Politics as Usual? The AFTER PARTY and its Aftermath
If You See Something, Say Something: Michael I. Schiller on THE AFTER PARTY.
In 2004, Michael I. Schiller, a New York–based cinematographer and editor with some short-form directorial credits to his name, was part of the production team for a documentary film helmed by veteran director Marc Levin. The third of its kind, the film aimed to stimulate youth interest in the electoral process by following music star André 3000 as he attended the nominating conventions of the Democratic and Republican Parties in Boston and New York, respectively, following a loose template established by 1992’s The Last Party (featuring Robert Downey, Jr.) and 2000’s The Party’s Over (with Philip Seymour Hoffman). Schiller could have no idea he was actually working on what would become his own first feature-length documentary, The After Party, debuting this year as the third film in the Last Party trilogy. But then Schiller never expected to get arrested either, or fall under the huge opaque eye of the surveillance state.
The arrest came on August 31, in New York City, while Schiller and crew were capturing the action outside the Republican National Convention, specifically that day a protest by the War Resisters League at Ground Zero, former site of the World Trade Center towers. There Schiller and his colleague, intern Shaina Rigby, were swept up in a massive police action that netted 1801 people in one fell swoop, and held many of them for days in an unmarked city peer in dismal conditions. City prosecutors soon backed away from criminal charges when video from the protest march (including footage shot by Schiller’s crew) showed the police actions to be baseless at best.
Those arrested countered with a lawsuit for unlawful arrest. The New York Civil Liberties Union, representing the plaintiffs, was ready to go to trial by December 2006. But, at the last minute, the city announced its defense would rely on an aggressive post-9/11 intelligence operation run by the NYPD and targeting political groups. The city offered the judge some 600 pages of reports generated by the intelligence operation as rationale for the indiscriminate arrest of all persons at the protest. The NYPD thus revealed it had been spying without warrants on political groups, theater groups, artists, and journalists.
Just this month, on October 1, 2012, a federal judge ruled those arrests unconstitutional and the NYPD’s crowd control tactics illegal, opening the city to lawsuits. But that’s just the latest wrinkle in a case that has cast light on a disturbingly broad, intrusive, and little understood surveillance apparatus.
Schiller’s The After Party, a personal and often sardonic odyssey through the events of 2004 and after, turns the lens back on the hidden cameras, while ruminating on the troubling tradeoffs between civil freedoms and public security in the post-9/11 United States, where, as his film underscores, more than one trillion dollars has already been spent on the “war on terror,” 3,202 government organizations and private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, and 400,000 people are currently on the consolidated watch list of the U.S. Terrorist Screening Center.
Keyframe: Can you explain how this film became the third film in the trilogy? How do you see it as fitting in to the Last Party series of films?
The judge ruled that in my case, the Fulton St. Mass arrest, that there was no justifiable reason to arrest the 226 people snagged in the mass arrest, and no reason to fingerprint them. He mentions in his decision the irrefutable video evidence.
Michael Schiller: Yes, this film is very different from the other two Party films. In some ways that’s what makes the trilogy interesting, is how different each is. Each film is about a different era in politics, with very different personalities investigating the democratic process. My film is unique in that the lens changes from the perspective of a superstar to that of an average guy. The After Party is a film within a film. The original film we set out to make was never completed for a number of reasons, but we were sitting on all of this amazing footage. When my lawsuit against the city uncovered the police spying operation, and it ended up on the front page of the New York Times, I got in touch with Marc Levin and Donovan Leitch, the creators of the other two films, and we decided that my story was enough of a hook to complete the project, with the original film as part of the story that led to my arrest.
Keyframe: A federal judge just recently ruled the arrests of 2004 illegal. What’s the latest on the lawsuit?
Schiller: The judge ruled that in my case, the Fulton St. Mass arrest, that there was no justifiable reason to arrest the 226 people snagged in the mass arrest, and no reason to fingerprint them. He mentions in his decision the irrefutable video evidence. The city has until the 31st of October to appeal, settle or it will move to a trial to decide on damages. The real victory though has already been won, whether or not we win any money. This case will set precedents for how future cases are decided, and that’s good for all of our constitutional rights.
