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Political Film Fest Revisits Battles and Brokers

The protracted lobbying effort to aid or deter a Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation. A turn-of-the-century constitutional convention. A Danish businessman who becomes a power broker in Brazil.

There is a common thread here. These describe the themes of three of the films showcased in Washington’s upcoming Politics on Film festival. Now in its second year, the festival will present seven politically themed films, four of them world premieres.

The definition of what constitutes a political film is still nebulous, so much so that last year’s festival featured a panel discussing that very topic. Festival co-founder Gayle Osterberg said that volunteers sifted through more than 100 submissions before settling on a group that fit what they were looking for.

“We have defined ‘political’ pretty broadly,” Osterberg said. “There are issues that can be covered, there are themes of politics and campaigns, there are some stories that are told in a political setting that maybe aren’t political films — they have more to do with human emotions — and there may be films set in nonpolitical settings that in fact have very political themes.”

Two of the films are particularly D.C.-centric. “Advise & Dissent” chronicles the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts, Harriet Miers and Samuel Alito and prominently features longtime Hill denizens, Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “Lucky Strike: The Story of How YouTube Changed the Face of Politics” focuses on director Lucas Baiano — who now works for the Republican Governors Association — as his efforts to film Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign turn him into an unlikely celebrity.

Director David Van Taylor said that he originally conceived of the idea for “Advise & Dissent” in 2003, when speculation abounded that a seat on the Supreme Court was about to open. When this failed to happen, Van Taylor had to table the idea until 2005, but the wait paid off: Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s death shortly after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s decision to retire, combined with Miers’ withdrawal from consideration, allowed him to follow the confirmation hearings of three different nominees who “really covered the waterfront with varieties of nomination and confirmation,” Van Taylor said.

Van Taylor tells the story by following four characters who reflect the pitched partisan battles surrounding the nominations, both within Congress and without. In addition to having access to the chairman and then-ranking member of the Judiciary Committee in Specter and Leahy, he focuses on a prominent liberal lobbyist, Ralph Neas of People for the American Way, and a conservative activist, Manny Miranda of the Third Branch Conference.

What emerges is a compelling examination of three confirmation processes as they unfold, from Neas’ efforts to dig beneath Roberts’ reticence and probe his beliefs, to dismay from the right wing over Miers’ seeming lack of conservative credentials (controversial Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork called her nomination a “disaster on every level”). The film also points to several interesting shifts, particularly in Specter’s journey from defecting and voting against Bork in 1987 to helping to confirm Alito on a party-line vote. Van Taylor said the confirmation process offers a rare glimpse into the usually insular court.

“The confirmation process is the one time where the justices who are being chosen have to go before and get the OK of the elected branches,” Van Taylor said.

“It’s the closest you can get to understanding why the Supreme Court is what it is and how it changes over time.”

“Lucky Strike” began with a film student’s ambitious — some might say audacious — idea for a short film chronicling Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign. Director Lucas Baiano pitched the idea to Bill Clinton during a book-signing and, astoundingly, the former president agreed. Baiano’s two-and-a-half-minute offering, which drew on footage provided from the Clinton campaign, went viral on YouTube, making Baiano something of an Internet sensation.

This is only the beginning. “Lucky Strike” follows Baiano’s subsequent efforts to give Clinton the film he created and then to have her sign a bowling pin from the Florida bowling alley where she finally accepted a copy, a months-long odyssey that took Baiano across 10 different states. Baiano again enjoyed a moment of unexpected public exposure when cameras caught him standing behind Clinton at a rally and holding the pin, an image that was lampooned by late-night talk show hosts and scrutinized for its symbolism. (Does the pin represent the middle class? Is it a dig at Obama’s bowling abilities?)

“It was a journey and a half, and I’m just fortunate to be part of it,” Baiano said. He added that he “found himself” through shooting the film: When Clinton ended her campaign, Baiano switched allegiances and began working for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) after realizing his values were more closely aligned with the GOP. He currently works as director of digital media for the Republican Governors Association.

Politics on Film kicks off Wednesday with a screening of “Advise & Dissent” at the E Street Cinema and runs through Saturday.

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