“Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk?” premieres Monday, Aug. 1, on HBO.
Alexandra Pelosi’s first documentary, “Journeys With George,” painted a humanizing portrait of then-Gov. George W. Bush — not exactly what you’d expect from the daughter of a powerful Democratic dynasty (her mother is House Minority Leader and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi).
In the years since, Alexandra Pelosi has attempted to understand the conservative point of view in such films as “The Trials of Ted Haggard,” about the disgraced evangelical pastor, and “Right America: Feeling Wronged — Some Voices From the Campaign Trail,” about the tea-party movement.
With her latest documentary, “Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk?,” premiering 9 p.m. Monday, Aug. 1, on HBO, Pelosi explores the influence of superwealthy donors in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. In an interview at her HBO office in New York, the filmmaker, a bundle of excited energy, discussed wading into the “land mine” of campaign finance.
Q: What brought you to this subject?
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A: My kids (ages 8 and 9) were die-hard Bernie (Sanders supporters), all the way. We went to Washington Square Park to see Bernie speak; it was like going to Woodstock for my kids. However, as much as I appreciate his message, he oversimplified money in politics a little bit.
It’s such a complicated issue … People want you to be either (New Yorker staff writer) Jane Mayer and accuse the Koch brothers of destroying our democracy, or they want you to be the true defender of Citizens United. They want the film to be an investigative deep-dive into how democracy is funded. That’s not what this is. This is a light romp into the mega-donors who are funding our election.
Q: You grew up steeped in this world, but has your point of view changed at all in making this film?
A: I don’t have as much disdain for the mega-donors as the Bernie crowd does. I don’t think it’s all as sinister as some people think.
Q: Do you feel like because of your last name that there’s a knee-jerk reaction to you as a filmmaker?
A: I made a lot of movies in “real America” between New York and California. My last name wasn’t a door-opener. It was more a door-slam in your face. Now I can honestly say I couldn’t have made this film without my mom sneaking me into parties. So if you know your last name’s going to be used against you, you might as well use it to your advantage.
Q: Almost to a person, the donors you interview say they’re writing checks for patriotic reasons, not out of self-interest. Do you believe them?
A: I believe them. Do you think I’m a sucker?
Q: Well, isn’t “patriotism” just a euphemism? What they think is good for America also happens to be good for them?
A: These are the winners. So however the system is set up, it’s working for them. They have so much money. It is so bad for your self-esteem to make a movie about billionaires. You go to their apartments on the Upper East Side and think, “God, imagine if I had a whole penthouse just for my dog.”
Q: What do you make of Jeb Bush, who flamed out in the Republican primary despite being well funded by GOP donors?
A: Who beat him? A billionaire. Would Donald Trump, if he had no money, have beaten him? They’re false equivalencies. He’s a billionaire who self-funded who’s also a reality-television star who got all that free media.
Q: You’ve been making documentaries at HBO for 15 years. Has the landscape changed at all?
A: My first documentary was a Rorschach test. What you thought of George Bush is what you saw. Now, 10 films later, people watch a documentary with their own agenda and there’s very little chance that you’re going to change their mind about anything. People want more opinion than they used to.