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Politics as usual

Joshua Seftel's documentary takes on the Kennedys

by Catherine A. Salmons

TAKING ON THE KENNEDYS: A BEHIND-THE-SCENES LOOK AT THE BRUTAL WORLD OF MODERN POLITICS. Documentary produced, directed, and edited by Joshua Seftel. Airs this Tuesday, May 28, at 10 p.m. on WGBH/Channel 2, as part of the P.O.V. series.

In 1994, 26-year-old Patrick Kennedy -- the fresh-faced, adolescent-looking son of the Bay State's favorite senator, Ted Kennedy -- launched his first campaign for national office, vying for a Rhode Island congressional seat against political neophyte Kevin Vigilante, a 39-year-old physician with a community service record as long as his arm. Ill-prepared for the rough and tumble of political campaigning, Vigilante brandished lofty ideals, naively swearing off the mudslinging tactics most voters claim to deplore. Kennedy, on the other hand, rolled up his sleeves and faced the business of politics head-on, delegating fundraising duties to his famous relatives and deploying negative TV ads from the start. Predictably, Kennedy won, proving that money, clout, organization, and strategic savvy (not to mention his family's potent mystique) are still an unbeatable combination -- regardless of the Kennedy-of-the-moment's lack of experience.

To Boston filmmaker Joshua Seftel, the Kennedy factor in this race was secondary to the overall sleaze factor that dominates American electoral politics. His documentary Taking On the Kennedys -- which airs this Tuesday on the PBS series P.O.V. -- is a behind-the-scenes log of the entire campaign, shot from within the Vigilante camp. Armed only with his Hi-8 video camera, Seftel (a veritable one-man band who conceived, directed, and produced the film on his own) trails Vigilante from meeting to press conference to fundraiser to debate, as he receives "the political education of a lifetime" -- the hard way. We watch the candidate press the flesh, attending (to be precise) "six parades, 20 festivals, dozens of supermarkets, 50 senior centers, and one nail-pounding contest;" we also see him bullied by his campaign handlers, outgunned by an expensive barrage of negative ads, and so overworked he reneges on his unrealistic promise to continue seeing patients at the clinic he founded for HIV-positive women.

If Seftel's film lacks perspective, at times, it's also refreshingly free of didactic, interpretive commentary, blathering "talking heads," and the like: what you see is what you get. Grainy and faux-amateurish, it's brilliantly edited, a cinéma-vérité pastiche that evolves into a psychological profile of both candidates, and an exposé of the process. Vigilante emerges as sincere, but naive and not very political, scarcely committed to his Republican party's agenda -- an easy target for Kennedy's allegations that he's not his own man, a patsy for the AMA and other moneyed lobbying organizations. Kennedy at first comes across as "a nice kid" (Vigilante's words); soon, though, it becomes clear that he has only the vaguest belief in the liberal ideals his family stands for -- he's long on savvy, short on substance. His high-school cocaine addiction becomes an issue, as does his status as a material witness in the William Kennedy Smith trial once Vigilante finally decides to sling mud.

As the campaign gets uglier, Seftel's dry wit zeros in on some wonderfully humorous moments. Consider his footage of Mary Ann Sorrentino, a liberal Democrat and the dowager grande dame of Providence talk radio, mercilessly pitting herself, bulldog-like, against the over-privileged Kennedy: "Wake up, Patrick," she opens her show, "it's 11:33 a.m., you're supposed to be out shaking hands!" Or the irony of the sequence in which a horde of reporters, some from national networks and the Today Show, cover Caroline Kennedy's arrival in Providence to help her cousin raise money while just two local journalists attend a press conference Vigilante calls on the same day. This film works well as nuanced political satire, but it also makes for good entertainment, if you like theater of cruelty.

For a self-taught cinematographer who's no older than Patrick Kennedy himself, Taking On the Kennedys is a remarkable piece of work. Already touted as a wunderkind for his first film, Lost and Found, a documentary on the plight of Romania's orphans that was nominated for a national Emmy, Seftel is incredibly resourceful, a man who hasn't let discouragement stand in his way. After graduating from Tufts in 1990 and making little headway in the job market (qualified to teach high-school French, he was also seeking entry-level film-production assignments), he made the decision to shoot Lost and Found on his own. He raised $2000, borrowed a camera, and hopped on a plane. The rest is film history.

Taking On the Kennedys was an outlet for Seftel's conscientious political views and his sympathy for the underdog. He cautions that it's not "in any way a partisan film" or a film about the Kennedys per se, though he recognizes their lasting hold on the public imagination. "I believe strongly in what that family stands for," he asserts, "but the film is not about my beliefs or opinions. It's more about what I observed of the state of electoral politics in general -- the slow corruption, the role of money, name recognition, and negative ads. The Kennedys have become an emblem of political know-how." Thanks to his own robust initiative, Seftel's low-budget, neo-noir work is sure to become a modern classic of New Social Realism.

A special Boston premiere of Taking On the Kennedys will take place on Thursday, May 23 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Huntington Ave. The $7 admission fee includes the 6:45 p.m. screening and the wine-and-cheese reception that follows.

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