Back in the 1970s, before Bernie Sanders became the Mayor of Burlington and then Vermont's sole U.S. Congressman, he was a filmmaker. His résumé includes 15 "film strips," short celluloid projects on educational subjects for schools, and a video biography about early 20th-century Socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs.
"I always felt that the media was not covering so many of the great, important stories to be told," Sanders says during a phone conversation from his Washington office. "Had things gone differently, we might be talking about a Bernie Sanders documentary now instead of one by Michael Moore."
But once elected to public office in 1981, the politician set aside his cinematic ambitions — unless you count a brief cameo playing himself in Sweet Hearts Dance, a 1988 picture with Susan Sarandon and Don Johnson shot in Vermont. The director of that production has now trained his camera on Sanders again, this time in a non-fiction genre: Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism examines the clout of that right-wing media giant. There are interviews with the Brooklyn-born progressive as well as other noted talking heads such as satirist Al Franken, author Robert McChesney and John Nichols, a correspondent for The Nation.
The 80-minute doc will be given simultaneous viewings on July 18 at "house parties" and in select public venues all over the country, with a $10 suggested donation. Sanders is slated to appear in person at one of them — 7 p.m. at the Eclipse Theater in Waitsfield — and to conduct a conference call on speakerphones with participants at other showings around the state that begin at 7:30.
People who don't feel like going out for the evening can organize their own house parties by calling 802-862-1505 or visiting http://www.bernie.org. All you need is a DVD player and, if possible, a speakerphone.
In a double twist of fate, Sanders is also featured in Orwell Rolls in His Grave by Robert Kane Pappas, which similarly focuses on corporate machinations in the Fourth Estate. It will screen at 7:30 p.m. on July 26 at the Roxy in Burlington, with the director and congressman on hand. This Vermont premiere, for which tickets cost $10, is wedged between debuts in New York City on July 23 and Los Angeles on July 30.
The Roxy event will be presented solely by Sanders for Congress, but the reelection campaign is co-sponsoring the Outfoxed house parties with MoveOn.org and other activist organizations.
The topic of media manipulation has always been close to Sanders' heart. "We've held town meetings on this over the last few years," he recalls. "We got huge crowds. The issue is: Can we have a vibrant democracy when a handful of large corporations control everything?"
Here's another burning question: Does he ever yearn to give up government and go back to the medium from whence he came? He thinks for a moment before answering with typical Bernie brio, "Making history is more fun than writing or filming it."
Orwell Rolls in His Grave includes some commentary from Michael Moore, whose own Fahrenheit 9/11 has broken all previous box-office records for a documentary. Currently the man of the hour in anti-Bush circles, he had a tough time nine years ago this month when he was in Vermont shooting an episode of "TV Nation." At that point, the show — like "60 Minutes" with a subversive edge — had moved from NBC to, ironically, Fox.
The mischievous premise for Moore's Green Mountain State stunt was to hug every member of the National Governors Association, which had gathered for an annual meeting at the Sheraton. Despite the proper press credentials and a previous assurance from Howard Dean that "the welcome mat will be out," the crew ran into trouble.
"Of all the stories we've done on 'TV Nation,' the most difficult ever was in the People's Republic of Burlington," Moore explained in a 1995 interview. "For us, it was the Police State of Burlington. There were Secret Service, Vermont State Police, Burlington City Police, tanks, helicopters. The city police were the friendliest, but they were closely watched by their state police masters, who told us: 'We are now going to arrest you. You have three minutes to leave the premises.' They pulled out cuffs. I said, 'Please, no handcuffs. This is just hugging.'"