Alexandra Pelosi doesn't come to a film festival struggling to woo backers or hoping to attract distributors. For the past 13 years, the youngest child of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been employed by HBO, which has enabled her to make the documentaries that have compelled her most and cover the kinds of political topics that keep America up late at night: homelessness, immigration and naturalization, the evangelical community and, with her latest film, women’s jails, recidivism, homosexuality in the Catholic and Episcopal churches and, in no small measure, redemption. Best known for getting on the campaign bus with then-presidential candidate George W. Bush for her Emmy-winning “Journeys with George” to her doc about the closeted evangelical, "The Trials of Ted Haggard," she has just arrived at Sundance to present her latest documentary, “Fall to Grace,” an 18-month study of former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey.
In 2004, rising political star Jim McGreevey took to the national airwaves and resigned from his post as governor of New Jersey, admitting to an extramarital affair and stating he was “a gay American.” His speech took everyone by surprise, both in content and tone: It wasn't the attorney-vetted declarations we’ve come to expect from disgraced politicians who mumble apologies as they look around the room for others to blame; instead it was strong and forthright. Pelosi looks at her subject's life then and now, as he dedicates himself to working with the 40 female inmates at the Hudson County Correctional Center as both a mentor and spiritual adviser, and to an ongoing struggle with identity and faith. His is a complex story of one man's forging a new path to grace.
Pelosi may be on a first-name basis with Washington insiders, but this is her first time at the Sundance Film Festival. The 48-minute “Fall to Grace” premiered in the Documentary Short Films competition this morning, with four additional screenings through January 26. We spoke with Pelosi just before she headed to Utah.
In a 2009 New York Times article, you said you no longer entered your work in festivals. Why?
Festivals are for people who are looking for theatrical distribution. I worked for HBO for 10 years, making eight films back to back. I didn’t need to go to festivals; by the time my film came out, I already had a distributor, and it was already going to air.
And yet your latest project, “Fall to Grace” is premiering at Sundance. What changed?
This film wasn’t traditional TV. It was a different kind of project; also, it’s original. There’s a lot of documentaries out in the world; it sometimes seems as if there’s no topic left! I thought this project seemed more authentic. I never really had permission from Jim McGreevey to make a documentary about him. I was hanging out with him, filming with my little handheld camera, but there’s always this fine line between spending time with someone and filming things, to thinking maybe there’s a film there, and then to thinking "Okay, this is going to be a film." I didn’t know if it was all going to come together. I wasn’t even sure he was going to sign the release (he signed right before we were going to Sundance). Also, it was a different arrangement with HBO than what I’d had prior. This past year, I was a correspondent for “Real Time with Bill Maher,” so that was my day job. Usually the films are the day job.
In the film, when McGreevey is faced with an immense setback, his reaction is, “I don’t try to gain things anymore.” That was a highly compelling scene, perhaps delivering an unintended “call to Jesus” moment for the audience. Did that carry a personal resonance for you?
To me, the story of Jim McGreevey is about a recovering politician. What is so interesting to me is not the church or the gay issues; it’s the ego and the hubris of a politician and how he recovers from that. I think that a clever review of this documentary would say, “This is Pelosi’s take on politics.” I think all politicians have a shelf life: They lose office or they’re term-limited out or they get tired and quit. But nobody can last forever; in McGreevey’s case, he “fell” from a scandal, but in any event, it all ends at some point. It’s interesting to see what happens to people after they have it all. What do they do next?
You went on a road trip with the Republican presidential campaign of 2000 (“Journeys with George”) followed by a road trip with the Democratic hopefuls in 2004 (“Diary of a Political Tourist”). You looked at the resignation of evangelical leader Ted Haggard in 2009 (“The Trials of Ted Haggard”) and contrasted that with your current examination of Jim McGreevey’s life before and after his resignation as New Jersey governor (“Fall to Grace”). Are these parallels just mere coincidence or have you constructed this purposely?
