Sometimes the momentous contests in political history can be portrayed most truthfully through the eyes of the losers rather than the winners.
The 2016 Republican primary contest featured two outsider candidates – Donald Trump and Ben Carson – who were not professional politicians. Each man appeared to offer to conservative voters a change from the familiar politics of the Washington establishment, but only one of them would prevail in a bitterly fought showdown over the Republican presidential nomination.
PACmen, the engrossing new documentary by Melbourne-based filmmaker Luke Walker destined to be a highlight of this year’s Sydney Film Festival program, is the compelling story of an also-ran. Like the other contenders, including GOP establishment figures such as Jeb Bush, Ben Carson was mown down by the Trump juggernaut.
Apart from referencing the classic 1980s video game of endless consumption, the film’s title refers to the Political Action Committee system in America. A PAC organises the campaign infrastructure on behalf of the individual candidate, while a so-called Super PAC is formed in financial support of a campaign with no restriction on the size or source of donations.
“I wanted to make a film both sides can watch – for Republicans to see their reflection and for Democrats to empathise with Republican motivations,”says PACmen director Luke Walker.
Granted uniquely unrestricted access to the Carson Super PAC, Walker shows us the entire operation, from the millionaire businessmen and political strategists who select the candidate and essentially run the show down to the ordinary campaign workers knocking on doors and making phone calls in the effort to secure individual voters.
The film shows how Carson initially seemed to attract solid support among Republicans, though as we know it is Trump who will win not only the party’s nomination but go on to take the White House. The contrast between the background and character of the two men could not be greater. Carson, a quietly spoken African-American neurosurgeon who grew up in poverty raised by a single mother, comes from a background very different to that of Trump, the loud-mouthed, privileged billionaire property developer and reality TV star.
True to form, Trump goes after Carson personally, smearing him mercilessly as he did his other rivals. A political novice without a media profile to match that of Trump, Carson, despite his story of personal triumph and his professional accomplishments, is ridiculed and diminished. Carson himself proves to be gaff-prone and politically naïve. As a potential POTUS, Carson, unfortunately for him and his supporters, makes a great neurosurgeon.
The film explores how Super PACs have created an environment where millionaires can interfere with the American democratic process.
Despite everyone knowing the eventual outcome, Walker says he wanted to show exactly how the Trump takeover played out in the wider GOP. “I think the subject of the election has been very much covered to death. However, I hope that there is enough of interest in the back-story of the guys who pushed a reluctant, unprepared Carson into the spotlight. Hopefully there will be interest in how these guys helplessly observed the rise of Trump with horror, then jumped on the bandwagon anyway.”
Though made with impressively high production values, PACmen takes a deliberately observational rather than intimate approach. Walker says that he was inspired by “old fashioned verite films à la Pennebaker/Maysles/Drew, so there are no interviews, no voiceover and hopefully no overt political bias. I wanted to make a film both sides can watch – for Republicans to see their reflection and for Democrats to empathise with Republican motivations. I think observational films have the ability to reach across the divide in a way that partisan or activist films cannot, though they can still be intimate. I hope I’ve created a film both sides will watch.”
Walker concedes that “a certain amount of American political knowledge is useful to fully appreciate the film’s message, so I’ve found it’s been much better received by American journos thus far. The film explores how Super PACs have created an environment where millionaires can interfere with the American democratic process on a whim. It’s a bizarre climate, leading to bizarre politics, where bizarre candidates like Ben Carson run for president.”
“Inevitably the film also becomes an exploration of the rise of Trump, though the horrified eyes of the men who back the wrong horse; eventually bearing witness to their fascinating embrace of him, against all principles, once they begin to realise he might win.”
PACmen is the first documentary he has filmed outside Australia, though Walker senses an affinity with his earlier work. Walker’s previous film, the well-received Lasseter’s Bones, explores the myth of the Lasseter’s Reef, an enormous gold deposit supposedly discovered somewhere in Central Australia in the 1920s by an eccentric prospector who died before the location could be confirmed. The fabulous reef has subsequently assumed the status of a legend akin to El Dorado.
Before making Lasseter’s Bones, Walker co-directed (with Melissa Mclean) the equally impressive Beyond Our Ken, the story of husband and wife religious cult leaders Ken Dyer and Jan Hamilton. They were the founders of the Kenja Communications, a controversial Sydney-based offshoot of Scientology.
“It’s interesting for me to see that I have ended up making another film about misguided faith”, says Walker. “I wonder why I keep unconsciously finding the same theme.”
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PACmen is screening on June 17 at the Sydney Film Festival