What do you worry about at 3 a.m.? Crazy relatives. Demanding bosses (assuming you still have one)? The country? The year ahead? Caught up with award-winning filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi as her next documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, premieres Thursday, January 29th on HBO. A liberal from San Francisco -- and Nancy Pelosi's daughter so there'll be a mom question in here eventually -- Alexandra Pelosi has spent years getting to know and like and care about the Conservative Right on their campaign trails, in their homes, in their churches, and in their heads. She wants to know about them because she wants to know what it means now to be a liberal by comparison to and in the context of their world. And because she's fair and balanced and interested. She spoke with me about Americans she has met on the far right who are devastated by the loss of John McCain, feel a dream has been lost not found, and why it matters to liberals, and matters a lot. This film is one I dearly wanted to not review. I'm afraid of hearing from every angry soul in the country, but oh well, I think it's an exceptional film about, as Pelosi agreed when asked, what a man's life is like when he falls from very high to very low, and what we can learn about empathy and forgiveness on a big scale.
Also Thursday, January 29th, Stanley Crouch, Daily News commentator extraordinaire, author, and music maven, participates in a panel discussion and performance at Lincoln Center affectionately called "Blacks, Jews, and Jazz." It will be blues we can use or, to apply Alexandra's description of what the country might become next, "The story of red, blue, and the purples they become when combined." Caught up with Crouch this week as well so look for his Third Screen, too.
What I heard from each is that the question quickly becomes how to address a lot of conflicting ideas and entrenched miscommunication and not just rely on the new president to do all the work for us. Crouch thinks the civility of musicians is a lesson for us all, no matter how discordant and tone-deaf citizens from different regions in America may look to each other. Here's what Pelosi knows ...
Third Screen: You started this film about Ted Haggard in 2005, a year before he was disgraced in a scandal and exiled from his 30 million member church and the state of Colorado. What did you originally want and what did you ultimately get?
Alexandra Pelosi: The film literally cost a thousand dollars to make. I used the same camera I'd bought to video my son's first steps. I met Ted Haggard on September 11th, 2005. I was making a film at the time called Friends with God, and he was head of the National Association of Evangelicals. I wanted to follow evangelicals at the ballot box, and make a film so that people who watch HBO would understand them.
Third Screen: How did you feel about him when you followed him for Friends with God?
Alexandra Pelosi: On the earlier film, I found he was different from the rest. He seemed more real. He was funny and fun, I instantly took to him. As a journalist and filmmaker, you stick with people who give you access. He took me on his book tour. He took me on his Promise Keepers tour. My husband and I went camping with his family at Pike's Peak. In a weird way, I was angry at Ted after it happened. Bill O'Reilly mocked me about making conservatives look bad in that film, but in fact it was completed before Haggard's fall. Ironically, I'm getting flack for being too complimentary about him in this new one. But that isn't what the films are about. A lot of good people in this country are devastated. Devastated about ministers who fail them. Devastated that politicians like John McCain lost the election. They work hard for their views, they worked door to door during the election. And now they fear the future. We need to understand them and the full array of their points of view. Ted was my tour guide to that world. When he fell, I was pretty angry with him, because it undermined the credibility of my films.
Third Screen: How did you hear about his scandal?
Alexandra Pelosi: Haggard was outed by a male prostitute and admitted to a lifelong battle with drugs and sex. I was in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the hospital giving birth, when my sister came to visit and said "Did you hear about this disgraced pastor? Did you know he lives around the corner from me?"
Third Screen: What can the left learn from the right?
Alexandra Pelosi: When Bush was president, the liberals put bumper stickers on their cars saying "Not My President." I had to show my friends in liberal blue America that there are people who feel that way about Obama. He's on a honeymoon right now, but there are people in middle America who are so upset they can't get out of bed because McCain is not their president. Some people worked their hearts out to make sure Obama wouldn't get in.
Third Screen: What do we need to do?
Alexandra Pelosi: There was a piece in the Washington Post in which the reporter said that there is a crack in the cultural divide and Ted fell into it. Who is the leader of the evangelical movement now? Rick Warren took a lot of flack for even appearing with Obama last week. It's an interesting moment. We need to know about it.
Third Screen: What is the future for the evangelicals now?
Alexandra Pelosi: I think they have an opportunity now that Republicans have an opportunity, to decide who they are and where they want to go. It can go a lot of ways.
Third Screen: What is your secret hope?
Alexandra Pelosi: It's not a secret. I really hope Republicans don't go to the extreme right, and that red and blue can combine on some points. I'm looking for the purple people made out of red and blue.
Third Screen: From what you've seen, are young conservatives more extreme than their parents, or are they more open to new possibilities within their core beliefs?