I’ve always felt that everything I’ve done has been a conversation, a continuation of the last conversation that I had with the people who’ve watched my films ... and that each thing led to the next. For example, in 2000, the evangelicals helped get Bush elected. Well, who are these evangelicals? Let’s go find out (2007’s “Friends of God”). I cover both sides but as a tourist. I don’t go deep; I’m not “Frontline.” I’m not trying to expose anybody. I’m just trying to understand from a cultural standpoint. The title of my 2004 film, “Diary of a Political Tourist” ... that’s who I feel I am. It’s not left wing, it’s not right wing; it’s just looking at all of it, like a tourist. And all of my films are my diary.
Five of your eight films have been road pictures that demanded long periods of time away from home. Your longtime executive producer at HBO, Sheila Nevins, has said you have “a willingness to go anywhere.” But you kept fairly close to home this time — might geographic convenience dictate future decisions?
Aaaah! Don’t tell Jim McGreevey that! My son started first grade this year, and it’s the first year you’re not allowed to leave; it’s real school. So I had to come up with a project that was geographically desirable. I took my kids with me for all those other films. They stayed at Ted Haggard’s house, and they stayed in the motels with the homeless kids; they’ve been along for every road trip that I’ve taken. This is the first year I couldn’t miss that many days of school. I’m not saying that’s why I picked Jim McGreevey but ...
But, as with your earlier films, religion is a very big topic for you.
Yes, there was the issue about McGreevey making peace with his personal religion. I come from a deeply Catholic family. My husband and I were married in a Catholic church; we decided to put our kids into Catholic school. So the choice of McGreevey was more than geography; watching Jim’s critique of the church was a part of that conversation because he was so critical of it, right at the time we were deciding to enroll our kids. It’s part of the life we’ve chosen; it’s interesting because the Catholic church is, in my opinion, part of what ruined Jim McGreevey’s life.
In your last two films, there’s an optimism shining through. First, the elation of newly naturalized American citizens in 2011’s “Citizen USA” followed by “Fall to Grace,” with ex-governor McGreevey re-prioritizing his goals, turning from an ego-driven careerist to a humanitarian and possible priest. Could you address your shift?
I’m a happy person! I guess I’m not as much of a pessimist as most documentary filmmakers. Often, documentaries are about things that are wrong in the world — I just think the world is a much better place. Maybe it’s because I’m blessed: I have two beautiful children, a great husband and a nice life [laughter] ... I’m in my happy place! I don’t think we need more films about everything that’s wrong with this world. We need more films that are about our better angels. After I had kids, I decided that I didn’t want to be tearing down the world that they live in. I wanted to hold it up. The thing with Jim McGreevey is, some people are cynical and they have a cynical take on his motivation. But, what do you do in the day to help mankind? Most people do nothing. Jim McGreevey is helping the women of Hudson County Jail; he’s helping the women of New Jersey. If it’s guilt, or shame -- whatever the reason -- he’s actually doing some good in the world. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t done any good in the world today (besides taking care of my children). I guess we’re trained as media people to be cynics; I’m trying to break myself of that. How am I supposed to tell my kids that life is worth living if all I’m doing is tearing it down every day with my work?
The label “elitist” has been lobbed at you time and again.
The bank account of a documentary filmmaker doesn’t reflect elitism. People make a lot of assumptions about my last name; they prejudge it, and there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s never really helped me, but people think that it comes with certain access. I really don’t care what anybody calls me, as long as I’m working. I’m the only person I know who was literally back at work the day I delivered my children. To have a job for 10 years at HBO as a documentary filmmaker, you have to keep proving yourself year after year. A last name is nice, but every year I have to prove myself all over again with another new film. You know what’s funny about that term “elitist?” I have spent most of my working career in real America. I know that New York and California are not real America. To be clear, I may have been born in California and live in New York, but I work in real America. And I have probably spent more time there than any working journalist.
It seems that even after two decades as a journalist and documentarian, no introductory mention of you is complete without alluding to your famous mother. How have you reconciled that over the years?
Look. I have the greatest mother in the history of mankind. I’m not going to deny it or make excuses for it. I’m very lucky. On the list of accomplishments in life, last Saturday I was in the crossword puzzle in the New York Times. I was 15-Across, "Nancy Pelosi’s Emmy award–winning daughter." At first I thought, “Oh, it’s got Nancy Pelosi’s name attached to it.” But whatever; it’s still the New York Times crossword puzzle. In spite of my last name, I have managed to work successfully in the media for the last two decades.
