Hearing People’s Stories: Alicia Sams on Documentary Filmmaking

 /  May 29, 2016, 5 p.m.


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Alicia Sams is a filmmaker known primarily for her documentaries. Her best-known work was the 2009 Emmy-winning film By the People, about President Obama’s 2008 race to the White House. Sams is also the Director of the Speaker Series at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. Sams discussed her filmmaking career and By the People in an interview with the Gate’s Riddhi Sangam.

The Gate: How did you get your start in filmmaking, and how did you decide to become a filmmaker?

Alicia Sams: I actually started in print journalism. I was a reporter for a small local newspaper in Wyoming, and I loved it because I liked hearing people’s stories. I did a lot of local coverage. Then, I went to Cairo. [because] I had an internship there, and I also did a lot of writing for a couple of journals there. I thought I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. And I then started to realize that I really liked collaboration, and I liked visuals and seeing and getting out there. So when I came back from Egypt, I wanted to see if I could get a job in documentary film. I talked to everybody I knewthis was before everyone wanted to be a filmmakerand I found this job as a production secretary and learned every aspect of filmmaking from the ground up.

Gate: What did you do as a production secretary?

Sams: I did everything from answering the phones and making coffee to doing all the research to logging tapes. I was a complete jack-of-all-trades, which was great, because there's a lot of shitwork that goes into making a film. If you don't start from the bottom, you'll never appreciate all the people it takes to make a film.

Gate: You are known mainly for your work with documentaries, but you have also worked on fictional movies like Chocolat. How is the process of working on documentaries different from working on fictional films?

Sams: With documentaries, it can be a combination of things. Sometimes somebody comes to me with a great idea. But it also takes reading articles all the time. It's meeting people. It's trying to get to know a city and finding something. Just the way you pick up a book and think,  “You know, this is interesting.” You sort of have to come up with an idea, and then ask, “Can I live with this for three or four years?” And fiction is the same thing. You have to be passionate about your subject because you are spending so much time with it. One film that I finished two years ago about this magician named Ricky Jay took fourteen years.

Gate: What is it like to you work on these films for that long?

Sams: You're not working full time. You get some funding and then you shoot a little bit and then you go raise more money, or do some other longitudinal things. When I started the Barack Obama film, we really intended it to be a ten-year, longitudinal process where we would follow a senator who  would be in the right place at the right time when he ran for president. And that just all happened a lot more quickly than we thought. That did become a full-time job. But, often in documentary film, you have a couple of balls in the air at once. So everything's really different. Sometimes things happen really fast.

Gate: You said you happened to be in the right place at the right time when shooting By the People. But how did you initially decide to follow then-Senator Obama around?

Sams: The story behind By the People began with my friend and colleague, Amy Rice, who  lost her brother in the Twin Towers. She began trying to understand the world and how this had happened. She hadn't been political before, and she hadn't even really followed the news that much. But after 9/11, she was just devouring information. In 2004, her other brother called her up and said, "Look, you should watch this guy, Barack Hussein Obama, giving this speech tonight at the DNC.” And she watched it, and she felt like for the first time, she saw a politician that spoke to her generation and spoke to her. She sort of worked on it for about a year and wasn't really getting anywhere. She called me and said, "Do you want to help me with this?"

I had also seen the speech, and as a documentary producer, I thought, “That's a great idea, let's do it.” We joined forces with actor and producer Edward Norton, who has worked a lot on the Hilleven though he's an actor he's a big advocate for politics issues, like affordable public housing,and is also on the board of the Enterprise Foundation. He helped us get our foot in the door. We just went and said, "Look, can we just try this? We want to film this senator, we think he's really interesting. We want to shoot different aspects of him being a senator and what it means and create kind of a civics lesson for America." So we started. We shot him doing a podcast, and we would follow him once in awhile on the Hill during winter and spring of 2006. We went with him to a couple of college campuses where he was giving graduation speeches. We didn't have very much money, but we shot a little bit of the events we would need  to get to know him, like when he would do these breakfasts on the Hill with Senator Dick Durbin. They would have doughnuts and coffee, and the were constituent breakfasts, so they were with school groups traveling to Washington from Illinois. The two of them would just talk a little bit about what they were working on and then just do question-and-answer sessions. It was really great. That summer, we shot him at the Bud Billiken parade and that's when we first met Michelle and the kids. We went downstate with him and shot him talking to farmers, and that was really, really amazing. Because it was one thing to see him here in Chicago, on his home turf, but to see how he could connect in downstate Illinois, we thought, “This is going to be a great story. This guy is going to be a great story.” Then we traveled to Africa with him.