Keyframe: The film’s narrative has two main parts: the story of 2004 and its aftermath, and then your exploration of the larger issue of the massive security state. Was that more or less planned from the outset or was it more a process of discovery?
Schiller: The answer is that it very much evolved. You could say that most documentary films are written in the editing. No matter how well you might plan in advance, when you get into editing is where you really start to make sense of the story and pare it down. That’s very much the case with this film. A lot of it was figuring out what it wasn’t, because there were so many directions the story could go. In the middle of editing, I would go out and shoot more. It’s very much a personal investigation, a very personal perspective on some larger political issues. But in making it that very personal story, it gave me a lot of latitude to move around and explore different ideas, and do different interviews with people that seemed appropriate, when I needed to fill in a gap. One thing would lead me to another. I’d be reading up on surveillance, and thinking, well, it would be good to talk to a surveillance expert. That was the flow if it, very organic, and very much written in the editing.
Keyframe: The personal angle also allows you the freedom to infuse a certain amount of humor, especially in the opening sequences and in the film’s surprise ending.
Schiller: Absolutely. I’m a big fan or humor, and I often look to the line from Lenny Bruce: Once you get people laughing you can tell them anything. I really strongly believe in that. I just think that you can find humor in everything, and by doing so it keeps it a lot more digestible for an audience, and also for me as a filmmaker. This film is entertainment, at the end of the day. There’s some factual stuff in there, there’s some historical and documentary stuff, which ultimately is probably my prime motivation for making it: To document this really creepy thing that happened to me, that I lived through, and to create this record for it, because I think it has significance historically. But humor is very important in anything in life, and particularly when you’re dealing with such serious topics. (Laughs.)
Keyframe: True, it could be pretty gloomy otherwise. But also, without diminishing the seriousness of the subject, the humor comes across as an expression of resilience.
Schiller: It is. And you mention the ending as humorous. I agree, but it’s also based in this real thing. The whole experience did make me extremely paranoid. So it was a way of acting out that paranoia, taking it to the what-if level. How far are we away from a society where these things are possible? But in the execution of it, it definitely is funny. It’s always interesting to see audience reactions. I’ve seen the movie so many times that I don’t even watch it when I’m in the room, I watch the audience, to see how they react, the places where people laugh. Sometimes people find that part funny, sometimes it’s pin-drop quiet in the room. For some people it’s just scary, or they don’t understand what happened, it feels so real.
Keyframe: You come from a filmmaking family. You’re uncle, in particular, was an avant-garde filmmaker.
Schiller: Yes: His name is Roger Jacoby. He passed away long ago. But Roger’s films are now for the first time available for streaming through Fandor. That was a really cool thing for me to be able to facilitate that and to get his films out into the digital world. He shot on all the antiquated cameras and would process footage in the bathtub, so he could get a really cool look out of it. He was a very interesting character. His lover of many years was Ondine, from the Warhol Factory scene. He was in Chelsea Girls and Vinyl. (The ‘Pope Ondine’ is what they referred to him as.) He was in both of those, and was just a very well known figure. That was Roger’s lover of many years and the star of many of his films; you’ll see him appearing in a bunch of those films. Those guys were always around when I was growing up in Pittsburgh. They were my uncles, and they had a very big influence on me, including in humor, they were always up for a good laugh, and as artists and just very wild, creative figures. There are a lot of artists in my family, but as far as a filmmaking influence, he was definitely a big one.
I’m a big fan or humor, and I often look to the line from Lenny Bruce: Once you get people laughing you can tell them anything.
Keyframe: Has the experience of making this film, and the experience of 2004 and its aftermath in general, changed the way you work or see filmmaking?
