Without the recognizable actors to catch the interest of potential audiences, or the multi-million dollar advertising campaigns afforded by the big studios of Hollywood, there is a horrific fate that awaits most independent films. That fate is the curse of a film going relatively unnoticed and unseen--languishing in obscurity for a variety of reasons that are not a reflection of cinematic quality, but more of a reflection of the entertainment industry's inability to think outside the box and the audience's hunger for predictable mediocrity. But it is films like Conventioneers, which run the risk of being marginalized and obscured that, once "discovered," restore a bit of faith in the art and craft of cinema.
Set during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, Conventioneers is an unconventional love story that uses partisan politics as a backdrop to tell a complex tale of human nature. Dave Massey (Matthew Mabe) is a Texas delegate visiting New York for the first time. Massey is a conservative who believes in Bush, what the GOP stands for, and is proud to be serving his part. On the opposite end of the political spectrum is Lea Jones (Woodwyn Koons), a die-hard, ultra-liberal who is part of a group planning to disrupt the convention by any means necessary. Massey and Lea have very little in common politically, but their personal lives are marred by relationships that have lost their shine, and a nagging uncertainty about where their lives are headed. Old friends from college, they decide to meet up for lunch. But upon their first meeting in seven years, Massey's politics prove to be too much for Lea, and she storms out of the restaurant. Feeling bad about how she treated him, Lea returns of Massey's hotel, and after a few too many drinks, the couple end up sleeping together, even though he is married and she is engaged. As the affair heats up, the couple is forced to wrestle with their political ideologies and question how much they are willing to compromise to be with each other.
Shot during the actual 2004 GOP Convention and the surrounding anti-Bush protests, director Mora Stephens effectively blurs the line between reality and fiction with a film that not only recalls Haskel Wexler's brilliant 1969 film Medium Cool, but also captures the free-form natural style of John Cassavetes. The incredible feat of effectively incorporating the convention and the various protest rallies into the film's storyline goes a long way to helping create an illusion of authenticity. The hand-held photography of Conventioneers allows the film to explore the realms of neo-realism and cinema verite, resulting in an extremely intimate emotional resonance that makes the movie feel like a documentary. In fact, it is only during the scenes of a romantic nature does the film ever comes close to revealing itself as a work of fiction. Writing credit for the film goes to Stephens and Joel Viertel, but as is explained in the supplementary material, the actual dialog was developed primarily by the actors during rehearsal time leading up to the shoot. The largely improvised dialog is never forced or unnatural, and the performances by Mabe, Koons and the rest of the cast are so "real" that at times it is almost uncomfortable to watch them, as if you're spying on actual people.
It is important to not downplay the amazing way in which Stephens, her crew and the cast manage to incorporate what is going on in the real world into their story, as well as seamlessly blend into reality. Sure, other films have done things like film at real parades or sporting events, but those events are treated as background elements, as opposed to supporting characters.
As Conventioneers unfolds, the audience becomes more caught up in the dynamic of the characters as well as the growing sense of wonder of how Stephens and her crew got many of the shots in the film. Eventually, it all culminates in an incredible sequence when Lea's friend Dylan, a sign language interpreter and former liberal activist, takes to the convention floor to interpret for George Bush. Dylan is torn between providing for his family by doing his job, and performing some sort of stunt that could humiliate Bush in front of the nation. Dylan's struggle to reconcile who he was versus who has become now that he has a wife and child serves to represent the ideological struggle many people go through as they grow older. But as we see Dylan in the same shot as Bush, all we can do is ask, "How did they get those shots?" And more important, will Dylan go through with his planned stunt? Both drama and filmmaking seldom get more compelling than this sequence.
Conventioneers is careful to not use the political divide between Massey and Lea as the punch line to series of obvious jokes, or as an expository hook by which to hang a flimsy story. And thankfully the film does not beat up on either side of the political fence too much. Instead, Conventioneers reveals the sad truth that many people hide behind political ideologies as a way of defining who they are. By adopting the causes and value systems of a larger group, these people give up a huge part of themselves in order to not have to actually think and feel for themselves. This is especially true of Lea, a knee-jerk political hot head who, as a "compassionate liberal," is actually more close-minded and judgmental than her conservative lover. Massey, at least is willing to question his values and beliefs, on the off chance there may be something better out there. As he begins to fall in love with Lea, Massey becomes more willing to take chances, more willing to question the ideology that has defined him most of his life. He becomes more open to the possibility of partial compromise. But for Lea, who has floundered in her career, and been unable to make a relationship work, her radical ideals are the only thing in her life that seems to work, and to deny those would be to leave her without anything to depend upon other than herself.
Operating on multiple levels, Conventioneers is not only a bitter-sweet love story, lightly seasoned with a dark sense of humor, it also serves as a historical time capsule, glimpsing at the political climate and mentality separating this country in 2004. But perhaps even more important, it is an inspirational achievement in the world of independent film. Fans of indie cinema, as well as established and aspiring filmmakers would do well to study Conventioneers, which defies many of the standards and principals that govern mainstream film and sucks the soul out of contemporary cinema.
Conventioneers is presented in 1.33:1 widescreen. The movie was shot on digital video, and while some scenes are a bit grainy, by and large the image quality is great.
Conventioneers is presented Dolby Digital Stereo. Considering the guerilla nature of the filmmaking, and the fact that much of it was filmed outside, in New York City during protest rallies, the sound mix is incredible. In fact, one of the things I was thing while watching the film was what an incredible job they did with the sound.
This is the sort of film that the moment you finish watching it you have a ton of questions about the production process. Thankfully there are two audio commentaries, one with director Mora Stephens and several cast members, and another commentary with Stephens, producer Joel Viertel. This is not one of those instances where only one commentary is worth listening to--both are solid, entertaining and informative. A series of too-brief behind the scenes segments offer insight into how the film was made, but the problem is none of them are long enough. I could easily sit through a feature-length documentary detailing the production process. There is also a collection of outtakes, as well as some alternative takes, all of which offer an interesting glimpse at how hard everyone worked to make Conventioneers seem so real. Two alternate endings show how much difference a single scene or a few lines of dialog can make in the tone of a film.
If you love independent films with a cutting edge that defy the accepted standards of Hollywood, you owe it to yourself to watch Conventioneers. If you are lucky enough to live near a video store that carries this title, or you can get it off Netflix, then definitely rent it. At the same time, there is a strong case for owning this film, as it definitely warrants multiple viewings.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]