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Of all the travails of making a campaign movie, Joshua Seftel says, being suspected of espionage was probably the worst.
Perhaps Seftel, a 26-year-old in the process of making his third documentary film, should have expected as much when he began filming the endless hours of inside dope surrounding the fight for Rhode Island’s congressional seat. It was no ordinary race, to be sure; it pitted Kevin Vigilante, a 40ish Republican physician, against Patrick Kennedy, Ted’s 27-year-old son.
“At one point, the Kennedy campaign completely shut me out because they said I was a spy,” Seftel claims. “I called up the press secretary. He yelled at me, said I was working for the other campaign.
“I said, “Just give me 10 minutes to explain.’ I gathered up all the clippings on the work I’ve done. I even brought a prize possession, a photo of myself with Ted Kennedy.”
The movie’s working title, Taking on the Kennedys, has caused so much confusion—and indeed, outright controversy—that Seftel has put it on the back burner for now. The filmmaker says the problem stems from its implication that the documentary will be an attack on Patrick Kennedy—an impression that was inadvertently bolstered by the Vigilante camp’s decision to grant Seftel wider access than Kennedy’s did. In fact, says Seftel, the S at the end of the titular “Kennedy” signifies the concept (substantiated by most of the voters he spoke with) that Vigilante was running not merely against Patrick, but against the embodiment of a wider family ideal.
“I sat down with the guy,” Seftel continues. “I said, “I’m a filmmaker trying to do my job. I’m not out to get anyone. I like the Kennedys. I’m trying to be objective.’ ”
The press secretary eventually loosened up. “But,” Seftel adds, “it was a constant struggle.”
Seftel, who normally works out of his small apartment in Somerville, Mass., was in town this month to film the culmination of that struggle, the swearing-in of the latest Kennedy to invade Washington. But he also had another reason for the trip: nailing down some financing for post-production work. Incredibly, he undertook the six months of shooting on spec, using the cheap but reasonably good quality Hi8 video format. (“The good thing about a small camera is that it’s unobtrusive,” he notes. “People are used to having video cameras around now. It puts them at ease.”)
The filmmaker expects to finish up with a one-hour documentary designed for television, though he hasn’t ruled out a cinema release. With in-kind services from Boston’s public-television station WGBH in hand, he’ll still need about $100,000—cheap by documentary stand ards, but expensive by Seftel’s.
By comparison, his first film, the half-hour documentary Lost and Found: The Story of Romania’s Forgotten Children, cost a microscopic $2,000—including his air fare. (Meals for 50 cents and $2 hotel rooms undoubtedly helped keep his tab low.) Lost, made not long after Seftel graduated from Tufts University with a concentration in French literature and pre-med, was a critical success: It was nominated for a national Emmy, and won 20 international awards for its portrayal of a Romanian orphanage in the aftermath of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Seftel spent part of his time filming the horrors, and part trying to help the aid workers ameliorate them.
While working in Romania, Seftel became acquainted with Kevin Vigilante, a physician with a history of involvement in international relief efforts. A few years and another documentary later—Old Warrior, about the political power of senior citizens—Seftel heard that Vigilante, a political novice, was running for Congress as a Republican. Better yet, Vigilante’s congressional district happened to include one of the heaviest concentrations of senior citizens in the country. And, as an added attraction, there was Patrick Kennedy.
“The campaign struck me as the meeting of two concepts that Americans love,” Seftel says. “On the one hand, you had an underdog in Vigilante, kind of a Rocky figure. And on the other, you had the closest thing to royalty that America has. I was drawn to examining that clash.”
For Seftel, a native of greater Schenectady, N.Y., and (at the beginning, at least) a newcomer to political intrigue, the sausage-grinder aspect of campaigning quickly became evident.
“The one thing that surprised me was the intensity,” he says. “It was a brutal circus. I was always struggling to establish a trust with both campaigns, but it was very difficult because there was so much at stake. Each campaign became a universe unto itself.”
Until the film is complete (and perhaps until Seftel no longer requires the cooperation of Vigilante and Kennedy), the filmmaker is coy about revealing behind-the-scenes details about either candidate. But when pressed, he provides some hints.
“I saw Kevin Vigilante change a lot during the campaign,” Seftel says. “At first, he was somebody who really wanted to fight the clean fight. He didn’t want to go negative. He wanted a clean, fair race. By the end, he felt otherwise. He finally decided to go negative.”
And, Seftel suggests, it didn’t take an Ed Rollins to figure that out. “Not only did negativity resonate with the public, it also resonated with the media,” he explains. “Either candidate could have as many press conferences in a row as they wanted, but if they were on serious topics, nobody would show up. As soon as Vigilante began talking about William Kennedy Smith, the cameras were always there.”
In his own way, Seftel observes, Kennedy posed an equally intriguing study in American politics. “I was very curious to see whether the Kennedy mystique was still alive, because Massachusetts people have been saying it’s over,” he says. “I think the race proved that’s not so. The Kennedy mystique is alive and well.”
In a district where many voters hang three pictures on their walls—of Jesus, the Pope, and JFK—it’s no wonder that Seftel has so much footage of Kennedy being mobbed by autograph-seekers at Rhode Island senior centers.
Hours of such footage face Seftel as he settles in to the editing grind. He has his work cut out for him: Inevitably, his film will be measured against The War Room, the critically acclaimed 1993 film by D.A. Pennebaker starring James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, and the rest of Bill Clinton’s victorious campaign crew.
The filmmaker concedes that he had “a little more access” than Pennebaker did. “He shot 30 hours,” Seftel says, “I shot 160.”
It’s doubtful that either Vigilante or Kennedy will exude as much charm as Carville did in Room. But then, young Patrick may be destined for a longer political shelf-life than Bill Clinton.