By David Loftus
June 24th, 2009
By now, many of us have grown accustomed to films that make us uncomfortable.
There have been documentaries that showed us unpleasant truths, whether old (“The Fog of War”) or new (“An Inconvenient Truth”), and plenty of pop films which thrived on humiliating their heroes (from “There’s Something About Mary” to “Flirting With Disaster”) while we laughed and, to a degree perhaps, empathized.
Just when you thought nothing new could be done outside of CGI animation, particularly in the documentary format, here comes “Courting Condi,” dubbed a “musical docu-tragi-comedy” by its makers. Part road picture, part buddy movie, part musical, and yes, part straight documentary at the same time as it’s almost a parody of documentaries, “Courting Condi” is often funny, sometimes downright silly, and occasionally startling as a whack upside the head.
One might also drag out that aging, much-abused term “post-modern” here. But I wouldn’t want you to think there’s anything stuffy or academic about “Courting Condi.” Simply, it’s the “story” of a chubby loser of a young musician who conceives a great love for George Bush’s Secretary of State, and – under the illusion they could somehow meet, date, and end up as soulmates – tracks her life and career from Birmingham, Alabama to Washington D.C. by way of Denver and Palo Alto (Stanford University).
Slowly but surely, it also morphs from a ridiculous shaggy-love tale (our Romeo makes several MTV-style music videos he calls “love disks” and is shown mailing them to his beloved) to the real-life depiction of a good Christian girl (a playmate of one of the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham) and African-American scholar … who underwent a transformation into a corporate board fixture after whom an oil tanker was named, who enjoyed the assistance of affirmative action but punished and ignored others who did the same, who overlooked civil slaughter in Nigeria and lied about Iraq, and who okayed the torture of Muslim prisoners.
What’s especially pomo about the movie is its ploy of putting writer-director-producer Sebastian Doggart inside the story, as a documentary film director who follows the “co-star” – lovestruck Devin Ratray, acting under his own name as well – in pursuit of the title character, who of course never appears on camera by choice but only in archival footage (and as an animated cut-out, among other things).
The character of “Doggart” in the film is clearly depicted as being much less intelligent than the real filmmaker (a King’s College, Cambridge graduate in the social and political sciences, and veteran director of stage and TV documentaries on both sides of the Atlantic), just as Ratray (whose acting resume includes Buzz in two “Home Alone” movies and several episodes of “Law and Order”) can’t possibly be as credulous and foolish as he appears in this movie. The climax (or nadir, depending on how you look at it) of their buddy relationship occurs midway through the movie when “Doggart” tries to convince “Ratray” during a beach shoot that the narrative arc demands a nude scene.
Early on, many viewers are apt to feel an I-can’t-believe-they’re-doing-this discomfort about the romantic premise. We’re being made to watch this loser try to catch the eye of the nation’s first black female Secretary of State, who is nearly twice his age? In the course of interviewing Rice’s childhood neighbors and friends in Alabama, the filmmakers offer a very Michael Moore moment when Ratray attempts to speak to Rice’s mother as she’s trying to get from her car in the driveway to her house and pretty much brushes them off (understandably so).
Things start to turn a little weirder – because less obviously farcical and futile – as Ratray and Doggart get Rice’s one and only ex-fiancé, former Denver Broncos receiver Rick Upchurch, to show his engagement ring and reminisce about their dates; then receive romantic advice and potential love songs from Grammy-winning composer and one-time Elvis girlfriend Carol Connors; and then put Devin through the image-making tutelage and focus-group grinder of Frank Luntz, campaign marketing wizard to a string of Republican politicians. Connors and Luntz strut their respective expertises, but they also play for the camera a little, and thereby induce a little extra vertigo in the viewer.
Is this a documentary? There are sequences that would not be out of place in any straight account, whether they’re the touching reminiscences of former music teachers and fellow students or the hard-line judgments of Watergate and 9/11 commission investigator Richard Ben-Veniste, Congressman David Price, Colin Powell’s chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson, and journalist/biographers Marcus Mabry, Antonia Felix, and Glenn Kessler.
The oddball mix of romantic farce, music videos, and talking heads was partly a tactical move, Doggart explained in an email:
I was worried by the commercial failure of critically successful docs like Taxi to the Dark Side, and I was concerned that audiences would not be sufficiently engaged by a simple narrative of Rice’s pursuit and misuse of power. So we consciously tried to immerse the viewer in the opiate of music and laughter, to act as the ice cream and chocolate coating around the steak center of this strange, American delicacy. I wanted to draw them into Devin’s Candide-like quest, to hum to the melodies, to share his fury at Rice’s betrayal of the African-American Dream.
