Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TIFF Review 2011: "Sarah Palin: You Betcha!""

Sarah Palin: You Betcha!
(Real To Reel)
(United Kingdom, 2011, 90 minutes)
Directed by: Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill
Cast: Nick Broomfield

The shtick is familiar by now: the shambling about like a clueless tourist who just got off the boat, sporting an Ignatious P. Reilly hunting cap, toting his Nagra and shotgun mike, and disarming his aggressors with the effortless charm of a doting uncle while in pursuit of an unattainable subject—Nick Broomfield is at again and this time, he’s dogging, unsuccessfully, everyone’s favorite Republican nut-job. And by that, I mean Sarah Palin…really; the field is getting sort of crowded at the time of this writing…

Defeated as a Vice Presidential candidate after having resigned as the Governor of Alaska, Palin manages to retain her fan base with her “tell-all” book Going Rogue: An American Life. It’s at a signing in Houston where Broomfield first requests an interview (recording the moment with a hidden camera) and it’s her patented enthusiastic response that gives the film its title. Of course, we know from Broomfield’s “Tracking Down Maggie” how this is going to go…
When repeated promises for an interview are broken and his calls go unreturned, Broomfield (and longtime filmmaking partner Joan Churchill) heads directly for Palin’s former frozen fiefdom: Wasilla, Alaska. Population: six thousand. Chief industries: crystal meth, and churches. Seventy-six of them. And no strip clubs.

Getting right to it, Broomfield’s first encounter is with Palin’s parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, and for the most part, the project starts off promisingly. They share photographs, archival video, and childhood trinkets and welcome the filmmaker like a long, lost relative. The respect seems mutual, even if they don’t agree politically.

But when Broomfield starts sniffing around her former mayoral office and asking some pointed questions about Sarah’s political qualifications and financial savvy (not to mention a healthy list of scandals), it doesn’t take long for word to get around and the Heath’s participation starts to wane as they become suspicious of the once-charming Brit’s true intentions.

The local testimony amassed from former colleagues, employees, campaign advisers, teachers, law enforcement, and even a priest (!)—Many of them afraid to talk on camera else risk ostracism and even violence--is hardly flattering to no one’s surprise. “Thrown Under The Bus” is uttered so often it could be the film’s alternate subtitle…

What emerges is troubling history of a vapid, vindictive aging Prom Queen who remembers everyone who ever enacted a perceived slight--a sociopathic, anti-intellectual opportunist who could manufacture a charming smile and folksy one-liner while planning your eminent, merciless destruction.

And a dangerous one, too: Reverend Howard Bess, still a courageous Wasilla resident even though his book, “Pastor, I Am Gay”, was banned by Mayor Palin from the local libraries, is deeply troubled by her devotion to the extreme Assembly Of God and feels she honestly believes she’s been anointed by The Creator. Clearly not the kind of person you’d want with their finger on the button (I’ll admit, for a moment here I was no longer chuckling and became genuinely worried that in a few short years I could be living next to a female Greg Stillson from Stephen King’s “The Dead Zone”).

There’s humorous footage of her stints as beauty pageant contestant, local news anchor, and something vaguely resembling an exorcism during an Assembly Of God service, but those are easy bits (but not unwelcome, mind you). Much more worrying is the damage she can cause to those suckers that voted for her in the first place: when she left office as mayor, she stuck Wasilla with a $22M deficit. Then, as governor of Alaska, she slapped a huge tax on oil companies drilling there, even to the protests of fellow Republicans!

Finally, Broomfield is left with little choice but to up the ante and confront her himself, from a crowd of several thousand, mind you. During a post-rally Q&A of “approved” questions only, the director stands up with a megaphone and blasts in her direction: "Do you think your political career is over?" Palin doesn’t miss a beat and after a sip of water, suggests he ask the crowd. Right on cue, the burst into terrifying applause as Broomfield and his crew are hauled off the floor by security (what he doesn’t show is that the cameraman was smashed into the wall).
Broomfield’s kick is that his quixotic quests is an essential part of the narrative, with personalities of the non-present subjects (from Thatcher to Cobain to Tupac) forming from varying points-of-view like a biographical Rashoman. Of course, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock are enjoying the fruits of Broomfield’s once-daunting and very risky experiment. As Broomfield said in his Q&A, the questions that aren’t answered can be just as revealing…
The film’s financing is just as interesting, and a harbinger of realities to come as there are fewer “small” films being made and even fewer venues to see them: via the fundraising website Kickstarter, Broomfield was able to elicit $30,000 in donations to supplement the UK’s Channel 4 funding).

Recent events have already dated the urgency of the film as much ado about nothing—there’s not a chance in hell she’ll get anywhere near the White House now that she’s officially suspended her campaign—but as a portrait of eccentricity, it’ll surely be as fascinating decades from now as Grey Gardens.

©2011 Robert J. Lewis