Convention, the opening-night feature at the fifth annual Camden International Film Festival, is a logistical triumph that chronicles a logistical triumph. AJ Schnack, the director of the Kurt Cobain documentary About a Son and lone writer at the leading documentary-industry blog All These Wonderful Things, organized a group of nine filmmakers to capture the breadth of the August 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. Collectively, they shot 90 hours of footage in the days before and during the event, which Schnack (who directed, produced, and edited the film, along with filming some of it) whittled down to a breathless, thrilling 95 minutes.
The film comes to Maine (the October 1 screening at the Camden Opera House is a New England premiere) at an awkward moment. Culminating in Barack Obama's stirring acceptance speech at Invesco Field and concerned with the organizational chaos of the convention at the ground level, Convention summons up feelings of optimism and patriotism that are in short supply at the moment, as scaremongering and partisanship have reclaimed the national stage.
Schnack's film, though, transcends worries about the timeliness of its subject matter. Focusing on a disparate band of Denver citizens with varying roles -- figures from the mayor's office, a green reporter at the Denver Post, a life-long political activist -- Schnack twists the chaos of an unpredictable four days in Denver into a brilliantly edited, eloquent feat of choreography. Schnack and his co-producer/editor Nathan Truesdell will be in Camden on October 1 to speak after the 7 pm show. We caught up with him in advance of his visit.
The concept behind Convention -- nine cameras capturing various aspects of the 2008 DNC -- seems like a logistical nightmare. How much of what you decided to capture was determined before filming? Was there any specific angle you wanted to take on the convention?
I really like finding out how things work, the actual planning involved in making things happen, so that was our starting point. Then, because you could have gone off in so many different directions when dealing with an event the size and import of the 2008 DNC, we set up a boundary: each of the main subjects had to be from Denver. So you weren't following the DNC person from Washington or the delegate from Maine or the protester from Seattle. And that I think gave everyone a strong sense that this was really a Denver story, a story of how that small city dealt with hosting this large event.
Logistically, it was still a huge challenge. We were shooting digitally, to P2 cards that had to be downloaded and cleared. And our people were out in the field -- inside the convention center or out on the streets in a protest march. So we had to figure out ways to get cards and batteries to and from our teams in the field, sometimes getting into secure area. My producer Nathan Truesdell coordinated this effort and we're pretty sure that nothing like it had ever been attempted before. A lot of it was definitely on the fly, but it went surprisingly well, given all the variables.
Most of the film’s subjects are Denver citizens with diverse roles in organizing the convention. Were these people you’d contacted before the event, or the most compelling subjects you came across while shooting?
Nathan and I went to Denver a month before the convention to see if we could make a film about it and if we'd be able to get the access we'd need. On that trip we went to a meeting where a bunch of folks from the city were speaking at a community event -- and we met Chantal Unfug and Katherine Archuleta for the first time. And while I'm pretty sure they didn't quite know what to make of us, we knew that they would be good subjects, particularly Chantal (who was the special assistant to Denver's mayor), who was such a fresh, funny, next-door-neighbor type.
Then we went to the Denver Post and filmed one of their assignment meetings and one of their reporters, Allison Sherry, started mouthing off about something and I thought, wow, she's terrific. And that same trip we met the folks from [protest group] Recreate 68, so we pretty much found everyone on that trip and knew we wanted to follow them.