Do you want your audience to come away from the series thinking that a certain policy is the right one? Are you trying to convince people about a particular bill?
SHARI ROBERTSON: No. We absolutely are not.
MICHAEL CAMERINI: By following a bunch of people who are trying to promote a particular policy, we've created a portrait of how you get an idea to become a law and to change how we all live and how we all perceive. The subject of these films is not immigration. The subject of these films is...how does it all work?
SHARI ROBERTSON: Exactly-- how does this political system work to create social policy? We were trying, at the most macro sense, to make a very vivid portrayal of a certain way of life and the people who pursued it, really starting at an almost ethnographic level. But the fact of it being about an immigration bill or an idea for an immigration bill just turned out to be the subject that all of us focused around.
You started shooting in Washington in the summer of 2001, did your production change a lot after 9/11?
MICHAEL CAMERINI: We stepped away for a little while. We understood that the grief was enormous, that there was this kind of embarrassment of having invited us in to watch their triumph, only to see it vanish in an instant. And we were capable of investing -- you know, really the secret is patience. We basically went away and we didn’t come back to DC for months. And when we came back, people were beginning to feel like: ‘Okay. We want to start again’. And so it was appropriate for us to be there. We didn’t, you know, we weren’t interested in filming them, you know, wailing and gnashing their teeth and beating their heads against the wall and saying: Oh my god, we’ll never do anything in the future. You know, we respected their need not to have us around for awhile.
SHARI ROBERTSON: This series is an extreme example of a project that really did evolve as it continued. Not too long after we stopped filming in Washington after 9/11, we realized there was a pretty great related opportunity in Iowa that we had missed the previous summer while we were in DC -- but there was no telling at that point quite where it would lead, or how the two stories might ever mesh.
When we returned to shooting in DC, it was early 2002. Our original story was taking off once more, it seemed, and we followed it through the next year. By the beginning of 2003, the U.S. had started the war in Afghanistan. It looked like we were going to start a war in Iraq. And the whole policy idea that we were inspired to begin filming had, you know, just hit the skids in the worst possible way. One of its two big champions, Sam Brownback, had decided to exit the subject altogether, because it was endangering his political career. So, to some extent that seemed like a bad time to stop -- we knew we'd have a great story, but such a dark story after all that -- so we kept on filming.
We must have just presumed we would wind it up in 2004 with the presidential elections, but as it turned out, immigration was kind of purged from the national debate for that election cycle. And then, right afterwards, it finally started to look like the thing might actually happen after all. A bunch of former rivals joined together, Guitierrez and Flake, in the House and Kennedy and McCain in the Senate, and they wrote a bill that was a pretty close approximation of Demetri’s original Grand Bargain. From there on out, through 2005, 2006, right on until summer of 2007, we were starting to edit back in New York, but also filming enough in DC to keep on chasing what seemed like the very good likelihood that some form of this, you know, big compromise would actually pass into law.
Then on the late June day in 2007 that the Senate bill failed, we knew for sure -- and looking back, we realized it was the first time we did really know it -- that we had the ending to our story. Not the ending to THE story, but the final chapter of the tale that we were going to tell.
How did you get access to all of these Senate offices?
MICHAEL CAMERINI: We always feel like the question that people should ask is: What do you do with access when you have it? You get access, I think, because people trust you and feel like they know you well enough, so they know what you will do with that access. They know they’re making themselves vulnerable. They know, maybe, you will do them some good. They know it’ll be nice to have their mother know what it is they do. But at the heart of it, access comes because people believe you’re going to do the right thing with the access they give you.
SHARI ROBERTSON: There’s a down side to access, too. Because the audience, at least for a subject like this, has no access. So, the deeper into it you get as a filmmaker and the deeper your footage is, the harder and the bigger translation it’s going to have to be for the audience to be able to relate to it, to connect to it. I think for us that’s actually one of our biggest challenges over and over again. It’s not just in the case of Capitol Hill, the jargon, it’s all these different things about the mindset, the assumptions, the tacit shared views and understandings that people have. Everything you’re watching is unfolding with all of that stuff already in place. But as a general audience member, that context has to be created. So, for the filmmaker, access can be a double-edged sword.