Gate: How was that?

Sams: That was incredible. We started in South Africa, which was just amazing from what we saw. We met Bishop Desmond Tutu, and we went to the Supreme Court. But Obama wasn't famous [like Bishop Tutu]nobody really knew who he was. But when we get to Kenya, it was like being with the Rolling Stones.More American media came, and the Kenyans went nuts because Obama was their native son. That was when all that talk started about whether he was going to run.

Gate: So this was still in the summer of 2006?

Sams: Yes, we came back that fall for the midterm elections, and he raised funds for a bunch of people. We shot some of those fundraisers, and we shot him on his book tour. That's when we started to see the country just kind of going nuts over him, and we realized we might be making a campaign film. And then, 2007 came around and he announced.

Gate: What was a typical day was like on the campaign?

Sams: There were a bunch of different phases of the campaign, but my favorite part was Iowa because of the access. When it started, it was the senator, maybe Tommy Vietor or Robert Gibbs, or Reggie Love, and then maybe one or two other campaign staffers. There were not a lot of people traveling around with him. He would do these small group situations or stump speeches in barns, and we watched him learn how to be a candidate for president.  So in 2007, a typical day would be: get up, go to some county or town in Iowa, and meet with, you know, fifty people in a room where we'd talk about their concerns. Then he would go to some location at a school or a farm and give a stump speech for maybe a couple hundred people and they'd all ask a ton of questions. He wasn't always really good on the stump. He was always really good with answering questions, but that convention speech guy was not really there in the beginning. He was very much kind of serious and you know, and he got tired. But then there were times like when he spoke at the University of Iowa, and it was outdoors and beautiful and by then there were maybe a few more staffers around, but still just a caravan with not much presswe could all follow him in our cars. It was packed with all these people yelling and holding up babies. Then you started to feel like, “Wow, this is a real presidential campaign.” It wasn't until that summer on the first bus trip in Iowa where really we sort of realized, “Ok, this is how a campaign unfolds.” You get on the bus in the morning and the campaign dictates pretty much everything you do. You're here, you go there, you see him do that.  

Amy and I, since we weren't really press, we were filmmakers, would sometimes drop off the press tour and drive ourselves around and meet up with the campaign in other places and really try to get a sense of what people on the street were saying. We would also go to other states, and we would go back home to New York a lot. And then once you get into the general election, the daily grind is like Groundhog DayI mean, it was over and over again. We had to divide and conquer filming, so I spent a lot of time in Chicago with the campaign staff shooting that, shooting the daily work of the campaign responding to the news or Jon Favreau working on a speech or watching debates or primaries. It was really fun watching primary returns with the campaign staff.

We also quickly learned that the story wasn't just the candidate or even the strategists. It really was the people. It was the people he was speaking to and the peoplelike the volunteers and the kidswho were on the ground every day, and some of them going weeks without seeing him. But they were totally fired up by the fact that they were working for this guy.

Gate: As the current Director of the Speaker Series at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, you had the opportunity to go to Iowa for the caucuses this past year. What was it like returning to Iowa?

Sams: It was great, but it was very different.  We had gone back to Iowa in 2009 to show the film in Des Moines.  But when there's nothing going on, when there's no election season, Iowa is a really different place. It's so quiet. This time, I instantly got that same feeling of this buzz, where all these journalists and everybody's trying to figure out what's going on at rallies and stuff like that. It was a little different because I wasn't as deeply involved in it. But there is still this kind of magic in Iowa where you realize that these peopleon both sides, on the campaign side and on the caucus-goer side have all put a lot of time into this, into getting to this right. The ones who show up are really committed to the caucus. It was also neat meeting a few first-time caucus-goers. There was this one girl who was like, "So what's the difference between a caucus and a primary? You know, I've never done one of these before." It was great to see the University of Chicago students be able to get access to that. Everything was very accessible in Iowa. So it was really nice. It was great to see it through the students' eyes.

Gate: As you mentioned, when it's caucus season, Iowa is crazy. And obviously, a lot of that has to do with media coverage. What was it like being a documentary filmmaker and interacting with the media?

Sams: I have to say, the media was so supportive of us. They were great. I remember talking to Candy Crowley about the race, and she was like, "What are you doing here?" And then we got to be really good friends with the media and some of them were characters in our film. We asked them all the time, “What's going on here?” And the older journalists loved explaining the history of how this compared with 2004, 2002, and with previous races. They were really generousincluding with feeding us. They were really generous with their time and expertise too. It's funny, because you always hear about the media like, "Oh, they're so competitive and cutthroat." There were a couple of people that were maybe not as kind, but by and large, there was a real esprit de corps among the media. And that's another thing that made it really fun.

