Analysis: Entertaining politics

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Oct. 29, 2004 at 6:33 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Oct. 29 (UPI) -- The proliferation of documentaries and increasing competition among narrowcast cable channels have combined to produce a relatively new phenomenon: special, politically themed programming on or around election night.

For example, the Sundance Channel plans three nights of politically themed programming on Saturday, Sunday and Monday -- and the Trio cable channel will air three politically oriented documentaries on Tuesday night.

On Saturday Sundance will rebroadcast its special on the U.S. "Vote for Change" concert tour, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and performances by Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Dave Matthews Band, The Dixie Chicks, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Pearl Jam and R.E.M., among others. On Sunday the premium channel will air a "Tanner on Tanner" marathon -- all four episodes of the satirical Robert Altman-Garry Trudeau series. And on Monday Sundance will present four documentaries in prime time, including filmmaker Robert Greenwald's documentary "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War."

Trio's election-night lineup includes "Gay Republicans," a documentary examining the Log Cabin Republicans; "How's Your News: On the Campaign Trail," a news program put together by a group of mentally and physically challenged reporters; and "Parking Lot: The Political Conventions," a documentary about the scene outside the Democratic and Libertarian national conventions.

Paola Freccero, senior vice president of film programming for Sundance, told United Press International the renaissance of the documentary form and the accelerated competition among cable channels have contributed to the political programming choices, but so have recent historical events -- including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the controversial 2000 presidential election results.

"I think the American public is way more interested in politics than they have been before," she said. "Maybe they feel like they have more at stake now."

In addition to "Uncovered," the Sundance Channel election-eve marathon will also feature "Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election," a documentary that examines the controversial outcome of the 2000 presidential vote in Florida, and the TV premieres of the documentaries "Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties" and "Bush's Brain."

"Gay Republicans" focuses on four members of the Log Cabin Republicans, which supports Republican candidates who espouse such conservative values as small government and lower taxes. However, among the four there is a wide range of differences of opinion -- suggesting that the conservative gay segment of American politics is as divided as the electorate in general.

Writer-director Wash Westmoreland said he was surprised to find that.

"Within the documentary, you see people who are basically losing faith in the Republican Party and moving over to support John Kerry," said Westmoreland. "On the other hand, you see people who are dogmatic in their support for George Bush."

A major focus of "Gay Republicans" is the growing influence of fundamentalist Christian conservatives over the Republican Party -- and the conflict that presents for gay conservatives. Westmoreland wondered how gays can continue to support the party.

"It's interesting how they are so deluded," he said, "how their loyalty takes complete precedence over their civil rights as a gay person."

Matt Stone and Trey Parker -- the creators of "South Park" -- are the executive producers of "How's Your News?" They got involved in the project after seeing tapes made by Arthur Bradford, who has been producing news reports with mentally and physically challenged people since 1995 as part of his work as a counselor at Camp Jabberwocky, the oldest sleepover camp in America for people with disabilities.

The involvement of Stone and Parker -- and of the Trio cable channel -- helped Bradford get access to resources, including credentials to the Democratic and Republican national conventions. His staff of journalists included Ronnie Simonsen (cerebral palsy); Susan Harrington (mildly retarded, legally blind); Sean Costello (Down syndrome); Bobby Bird (Down syndrome); Larry Perry (extreme cerebral palsy); and Jeremy Vest (Williams Syndrome).

Collectively, they have snagged interviews with such high-profile politicians and celebrities as U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Michael Moore, Ben Affleck, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and filmmaker Rob Reiner.

Although Stone and Parker are known for outrageous irreverence, Bradford said "How's Your News" has none of that.

"I understand people think there's some sort of exploitation involved," he said, "but I hope when they see it they realize it's the opposite of that. It's about empowering them."

Simonsen -- who possesses a thorough knowledge of '70s TV -- turned his interview with Reiner into a duet on the theme song from "All in the Family," the show that made Reiner a star.

"I liked him the best," said Simonsen, "because I'm into acting and he's into acting and all that."

Like the rest of the crew, Harrington had never experienced anything like the national political conventions. She said the project taught her a lot that she can use for future "How's Your News" shows.

"I learned that you've got to thoroughly find out the details," she said, "get to the pulse of the story."

The "How's Your News" crew is spending the weekend in Ohio, then traveling to Florida for Election Day -- with plans for another special based on the 2004 election.

Freccero said it's hard to tell which is more responsible for the drift towards politically themed entertainment -- an increased interest on the part of programmers or a growing public appetite for such fare. But she said the rise of superstar documentary filmmakers such as Ken Burns and Michael Moore have helped jump-start the market for the new programming niche.

"Michael Moore in particular, because he showed the world early on that documentaries can be entraining as well as good for you."


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