Interviews

No Ordinary Granny

It’s no ordinary day when a 90-year old grandmother sets out on a walk across the United States to make a point, and Doris “Granny D” Haddock is no ordinary woman. The protagonist of Run Granny Run spent 14 months in 2000 on her cross-country journey to bring attention to campaign finance reform. Along the way, she was credited as a key driving force behind the McCain/Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, which was enacted in 2002. Another two years later, Haddock was running for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, and her grassroots campaign defied all expectations.

Filmmaker Marlo Poras’s documentary followed Granny D during her madcap 4-month campaign and talks to The Independent about the making of her film, which airs on HBO this month.

How did you meet Granny D and come to make a film about her?

It was in 2004, I was online and a banner ad caught my eye. This group wanted to fund limousines to go into low-income housing complexes on Election Day, to chauffeur people to the polls and make voting a hip event.

I thought, this is one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen. And so I clicked on the link, and it was one of Granny D’s campaigns. She was on a yearlong voter registration drive, touring swing states across the country, trying to register working women and minorities to vote. And she did all this at the age of 94.

On her website, there were pictures of Doris wearing a full mermaid’s outfit, you know, with her legs wrapped up in a glittering mermaid’s tail. Her schtick was she would go and do a woman’s work for her, so that woman could take time off to register to vote.

She was up to all sorts of antics. She seemed so sassy and adventurous. And then I started researching Doris, and I found out she walked across the country when she was 90—10 miles a day for 14 months—all to raise awareness about campaign finance reform. She’d been hailed by everyone from Jimmy Carter to John McCain for her dogged determination to reform the electoral system. Then I read her speeches, which are in a class of their own. And she seemed incredibly substantial, not just old and brave and ballsy, but substantial, and articulate and clever. And successful. She brought a wave of national and international attention to campaign finance reform at a time when the media didn’t necessarily consider it a sexy issue.

I was so deeply touched that this 94-year old woman was putting her life on the line for her vision of democracy, time and again, that I had to meet her. So, I called Dennis Burke, who later became her campaign manager. Dennis was very open to me visiting them, so I hopped on a plane to Chicago to meet them and never turned back.

Granny D really personifies gutsiness and yet you also portray her at some of her lowest moments — notably when Dean snubs her for a photo-op, her preparation for the debate and of course when she actually loses the election. How do you as a filmmaker choose the balance between showing the real vulnerable woman and admirable person she is?

As I created this portrait of Doris, I worked hard to steer clear of hagiography and instead craft a portrait of a complicated woman leading an extraordinary life.

Doris walked across the country, she led protests that twice landed her in D.C. jails, she toured the country on a voter registration drive, she won 34% of the vote in her run for U.S. Senate after campaigning for just four months—and all this in her 90s. Doris likes to consider herself an example of “the power of one,” but her work is so remarkable, it becomes easy for people to see her as an exception to the rule, as some sort of alien. Like a professional dancer, she makes her work look easy, when in fact it’s deeply challenging on many levels. Doris works herself to the bone, fighting both naysayers and the inherent liabilities of old age to achieve her goals.

I wanted the film to show her trajectory—how her gritty determination to get through whatever challenges she faces often leads her to accomplish something exceptional. To me, including these human moments and struggles makes her achievements both more heroic and more accessible.

You got started on this film before she had decided to run – is that right? If so, did you ever imagine where this would all lead?

When I began filming Doris in the spring of ‘04, she was crisscrossing America, registering working women and minorities to vote. I wanted to follow her through the election; I thought I’d make a road trip movie with an unlikely heroine and we’d get a view of America in a pivotal election year through her eyes.

Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think this would turn into a campaign film. But when Doris unexpectedly jumped into the electoral ring, I knew I was on the right path. Being open to the unexpected, and balancing my own vision as a director against the reality of lived life is one of my favorite aspects of documentary filmmaking.

I listened to a radio interview with you and Granny D–it sounded like she was absolutely tireless during the campaign–walking five miles a day and also campaigning. What was it like keeping up with her?

Exhausting. The woman was up at four or five in the morning, then she and her son would drive one to two hours to a start point for her five mile walk, she’d walk five miles, waving at supporters, then she’d do a few interviews, give a smashing speech, shake hands at a couple democratic events and return home by 10 to study the issues and finally go to bed around midnight or one. How do you keep up with that? I was a one woman crew and I’m not good at naps. It was embarrassing how much more tired I was than 94-year-old Doris much of the time.