Gate: How did the campaign and all his staffers respond to being filmed? Because you were in there, all day, every day...

Sams: Well there were a couple of people, like David Plouffe, who never wanted to be surrounded, but at the end he told us he was glad we had done it. So that was good. Others never wanted to see us around. But for a lot of them, we got their trust once they knew our footage wasn't showing up on YouTube or that we weren't reporting on them. Before we started, we had gotten this tip to position ourselves as historians, not journalists. Because we aren't journalists. We were not going for a story day to day. We wanted to capture a moment in history and make a film about what happened, but we weren't reporting the news. Over time, as we got to know people, they really started to trust us and like having us around.

Gate: Would you ever consider doing another presidential campaign documentary?

Sams: I don't think so. I'm also in a different place nowI'm married, I'm settled down. Filming a campaign can be brutal. I also don't think you can get the kind of access anymore that we had. I just think that everybody is too saturated, and there's already too much saturation of media. They all now have their own media teams, so why would they let someone in? You can do it from the outside. But I wouldn't be that interested in doing it again.

Gate: President Obama's second term will be ending very soon. How do you think the reception to the film and the public's response to him as political figure has changed since the film was released?

Sams: I think it's more a feeling of nostalgia more than anything else. In terms of the public perception of him, I think there's a huge difference between a campaign and a presidency. There is that saying, "You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose." A campaign is all about aspiration, and a presidency is about a really big, hard job. You can have all the plans in the world, but you don't know what the world is going to throw at you, whether it's the economic crisis, or whether it was 9/11. I don't think people always get that. I think we are so wrapped up in a campaign mindset. It's always a horse race, and the people want to know what polls are, so they kind of don't have any patience for true governance. You're probably the most popular the day you're inaugurated, and then I don't know how anyone survives.

Gate: You said earlier that President Obama built up his image during his campaign. One of the things he is known for is being a great public speaker. What do you think is the difference in the way he portrayed himself during his campaign, and now, during his presidency?

Sams: I don't think it's so much that he built up his image as that he just got better as a candidate. And he got better at communicating quickly. The difference, I suppose, again, is that it's a lot harder to communicate actual policy decisions and implementation than it is to communicate what you say you're going to do, and what you hope to do, and what you think you're going to do for the country. I don't think it's a difference in him. Besides being older and wiser, I think he's probably still pretty much the same guy I see. I don't think it's about image so much as the public's responsiveness and desire to understand what they're being told. It's a lot harder to kind of have patience with the way the government works and a lot easier to just get excited by a campaign. And Obama always said that. He said, "It's going to take a long time and it's a lot of work," but nobody wants to hear that.

Gate: You said you wouldn't do a presidential campaign soon, but you are still involved with documentary filmmaking. What are you working on right now?

Sams: It's on a little bit of a hiatus now because the Institute of Politics keeps me pretty busy, but I'm working on a film about presidential speechwriters that's both historical and contemporary. I have interviewed several speechwriters and shot a dinner that they all had together. I need to go out and raise more money for that film. It's a look at how they have communicated to the people and how the press has triangulated between the president and the people. But there is also this really great behind-the-scenes look at the White House, because the speechwriters are tasked with communicating the president's voice and vision.They're not these ego-driven power brokers. Their job is to be behind the scenes. There's a book called White House Ghosts [about presidential speechwriters and how their role in the White House has changed over time], and I'm working with the writer of that, and it's truethey really are kind of these ghosts.

Gate: Finally, how did you become the Director of the Speaker Series at the Institute of Politics, and how does your current job relate to your filmmaking career?

Sams: I knew David Axelrod (Director of the Institute of Politics) from the film. And I think what I like about it is that every event is like a little mini documentary, but I don't have to raise the funds for it. I don't have to spend four years on it. You get to think about the things that you would maybe want to make a documentary about, and bring in all these interesting people and interesting ideas to the IOP. It's a lot of the same skills. It's taking an idea and making it into something that the public can digest and talk about. It's not always creating a new narrative, but it's just opening up the world of ideas. That's what I love about documentary filmmaking, and that's what I love about being here.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here


Riddhi Sangam

Riddhi Sangam is a fourth-year majoring in Economics and minoring in Creative Writing. This past summer, she worked in investment banking at BNP Paribas in New York. On campus, Riddhi is also involved with the Women in Public Service Program. In her spare time, Riddhi enjoys reading, writing, and researching restaurant menus as a form of procrastination.


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