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Interview with Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini

We were interested in the possibility of following a big idea about how to change social policy - that happened to be about immigration.

HBO

What made you decide to follow this particular piece of legislation?

Camerini

We had made 'Well Founded Fear,' a film about political asylum and it got a lot of attention but we discovered audiences wanted to talk more broadly about immigration, not just asylum. We heard from the immigration reform community there was going to be a big legislative fight in the summer of 2001. The expectation at that time was that Senator Ted Kennedy and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback were going to introduce a bill, Bush was going to back it as the first big initiative of his administration and there would be a bit of resistance but by the spring of 2002 there would be a bill and possibly a law and that was the story we were going to film.

Robertson

And had that happened, we learned later, it would have been an incredible record time. Big social policy bills tend to take 6-8 years on Capitol Hill because of the many iterations. But the conditions seemed to be unusually perfect at that moment in the
summer of 2001 and the expectation was this was going to slide through like greased lightening. It wasn't just that the administration and Senate were ready, but that former opponents, like the labor movement, had come around and decided to support a comprehensive reform bill along with the business community. So it really seemed like we were following the culmination.

HBO

And when did you begin to suspect that was not to be the case?

Robertson

At about 10 o'clock on 9/11. It was pretty clear that everything was going to be different after that. The country's whole understanding of what it meant to be a "foreigner" changed profoundly right then.

HBO

When did it become a piece about 'How Democracy Works Now'?

Robertson

That was always the plan. We weren't planning to make a career out of immigration films. We were interested in the possibility of following a big idea about how to change social policy - that happened to be about immigration - as it made its way into the law of the land. That was the attraction for us.

HBO

There were a lot of surprises about who's on what side of the various issues and why.

Camerini

It's why this is such a great issue. When we started, Bush was pushing it. There was a fight within the White House and Bush was the left wing of the White House. And the judiciary committee had the one Republican partnering with Kennedy who was passionate about immigrant rights: Sam Brownback of Kansas, a born-again Christian, anti-cloning, as conservative as they get, but not on immigration.

Robertson

And he was doing it for principled reasons, but also for political reasons. As was a great deal of the Republican leadership at that point. They saw that demographically they weren't going to be able to stay in power unless they expanded their base. But that caused a huge split among Republicans, even in 2001, and it got far more polarized as the years went by. It was kind of the same among the Democrats. There was a faction very close to labor and even though the AFL had officially come out in support of reform, not every union felt that way so the Democrats too were of two minds.

HBO

The film presents a bold view of just how daunting it is to get legislation passed.

Camerini

Hopefully you do feel like the process is daunting - and the people who do it are pretty heroic. And you understand that it's always enormously complicated, and if you as a citizen expect it to be simple and are not supportive of the complex, compromised, muddy solution then no good will ever come. The democratic process worked perfectly. The people who really cared and were really passionate spoke up. And they got their way. With social issues, like healthcare, the solution is always going to be a complex compromise that isn't the best ideal solution. The journey we filmed - for 6 years - is how does the great idea, the great design (this reform bill came out of a think tank, it was really a great idea for shaping America's immigration system) become a law, or fail to become a law? If you ask that question you understand the way a difficult issue like health care or immigration are perfect tests of the democratic system.

Robertson

Through the years, what people meant precisely, when they said "the grand bargain" in the context of the immigration reform issue, varied a bit. But it was always a question of every interested party giving up something in order to get some other things
that were important to them and all together revolutionizing the immigration system not only to take care of the problems that exist as we've been letting it unravel in the last 20-30 years but also looking forward: How do we keep this from happening again? So the bargain was always tough for everyone involved. It became very personalized in this form in 2007. And the film we ended up making was one that became extremely personal and focused on Senator Kennedy and his own personal equation he had to figure out: Was it worth giving up many things he wanted very badly, at least in the short run, in order to save 12 million people?

HBO

As they are approaching the final vote, someone says: "This is such a deeply flawed ugly duckling...but it's still our best hope." It seems frustrating after all they've fought for.

Camerini

I think one of the problems with the world at the moment is that we're all expecting a clean, "our way" solution. And so are the other sides. So everyone has these unrealistic expectations. They say about the Senate: "This is where bad bills come to die." It has to be the hammered compromise. These politicians have to bring together all of our contradictory desires, all of our hypocrisies, all of our dishonesties and come up with a solution on any particular issue.

Robertson

That's what we expect them to do. They disappoint us.

Camerini

We deny the fact that we have our own hypocrisies and our own contradictory desires and that we're only part of the body politic - we liberals in NYC or we conservatives in Des Moines - and the job of the politician is in fact to synthesize something out of that. So it's going to be an ugly duckling.

HBO

What is your best hope for what this film reveals?

Robertson

I think the thing we learned is that this system of ours does work perfectly. It reflects back exactly what goes into it. What's missing right now is we're not putting ourselves into it. Voting is the least of making a democracy work. What happens between elections, that's where a democracy is working. If it's not going the way we want, we can have a voice and there are many ways to do that but if you just let it run on its own, it unlikely to go the way you want.

Camerini

We're probably more positive about the system than the average person. We are in a period of a lot of cynicism and a lot of disappointment. I think we're a lot more sympathetic that it's tough because it has to be tough. That's how it is and we all have to grow up and recognize that.

'The Senators' Bargain' is the centerpiece of 'How Democracy Works Now,' a multi-
faceted project by Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini. For more information on their
project go to howdemocracyworksnow.com.

The Senators' Bargain