I read that Run Granny Run (then called The Candidate) won the largest prize at the IFP Market — $31,500. Tell me a bit about that.

The award was a complete surprise for me, and a milestone. At that point, I had raised enough money to shoot the film and edit it on my own for about six months. I didn’t apply for the award; I didn’t even know about it until a couple weeks before the Market, when I was told the film had been nominated. It’s a documentary work-in-progress award and I think they nominate about five films out of the entire work-in-progress pack at the Market.

When I found out the film had won, I was thrilled and it helped breathe new life into the project. The judges and the Market staff were so supportive of the film, it meant a great deal to me. The award wasn’t cash, it consisted of in-kind goods and services, few of which I was able to take advantage of, because they just didn’t apply to what I was doing. But that was actually fine because the truly important end result of the award was that it helped to put the film on the map — a number of broadcasters and festival programmers followed up with me because of it.

There’s no outside narration for the film, but I noticed Granny D’s voice provides a lot of the narration – was that recorded separately or was that taken from interviews?

The narration in the film is a mix. Doris was so busy during the campaign, it was difficult to pull her aside for interviews (this usually happened at the start of the day, around 5 a.m.) Some of those interviews, conducted as the campaign happened, are in the film. But as I edited the film, I would also visit Doris and show her scenes I was cutting, and we’d work together to articulate what was going on in her head at the time, what she was feeling. She has terrific interior recall, and we had a lot of fun with the narration.

Doris says in her speech The Seven–Layer Cake that “most people are worth knowing.” Do you find this true as a documentary filmmaker?

Everyone may be worth knowing, but few are interesting or dynamic enough to carry a film.

Did making this film change your opinion about politics or democracy in any way?

Well, it reinforced my understanding that the business of party politics is often shameful and that campaign funding regulations are in desperate need of further reform (hence the importance of Granny D’s current crusade – public funding of elections!). But also, through her seemingly quixotic commitment to breathe life into her ideals, Doris also helped me see that authentic politics is the art of the impossible. When you don’t pay heed to what’s impossible, you act as if everything is possible, and that’s the path toward extraordinary change.

In addition to directing your own films, you’ve also worked on other directors’ films as a cameraperson. When you take on those kinds of gigs, do you miss having total control?

I don’t miss having control at all — quite the opposite, it’s wonderfully liberating. Working as a cameraperson for someone else puts me in a different mindset. I’m focused on helping the director realize their vision.

Your last film, Mai’s America, was about a Vietnam exchange student. You followed that up by focusing on a 90-year-old activist/politician. How do you find such interesting characters, and who’s next?

I’m drawn to unlikely people whose lives change the way I see the world. Mai, the North Vietnamese student who was the subject of Mai’s America, helped me experience America in a completely new way. And Granny D has certainly done the same. As far as what’s next, it’s a secret. I’ll let you know in two years.

Run Granny Run is screening in festivals across this country fall 2007 and airs on HBO on October 18, 2007. DVDs can be purchased on the website www.grannyd.com.

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2 Responses to “No Ordinary Granny”

  1. mike

    I saw this movie last night on HBO on Demand and, among other things, I was struck by how well Poras opened and closed the film. She starts out with an extended and painfully comic scene of Granny D trying to apply lipstick in a moving car, on her way to a campaign appearance. She ends with a shot of Granny D, defeated in her 2004 New Hampshire Senate bid, embarking on one of her signature treks down a winding New England road. The ending itself seems like a natural, but the opening sequence was unexpected, portraying a somewhat exalted figure as human and a little vain, and it was totally memorable.

  2. cbradshaw

    Granny You Rock! I just watched your documentary an you are amazing. I am a 32 year old mother of 5 and I can’t imagine being so active. You are an inspiration. I am so amazed. I would have voted for you. I live in New Brunswick, Canada, and I just wish that someone would run our country as honorable and dedicated as you. I wish you the best.

    Crystal Bradshaw
    bradshaw@nb.sympatico.ca

    Remember, even though you didn’t win, you are still making a difference. I may not be from the USA, but you have touched my heart, and you have inspired me to try and make a difference in the people’s lives that I touch. I only hope that someday I can be as cool as you!

    Love You Granny, You Rock!