Rachel Boynton produced, directed, co-edited, and recorded sound on her documentary feature Our Brand Is Crisis, a riveting political thriller that follows Jeremy Rosner, Stan Greenberg, Tad Devine, James Carville, and other US political consultants from the Greenberg Carville Shrum firm as they travel to South America to help Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (aka Goni) become president of Bolivia. In 2005, the film won the prestigious International Documentary Association’s Distinguished Documentary Feature Award and was nominated for a Truer Than Fiction Independent Spirit Award. It opens in theaters nationwide in the spring of 2006.
There’s an image of me from the outtakes of Our Brand Is Crisis. I’m standing on a busy sidewalk in La Paz in front of a stuffed animal stand on my way to shoot at an outdoor market. I have a blue, body-sized bag slung over my shoulders (the tripod was in it), and I’m smiling. At the time, I was marching along with the DP, and he was saying, “It’s for the foundation reel, so they see how hard you’re working.” And I started laughing and begged him to turn the camera off: “Plee-ze don’t film me hauling the bags!”
That was a typical shoot moment: me lifting heavy equipment in La Paz, walking uphill, and I remember it well—mostly because of the city’s altitude. The capital of Bolivia is 10,000 feet above sea level and, when you’re up that high, the lack of oxygen is no joke. Walking up a flight of stairs can leave you gasping. When you get off the plane, there’s a small lounge area with an oxygen tank for foreigners who have trouble breathing. I remember being dumbfounded by casual joggers. Who could run up a mountain in such thin air? But if you stay a while you get used to it.
Jeremy Rosner, the chief strategist and pollster on Goni’s campaign, would fly in from D.C., get off the plane at 6 am and work for 14 hours straight without missing a beat. I never understood how he did it. Towards the end of shooting, I found out he was bringing his own extra-strength Starbucks coffee beans with him (in La Paz you have to go out of your way to get anything other than Nescafé.) Personally, I drank a ton of coca tea. It was the only thing that would keep my head clear and ready for the long shoot days.
We’d start every morning with the daily meeting at campaign headquarters. That’s where the campaign principals would talk about the message of the day, what they were doing to get it out to newspapers around the country, and how to communicate it to the people. All the techniques they used were identical to the ones used here—the only difference was that in Bolivia I was allowed to film; in the U.S. I’d never get such open access. The consultants would target specific segments of the population they knew they had a chance of convincing, and they were constantly trying to keep the campaign “on message”—focused on specific goals rather than on responding to criticism from other candidates or journalists. Every week there was a new theme, and every day there was a new message. And all of it was part of their larger plan.
But things didn’t always go smoothly. At one point, Goni’s principal rival, Manfred Reyes Villa, was doing so well that the campaign found it hard not to get distracted. Manfred had made an ad that was testing extremely well in the focus groups. It showed him feeding a small llama with a baby bottle, smiling, and talking about how he was going to revitalize Bolivia’s economy by increasing the llama trade. “Llama’s are good for their meat and their wool!” he said smiling, a cheery jingle buzzing in the background. Here was the solution to Bolivia’s economic woes: We’ll slaughter all the baby llamas after getting them nice and fat, and make a juicy profit. It seemed ridiculous to me, but the truth was, people liked it. To many Bolivians it seemed practical and feasible. For weeks after the ad aired, Goni’s campaign manager was running around in a panic, relentlessly saying, “We need our own llama ad! What is Goni’s llama?” And everyone looked to the consultants to come up with the perfect solution to the campaign’s woes.
Throughout all this, the American strategists kept track of the pulse of public opinion with nationwide polls and local focus groups. Jeremy would travel to tiny towns and remote villages, to test ads and listen to how people felt about the upcoming election. I loved the focus groups; they were fantastic scenes. You’d watch the American consultant hiding behind a two-way mirror or sitting behind a door, observing the adjacent room through a video link. (Jeremy once did a group in a rural church with nine drunk men, and he had to observe them from the closet.) You’d watch a translator whispering in the consultant’s ear. And you’d hear the people share thoughts and feelings about their lives and their country and their candidates. The focus groups always felt slightly sinister and strangely sacred; here were places where people, so often ignored by their leaders, could speak and be heard by others who had real influence. And because I was focusing on the role of the American strategists in the campaign, the groups provided an important window into the lives of the Bolivians.
But about halfway through the campaign, I realized the majority of my scenes were with white men who spoke English and, while it was intensely entertaining to listen to James Carville tell Goni how he could win, I knew I needed more of the Bolivian people. I had read in the paper that there was a massive march going on. Protesters were demanding constitutional reform to ensure better representation for the indigenous majority, and they were marching into the capital from north, south, east, and west, walking for weeks from the countryside to reach La Paz. One day, towards the end of one of our trips, we didn’t have anything scheduled to shoot so I thought maybe the DP and I could drive into the countryside and find the marchistas. So we hired a car and driver and set out. We drove for miles, pausing at truck stops to ask locals if they’d seen any sign of the protest. People always shook their heads and said, “Oh no, they don’t really march. They get bussed in for the cameras!” We drove all day. The sun was 40 minutes from setting when we finally found a group of marchers, camping in a school in the rural village of Calacotto. We shot the perfect scene with the perfect light at the “magic hour.”
I was so lucky in so many ways during the making of this film. Above all, I was lucky with my access. I was allowed to film something universal that’s normally hidden (the way a candidate gets marketed to his people in a modern democracy) at a time of intense crisis and violence in the country. Many people have asked me how I got permission to film all the things I did. The consultants and the candidate said “yes” independently of each other, but it was Goni who was really the key. Once he gave me permission, almost everyone else followed suit. It was very brave of him to allow me to film such intimate moments in his campaign, and I think he did it because he was proud of his previous achievements as Bolivia’s president from ‘93 to ‘97 (he privatized the economy, created Social Security and maternal/infant health care, and reformed education). He felt like he had nothing to hide. I think the consultants felt similarly—they sincerely believed in Goni and in his vision. Of course no one could have foreseen how events would unfold.
Some of the most surreal moments of the production came towards the end of shooting. In late 2003, I went to La Paz by myself to get some stock footage from a few local television stations. I went to the state-run Channel 7 chairman’s office to get official permission to license the footage—and there was a hunger strike going on in the hallway. I think the employees hadn’t been paid in a while, perhaps because the station had no money. To protest, they had lined the hallway with mattresses and were sleeping there and not eating. At the same time, the chairman had just been fired and no one knew who was going to be in charge. I sat in the hallway for hours waiting to find out whose signature I needed. People lying on mattresses all around me, chanted and waved signs. The rules of the game of democracy in Bolivia were very different from what I was used to.
In the cutting room Jennifer Robinson (the editor) and I spent countless hours wrestling with the larger themes—How much should a leader listen to the people? What does the media require of a modern politician? Is our “brand” of democracy exportable? And what is our “brand” of democracy after all? I wanted all those issues to be implicit rather than explicit, to arise naturally as the story unfolded. Ultimately the edit took about a year and a half, partially because the situation in Bolivia kept evolving (and so the ending kept changing) and partially because it took a long time to figure out how to tell the story in a scene-based, “fiction feature-like” way. But I think the election year of 2006 is a good time for Our Brand Is Crisis—an adventure about the all-American art of branding and how it affects the state of democracy around the world— to come out.