Alexandra Pelosi: I can't really speak to that. I do know that it's important to give the right wing a voice and not just pretend that they don't exist. They're out there. They didn't want Obama to be president. They're not happy right now. I call myself a liberal and so that means that I think everybody deserves a voice. Which means they deserve a voice. I live in San Francisco. I was raised in a Catholic family but we were always taught that gay is okay. The cultural divide is really centered on that issue, on abortion, on the idea that children should be raised by two married heterosexual parents. The point of the film is respect and information. White America calls the extreme right "rednecks." They call themselves "rednecks" proudly. The rednecks I met took me home, cooked me meals, had great conversations with me about our first black president. The people I put in my movies are people that I like and respect. It's really easy when you live in Manhattan or somewhere in California or in Chicago to ignore the rest of the country, especially now, but it's complicated and should be complicated. All journalists ask Ted Haggard the same question, "Are you gay?" Real life is more complicated than that. His is. It's messy and dark and confusing. We can't just say "Okay, Ted's gay. Next."
Third Screen: Is our challenge the one-liner? The sound bite? No real story reduces to one line.
Alexandra Pelosi: You see the death of the media and it's not a surprise. For so long, they've simplified everything. Everyone knows when they go to newspapers that they just get the worst thing that Bush said, the best thing that Obama said. They reduce it to a cat fight. Steven Colbert has proven that America is not buying the BS anymore. Times have gotten too tough. Campaigns have become infomercials, made for TV photo opps. I hope Obama will be a brilliant president and we will be a brilliant country aligned with him. He has tapped into this moment when people need exactly what he says. But I get a little scared. I get a little nervous. He's more of a cultural icon than a political figure right now. There's no way he can live up to that. I live in Union Square, and everybody's wearing Obama t-shirts. People feel they have a piece in it, but I worry about the level of blind faith. It's not Obama's fault -- people have projected a messiah-like image onto him. But in Ohio, Indiana, Alabama, they're not buying it. It's the extremes you always have to be suspicious of, the holier than thou preaching one lifestyle, and both extremes are doing that now. So I ask myself, are liberals the new danger? We don't realize how intolerant we are. I think it's unfair the way the other side never gets heard. People waited in line for six hours for McCain. There was a liberal bias in the reporting. I'm a liberal journalist, and I'm saying this.
Third Screen: Why are we all so misinformed or under-informed?
Alexandra Pelosi: Let me ask you this. Do you think the media caricatures everybody who lives between the coasts? It's like the Coasts pat each other on the back saying "We happy few." We act like everything else is minor league. For years, I've felt that the New York Times, in a strange way, makes its readers feel inferior. We're the news, they say, and we'll tell you what you need to know. I'd like to give an award to the one magazine that doesn't have Obama on the cover. Newsweek: Obama eight times and McCain once. In my opinion, the media is over-compensating for not doing their job as the watch dogs of the Bush presidency, and I'm the last person in the world to plug George Bush, but his actions were more complicated than what they represented and distilled.
Third Screen: Your mother is the Speaker of the House. What is that like?
Alexandra Pelosi: My mother has not seen either of these two upcoming HBO films. What if she doesn't like it? What is she supposed to say? What I think people don't understand about people in power is that they really don't care what's said about them because they are motivated and driven by high purpose and hard work. They listen and they act. That's their job. Example. Election night in Arizona. A reporter said to me "Oh my God, I used to watch you at McCain rallies and I felt so bad for you." Do you really think, as a filmmaker, that I'm that thin-skinned? This is not a business for the weak of heart. I laughed. I wanted to be exactly there. I was covering news. Another example. They'll be making anti-Nancy Pelosi speeches and "worrying" that she or I couldn't bear it. I have such a meaningful and different relationship with my mother than that. It's not built on what reporters say observing us in public. The minute you say Nancy Pelosi to me, I see bottles and diapers. She's not the speaker, she's my mom and my children's grandmother. My son threw up today. That will be my next call. I'm fascinated, as a true liberal, by what Christian Conservatives think of us, so I go out on field trips to find out. I am from San Francisco and I love where I'm from and I love the people who raised me. When I hear Conservatives says "San Francisco values," it hurts. It's code. They say they're real America, but isn't San Francisco a real place? Most people hang up on telemarketers. I don't. I listen to them all day long. As part of my work on the conservative movement, I'm on all their lists. I talk to them day and night. I want to know exactly what they're talking about. You know who I scream at? NPR. Can't they find one nice thing to say about Republicans? When they talk about conservatives, they sound like they're talking about a lost tribe of pygmies. Doesn't it count? Don't we all count?
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