box Office or via the SFF website here: http://salemfilmfest.com/2018/films/nat-bates-for-mayor/