He has a point. An array of earnest projects that bash W and his team, the religious right, or the ravages of the Iraq War, have rarely managed to achieve more than preaching-to-the-converted status. Over time, they’ve lost the ability to reach even the entirety of their potentially friendly audiences, who have heard it all before and seen that it has made little difference (except perhaps, indirectly and finally, in the 2008 general election). But if the viewer doesn’t know what she’s getting into, or at least senses it’s going to be something different from the usual teach-in with organic popcorn and saffola oil butter, maybe the film will develop legs.
Doggart said he “didn’t genre-bust for the sake of genre-busting.” The subject inspired his choices: in her teens Rice had set out to be a concert pianist (there’s a video clip of her duetting with Yo Yo Ma, into which Ratray is shoehorned), and has said she is happiest, freest, and most herself when listening to or playing music. So: a musical. Doggart had worked on other projects with Connors and Luntz, so he already had a trusting professional relationship with them.
When I filmed with them, in November 2007, I still conceived of the film as a musical docu-comedy — with no “tragi-” in that multi-hyphenate. At that point, I was unaware of Rice’s role in authorizing torture, or her attempt to cover up the massacre by her Blackwater employees of Iraqi citizens, or of the rage that many African Americans felt towards her. It was during our time in Washington DC that I began to see the Faustian tragedy of her story.
It’s not a perfect film, by any means. The mélange of styles, inevitable signs of a shoestring budget, and a fairly sudden shift to a prosecutorial tone near the end may put off some viewers. But there’s a lot to enjoy, sometimes even for those very reasons. One may certainly admire Doggart’s and Ratray’s panache.
Despite its silly, dodgy approach, and its relatively ecumenical mix of participants (Connors and Luntz are committed Republicans, and Connors believes waterboarding is a necessary tool for fighting terrorism, according to Doggart), “Courting Condi” still caught fire from political opponents well before its projected release.
The Wikipedia entry for the film states that the project was commissioned by Discovery Communications for $600,000, but that support was withdrawn under pressure from none other than Karl Rove. Discovery ended up contributing only a $150,000 “kill loan.” (Doggart confirmed the basic truth of this account.) The project picked up $18,000 from the UK’s Channel 4, Doggart said, he sank much of his life savings into it, and most of the rest of the crew – “including attorneys, PAs, accountants” – worked for deferred fees. A screening on the campus of Rice’s former (and future) employer, Stanford University, ran a gauntlet of cancellations and excuses before finding an opening in early March 2009.
“Courting Condi” has screened at about 40 festivals and picked up 23 awards along the way, including Best Documentary at the Milan International Film Festival, British Film Festival of Los Angeles, and the Treasure Coast International Film Festival. Several of the songs have picked up awards, and other accolades have included Best Feature Length Comedy, Best Political Satire, Best Socially Responsible Film, and Best Cameo (Connors).
The show is scheduled for limited general release in New York and Los Angeles in August. Time will tell whether its ostensibly ragtag appearance will grab viewers’ imaginations.
In years past, David Loftus has reviewed “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “The Fog of War,” and “Bush’s Brain” for Documentary Films .Net. He had not planned to review “Courting Condi” when he wandered in to a screening hosted by the Northwest Film Center at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum on June 20 out of curiosity, and therefore took no notes, but realized he wanted to write about it once it was over. David Loftus, Writer
Sebastian Doggart – Writer, Director, Producer
Robert Morris – Co-Producer, Special Effects Supervisor
Jennifer Latham – Supervising Producer
Matthew Woolf – Director of Photography, Co-Producer
Dan Madden, Tom Lindsay, Diana DiCilio – Editors
Rob Daly – Sound Mixer
Alexandra Gordon, Kerry Shaw, Carol Connors, Steve Earle, Devin Ratray, Sebastian Doggart, Jess King, Brix Smith – Music
Sasha Gordon – Original Score
Appearing as themselves:
Devin Ratray, Sebastian Doggart, Chris McNair, Rick Upchurch, Cecilia Burciaga, Adrian Grenier, Jim Norton, Carol Connors, Frank Luntz, Eleanor Clift, Lawrence Wilkerson, Richard Ben-Veniste, David Price, Marcus Mabry, Antonia Felix, Glenn Kessler
With archival footage of:
Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, Yo Yo Ma, and others.