“It’s not about Bolivian politics,” said Rachel Boynton sternly, speaking of her directorial debut, the documentary Our Brand Is Crisis. On a recent Thursday afternoon, the 31-year-old Greenwich Village resident was hovering over a just-finished plate of potato pancakes at Chelsea’s Comfort Diner. She was fresh off having her film accepted to the 34th annual New Directors/New Films. The documentary, which screens at MoMA on Thursday, March 24, boasts Ms. Boynton’s unfettered access to the 2002 re-election campaign of former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a.k.a. Goni. But she wants you to remember: “It’s not about Bolivian politics.”
That’s because Goni-the son of a former Bolivian diplomat who grew up in Washington, D.C., and was president of Bolivia from 1993 to 1997-went out and hired the American political-consulting firm Greenberg, Carville and Shrum-yes, that Carville-to help him win. What ostensibly begins as the dissection of an especially contentious South American political arena quickly spirals into a cautionary tale about America’s current favorite political pastime: exporting democracy.
“This is a film about a group of Americans with the best of intentions, trying to spread their brand of democracy overseas,” said Ms. Boynton, who wanted to explore what exactly is our “brand of democracy.” She added, “I think we take for granted that democracy will bring good things. I think we tend to use the word ‘democracy’ when we really mean ‘capitalism.'”
Through Goni, who was a documentary filmmaker at one point, Ms. Boynton gained complete access to the campaign, giving the viewer a rare glimpse into the back-room strategizing sessions and focus groups that are the mitochondria of all political campaigns. From this perspective, the audience receives a remarkable insight into our own political system.
“I always thought that focus groups were about figuring out what people think,” said Ms. Boynton. “And they’re not. They’re about figuring out how to change how people think. So, you figure out how people think, and then you figure out what you can say that will influence how they think. And to me, that’s emblematic of how we relate to the rest of the world. It’s not like we’re going in and listening, and absorbing information, and processing it. We go in with a purpose.”
Ms. Boynton’s own purpose was to avoid creating a dry, educational documentary, opting instead for a traditional, more action-oriented vérité style. In a thrilling yet disturbing opening scene, riots have broken out on the streets of Bolivia. The camera shakes as it maneuvers through the chaos, following a rivulet of blood that leads to a fallen protester. It’s the stuff of fictional films, yet sadly, this is all too real.
“I cut that riot to make you feel like you’re there,” said Ms. Boynton. “I wanted it to surround you. There are several P.O.V. shots. I wanted to make you feel it and to not just look at it as a panorama.”
Ms. Boynton cycled through four directors of photography while in Bolivia, all of them specialists in the vérité style of camerawork-something rarely seen in the recent documentary boom.
“Most of the people that I was working with were at least in their late 40’s, early 50’s,” said Ms. Boynton. “The kind of shoot that I wanted to do doesn’t get done as much any more. Most documentaries are interview-based and are not about scenes. Most of them have been trained in video, so they shoot a lot. And they don’t have a sense of listening to what’s going on in the room.”
Operating at first with $50,000 from a friend’s family foundation, Ms. Boynton allowed herself to splurge on the experienced cameramen because she felt that frequently documentaries are too dry and pedagogic.
“I think documentaries are oftentimes too educational,” said Ms. Boynton, a self-professed “documentary fetishist.” “I want to make documentaries that feel like features-that are scene-based, and story-based, and character-based.”
Although Ms. Boynton graduated from Brown in 1995 with a degree in international relations, she has always known that she wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. Her first opportunity was as an intern on a French production entitled Texas City, about the eponymous Belgian town where people live like 19th-century American cowboys and Indians. She has since received a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia and worked as an associate producer for two years on a documentary about political asylum. She is most recently credited as an associate producer on the TV documentary People Like Us: Social Class in America. Ms. Boynton has certainly taken her time. But there are always things to learn-for example, where to get the money to make your first feature film.
“It took me a long time to figure that out,” said Ms. Boynton. “Who gives somebody money to make their first film? And the answer is: Go out and meet rich people. I used to think that there was some magical formula-and there isn’t. Movies are financed by wealthy people with big hearts.”
Ms. Boynton feels forever indebted to the foundation. But in some way, they must feel reimbursed when a movie they’ve produced can boast this kind of a moral lesson for President Bush. “I consider myself an American patriot,” said Ms. Boynton. “But I also recognize that we can’t approach the world saying our way is the way-the only way.”