Do you think there are lessons from the immigration debate that carry over into other social policy debates such as healthcare or civil rights?
MICHAEL CAMERINI: It's remarkable how many parallels there are to other policy debates. First, I'd say that understanding that Time is your enemy when you've got a complicated idea. Understanding how, for your opponents, delay is how they marshal public anger from a small group, and how they magnify that, so that the political climate becomes harder and harder for any solution that's got nuance.
SHARI ROBERTSON: There's also the aspect of the legislative process being so personal-- that doesn't change from issue to issue. It's not just the personal relationships among the legislators, but it's also the personal relationships at the staff level. It's allies and enemies and frenemies... All of those relationships also play into it and can be manipulated to the advantage or to the disadvantage of the opponent.
I think one of the big truths that you see if you watch the whole arc of a debate is that these windows don't come along frequently at all. Pretty rarely. If you're lucky every two years but it's really more hooked to a Presidential cycle, every four years. And those windows of opportunity are surprisingly short. You know, sometimes just a matter of two, three, four months. So that you need to have everything ready as they begin, knowing that the conditions on the ground, they change constantly, even during your window.
MICHAEL CAMERINI: Social policy is all about finding our balance point, right? And we normally do it in the compromise between two or more exhausted armies. We don't tend to do it by everyone seeing the genius of the think-tank solution. So you could say, the most naïve thing was to start making these films thinking what we were doing was filming an idea and the bringing of that idea into political life. You know, people who want every immigrant jailed and then deported are, you know, they're part of the total balance that ends up finding a solution, that ends up making a deal.
SHARI ROBERTSON: We started out looking at this policy possibility, Demetri's Grand Bargain, and advocates would balk at anything that wasn't almost a perfect iteration of it, that made perfect sense. Over the years we were shooting, those same advocates, to different degrees, began to see that a bad bill is certainly no guarantee of success, but no bill is a guarantee of failure. And in a way, they...and Ted Kennedy was, of course, the best example of this in our films...they grew to understand that if you don't gamble, if you're too conservative to gamble, you're going to always be at the same place-- at the start. It's just that the conditions around you can continue to get worse and worse and worse.
What was it about immigration policy that made it a good case study? Why not follow telecom policy or healthcare?
MICHAEL CAMERINI: There's a way in which it's the thread that if you pull, you discover it's connected to everything. There is no basic social issue that you face in the United States as a society that doesn't touch on immigration. And in fact, you know, the Congressman who yelled at Obama during his healthcare speech was yelling about immigration and healthcare. We're kind of balanced between having developed an economy that depends on immigrants, uses immigrants and integrates them intelligently at all kinds of levels, from the home healthcare worker to the guy who invented Intel. So it's woven into everything. And if you say anything from, "We should no longer be a country of immigrants and we should stop all immigration" to the other extreme - any of those, any solution, any plan, any decision in the field of immigration influences the national economy, employment, education, healthcare, up to nature of the personality of the country itself.
SHARI ROBERTSON: It's a question that's easier to answer when you decide you're sick of immigration as a subject-- which I have, numerous times, over the course of these years. But you can't get away from it, it's absolutely woven into everything. Even if we stopped having new people come into the country this afternoon, the fact of this being a country made of immigrants, that continues to attract immigrants, that our national creed is certain shared ideas. It would be a century, at least, before that wouldn't be the top level identifier of the United States. It's that powerful. And I think everybody has such complicated feelings about immigration because it is so deep in the national identity.
MICHAEL CAMERINI: The media urges us to believe in a completely false reality-- that there are two sides, that issues can be defined as pro and anti, and that's the fundamental nature of political reality. In fact, if you spend enough time, and it doesn't matter with which side of which issue or which group, if you say, "Let's figure out how to solve a complicated social problem and let's follow that journey," what you come to is, you become engaged in the complexity of solving a problem, and the sides kind of melt away. In fact, they do that beautifully in immigration where, you know, George Bush and Ted Kennedy both had a vision of reform and other Republicans and other Democrats didn't. The issue split everybody. I think we tried to create a set of films that took you in far enough so that those simple polarizations kind of dissolve.
