Alexandra Pelosi’s first documentary, “Journeys With George,” painted a humanizing portrait of then-Gov. George W. Bush — not exactly what you’d expect from the daughter of a powerful Democratic dynasty (her mother is Rep. Nancy Pelosi).
In the years since, Alexandra Pelosi has attempted to understand the conservative point of view in such films as “The Trials of Ted Haggard,” about the disgraced evangelical pastor, and “Right America: Feeling Wronged — Some Voices From the Campaign Trail,” about the tea party movement.
With her latest documentary, “Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk?,” premiering Aug. 1 on HBO, Pelosi explores the influence of super-wealthy donors in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. In an interview at her HBO office, the filmmaker, a bundle of excited energy, discussed wading into the “landmine” of campaign finance.
These are the winners. So however the system is set up, it’s working for them.
What brought you to this subject?
My kids [ages 8 and 9] were die-hard Bernie [Sanders supporters], all the way. We went to Washington Square Park to see Bernie speak; it was like going to Woodstock for my kids. However, as much as I appreciate his message, he oversimplified money in politics a little bit.
It’s such a complicated issue, but what I have found is that people want you to be either [New Yorker staff writer] Jane Mayer and accuse the Koch brothers of destroying our democracy, or they want you to be the true defender of Citizens United. They want the film to be an investigative deep-dive into how democracy is funded. That’s not what this is. This is a light romp into the mega-donors who are funding our election.
You grew up steeped in this world, but has your point of view changed at all in making this film?
I don’t have as much disdain for the mega-donors as the Bernie crowd does. I don’t think it’s all as sinister as some people think.
Do you feel like because of your last name that there’s a knee-jerk reaction to you as a filmmaker?
I made a lot of movies in “real America” between New York and California. My last name wasn’t a door-opener. It was more a door-slam in your face. Now I can honestly say I couldn’t have made this film without my mom sneaking me into parties. So if you know your last name’s going to be used against you, you might as well use it to your advantage.
Almost to a person, the donors you interview say they’re writing checks for patriotic reasons, not out of self-interest. Do you believe them?
I believe them. Do you think I’m a sucker?
Well, isn’t “patriotism” just a euphemism? What they think is good for America also happens to be good for them?
These are the winners. So however the system is set up, it’s working for them. They have so much money. It is so bad for your self-esteem to make a movie about billionaires. You go to their apartments on the Upper East Side and think, “God, imagine if I had a whole penthouse just for my dog.”
It’s still stunning to me that nice men can ruin the world.
What do you make of Jeb Bush, who flamed out in the Republican primary despite being well-funded by GOP donors?
Who beat him? A billionaire. Would Donald Trump, if he had no money, have beaten him? They’re false equivalencies. He’s a billionaire who self-funded who’s also a reality television star who got all that free media.
You’ve said that you grew close to George W. Bush while making “Journeys With George.” Was it hard at all for you to watch his presidency?
I have a great personal relationship with George Bush. People cannot understand that. I come at politics from a personal perspective, not from an issues perspective. The Greenwich Village side of me can’t believe that war they manufactured out of whole cloth. It’s still stunning to me that nice men can ruin the world. I can say that in the same sentence when I say I’m still friends with him. How boring would life be if we just sat at dinner parties with liberals talking about how the Koch brothers are destroying the world?
To some on the right, your mother is the embodiment of liberal, coastal elite. Your film even features an attack ad about her. Do these portrayals ever bother you?
I laugh about it. My mother has the thickest skin of any human you will ever meet. She does not listen to any of it. She doesn’t care how many millions of dollars they spend to try and turn her last name into a curse word. It’s nothing personal. It’s about power. They don’t know Nancy Pelosi. She’s a caricature to them. My favorite Nancy Pelosi story is when we were going to the opera and my mother was holding the door for someone and she was like “You’re not as awful as I thought you were.” That becomes the common refrain.
You’ve been making documentaries at HBO for 15 years. Has the landscape changed at all?
My first documentary was a Rorschach test. What you thought of George Bush is what you saw. Now, 10 films later, people watch a documentary with their own agenda and there’s very little chance that you’re going to change their mind about anything. People want more opinion than they used to.
You film with a handheld camera and don’t really use a crew. Is there an advantage to this lean-and-mean style?
I think probably most of the people that are appearing in this film don’t even realize they’re going to be on TV. When people think of HBO, they think of lights, cameras, audio guy! A year later, they forget they even did it. It’s like home movies. My advice to anyone is if you don’t want to see yourself on television, don’t invite Alexandra Pelosi over, because I will film it and put it on television somewhere in the world. The flip side of that is I get invited to more weddings than anyone you know.
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