You come from a line of Democrats who have held political office since the 1920s. [Pelosi’s grandfather was the mayor of Baltimore for 12 years.] Have you been tempted to go into the family business?
No. I’m not a true believer. I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. I think people automatically assume that I share every opinion with my mother. I don’t know one woman on planet Earth who agrees with everything that her mother believes. But for some reason, the entire media assumes that I agree with her on everything. I don’t; I never have [laughter] ... she’d be the first to tell you that. Besides, I don’t think I’d be a very good politician; I wouldn’t do so well in a politically correct environment. I have foot-in-mouth disease. We always make the joke within my family that I’m the off-message daughter.
As the off-camera interlocutor, your tone is direct, yet friendly and informal. Given the growing divisions in this country, do you find it’s harder to get strangers to talk to you?
I never have any problems talking to people. I go out with my camera and I ask them questions and they usually answer. What I have a problem with is the Internet and the blogs and the social media in which everybody has an opinion about the conversations I had that they weren’t a part of. For example, when I did these pieces last spring for "Real Time with Bill Maher,” I made friends with people. And others said, “She’s making fun of them.” I wasn’t making fun of them; the people that were in these pieces thought they looked great. And were happy to be represented, happy to tell Bill Maher how the world worked. It’s an interesting dynamic – I feel like it’s not harder to talk to people; it’s harder for others to understand. Some media people were criticizing. I felt like saying, “Go to Mississippi; talk to people; don’t just sit in your air-conditioned office and have an opinion about what I’m doing; go there yourself!” The thing is, I go. I take my whole family. I spend a lot of time there; I feel like I live in middle America. A lot of people in the media or in the audiences don’t.
In the movies, your demeanor is that of a bold, bright woman unafraid to stir up heated responses and controversy. That said, have you found yourself in situations where you’ve felt truly apprehensive? Or worse?
No. I’m more afraid of the media than I am of real people. The media is very dangerous; anything you say can and will be used against you. If there’s any lesson I’ve had in my 42 years, it’s that I’ve always trusted mankind, the better part of humanity ... but I’ve been very disappointed with reporters and people I’ve talked to in the media who’ve taken what I’ve said out of context just to stir the pot. I’ve had some historic run-ins with bloggers! And I thought -- I tell you this because Salon.com is not an offender -- but I thought that the Huffington Post and a lot of news organizations had some level of credibility; that they had to have sources or they have to pick up the phone and call and verify things ... but they didn’t. I probably sound like one of those right-wing people; I just don’t trust the media. I’m afraid they’re going to take one thing I say completely out of context and make a story out of it. Which they’ve done. And they continue to do. When I got out of grad school and I told my mother that I was going to get my first job in the media, she said “What have I done to deserve this?” She had a healthy mistrust of the media back then but, as a media person, I always represented the pro-media side. And now that I’ve seen what’s happened over the last 20 years, I have to say that if my child said the exact same thing, I think I would cry. I just don’t believe in this day and age that there’s trust.
You have said that you refuse to make films longer than an hour and that “documentaries are boring.” Aren’t there long documentaries that you’ve seen that have rocked your world?
Of course. Ironically, this goes to exactly what I’ve been saying. I said, “Most people think documentaries are boring.” And then the headline was “Documentaries are boring.” See? I find myself often in the position of defending something I don’t even think I said.
So give me the quote so I can get it right.
I do think most people think documentaries are boring ... but I love documentaries! They are some of the most important films ever made. I’m not saying that documentaries are the be-all, end-all, but there’s some amazing documentary filmmakers in America who are doing God’s work. It’s not glamorous, and their bank accounts don’t reflect it, but it’s important stuff. When you see a documentary today, people often think of Michael Moore; they think of a certain kind of opinionated documentary. I’m thinking of a filmmaker like Jon Alpert; he does great films. It’s just like anything – there’s good and bad in every field.
“Fall to Grace” premiered at Sundance in the Short Documentary Competition on Friday, Jan. 18. It will debut on HBO in March.