Did you think about following immigrant families or individual immigrants' stories in the US?
MICHAEL CAMERINI: The series is really about the actors in a democracy. If you look, you'll notice that there are a lot of immigrants, a lot of recent immigrants, a lot of people who are in touch with their immigrant history, who are actors in a democracy. It was a very deliberate decision that we weren't filming immigrant stories.
SHARI ROBERTSON: There are a lot of really good filmmakers who do, and they are numerous, numerous, numerous films along those lines. I remember a moment on election day in 2004. We were in Tucson, filming a stand-off between Russ Dove and Isabel Garcia. And every young, independent filmmaker who was making a film about the border was there, it was like five guys making a lot of different films, and all the local news crews were there... We were all there. And after this long argument between Russ and Isabel, they stomped away and the filmmakers were sort of left staring at each other in the circle. And I remember one guy saying, you know, "This is great. We're all making movies about the same thing here." And there's room for all of those films. But we wanted to answer the question, how do you change things? And really that question and that answer is the only thing we were making a film about.
Did you ever think about shooting in Mexico or other top "sender countries"?
SHARI ROBERTSON: Well, that wasn't really the story we were doing...
MICHAEL CAMERINI: We would have loved to have filmed with President Fox and his staff when the whole thing started in 2001. We just didn't manage it.
SHARI ROBERTSON: Between the Mexican Foreign Service and the State Department and the White House. But that's a different movie. We shot in a lot of places, actually, but places where the immigration debate was a big domestic issue. California, Iowa, Kansas, Arizona, Chicago, Minneapolis...
MICHAEL CAMERINI: There's a great film to be made about global migration and there are some very good films already made that follow immigrants from their home country to the United States.
What was the shoot like? Were there many people on your crew?
SHARI ROBERTSON: We were the camera crew. Only the two of us, Michael filmed and I recorded sound. It was probably the only way we could have done this project, because a) It was too many hours of shooting to ever fund any other way and, b) it allowed for us to, to get into places without attracting a great deal of attention, that would’ve been harder with a bigger crew. Michael and I, we wore business clothes, dressy business clothes every single day when we were shooting on Capitol Hill or in Washington, and as soon as we’d set the equipment down, we were just, you know, producers or lobbyists or you know, just somebody else who was there. We could have been anything. It was only when we picked up the equipment that we turned back into our little, mini film crew. And that turned out to be pretty handy in terms of access.
And there was the essential third person, not officially crew, but very, very important in New York watching the footage, decoding the footage, logging the footage and ultimately doing the basis of the database that made, you know, editing possible. And that was Rachel. But Rachel was a secret to most of the people that we were filming. They’ve heard of her now, most of them, but, at that time they hadn’t. That’s it.
What was your production schedule like?
MICHAEL CAMERINI: From late August, 2001 ‘til the end of June, 2007.
SHARI ROBERTSON: The end of June, 2007 was the day that there was the final Senate vote on the bill. We’ve done little pick-up shoots since then, but nothing to speak of. And in that period of six years it was not every single day for six whole year but it was very, very intense at certain periods. For the years 2002, 2003 and 2004, it was also, you know, pretty much a daily thing in Washington, when Congress was in session. In 2005, we shot less, so when we went back in 2006 for the Senate fight and ultimate victory, we hadn’t been around for months, and then the same again in ‘07.
What equipment did you shoot on?
MICHAEL CAMERINI: We shot on tape, using PAL DV-CAM as the format, with an Ikegami camera.
SHARI ROBERTSON: We did that, because when we started, way back in the summer of 2001, that was a pretty good choice for a format if you thought you just might want to transfer to 35mm film for theatrical release. Now of course HDCAM is how we prefer to project the shows.