Schiller: Absolutely. This is my first feature project. I had done a lot of short-form stuff before that, short films and short documentary content, and also worked as a professional in the industry as a cameraman and editor on other people’s projects, feature-length, television, you name it. But making a feature film is an incredibly challenging, massive undertaking. Especially a project like this, which was funded in part through a Kickstarter fundraising process, through a modest amount of private investment, as well as a huge investment from people who donated labor and time and equipment, and my own donated labor and time and equipment, and my own money that I put into it. When you get into the mathematics of it, it’s just an unbelievably daunting undertaking. But this film, I never did it because I thought I was going to sell it and make a ton of money on it. It was never a business undertaking (which making a film sort of has to be because of the massive scale of investment that goes into it). But now that I’ve done it, I understand the process so well. It’s been very educational. I often refer to it as my PhD dissertation. (Laughs.) It took eight years to do; it required such a massive investment… Certainly going into the next one I have a certain level of education coming through this whole thing. It gave me even more respect for other filmmakers able to do it, and put out a few films a year even, which is just mind-blowing.
Keyframe: Who are some of the filmmakers you most admire or have learned from?
Schiller: I remember watching an Errol Morris documentary, The Thin Blue Line, when I was probably like 10 years old. My mom showed me that movie for some reason. (Laughs.) My mom showed me a lot of movies and turned me on to a lot of culture. Looking back, I don’t understand why at such a young age she would have exposed me to that stuff, but I’m glad that she did. (Laughs.) I’ve always been a fan of Errol Morris’s films; I think he’s an incredible filmmaker. There are really so few people who can make films and just have that be their full-time day job. I have an enormous amount of respect for those people, and I’m lucky enough to know some of them. Marc Levin is one of them. Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin have been making films for 30 years or something crazy like that, and they manage to make a few a year, and one is better than the next. Alex Gibney is another one that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and to know a little bit. His films are inspirational and incredible. There are a bunch of fiction filmmakers that influenced me growing up. It’s such a mixed bag, almost completely random, but guys like Gus Van Sant have always influenced me, particularly his earlier films, like Drugstore Cowboy. Those are all guys that I’ve always looked up to and been inspired by, and in the case of Marc Levin had the good fortune of working with.
Keyframe: Is documentary film where you feel most at home; will your next films be documentaries?
Schiller: So much of the work that I do is based on my immediate circumstances. I used to do a lot more print journalism, and I’d often write about things that I’d experienced. When I look back, there’s a similar perspective between The After Party and some of the print journalism [I wrote], where I would take a political or larger global issue and make it very personal, just as a way of processing it, and then make art out of that. I think that methodology transcends format. You can have that perspective in print journalism, you can do it in documentary filmmaking, and you can also do it in fiction filmmaking or fictional writing. A lot of the same groundwork goes into any good project. I’ve written now a few feature-length scripts, fictional projects, and the process of doing that is so similar to doing a documentary. It’s basically about, first and foremost, doing a massive amount of research, understanding the subject that you’re tackling from every imaginable perspective (the ones you agree with and the ones you disagree with), understanding the historical context, trying to find relevant minds who are doing that kind of work or might exemplify elements of that story. So, for me, I don’t feel married to documentary. In fact, what I’d like to do next is direct a fiction film, work with some actors and try to make one of these scripts I’ve been working away at into a reality. That’s my next big move. The trick is you’re getting other people’s money to do it. (Laughs.)
Nowadays almost everyone in this country has a video camera in their pocket by way of their smart phone. You just can’t get rid of all of those. Impossible.
Keyframe: The judge in the recent ruling weighed the video evidence very heavily in deciding the police had indeed acted illegally. Do you have concerns about the future ability of filmmakers, journalists, and ordinary citizens to wield the power of video technology on their own behalf like that?
Schiller: The DA, when he originally dropped the criminal charges, said the same thing [as the judge]. He looked at the tape that the New York Civil Liberties Union had given him, the tape that my partner had shot, and he dropped the criminal charges. You couldn’t argue with it. What you saw was just a group of people very quietly and peacefully assembled on the sidewalk, not breaking any laws, and then you saw a bunch of people getting arrested. So to your point, it’s a powerful tool. There are so many different ways these scenarios unfold. There’s probably not a large, coordinated effort. You saw some of the statistics in the film. There are so many different departments, and so many different people with clearances, and so many different systems to this surveillance apparatus. In my case, I had film in my camera that they could easily have destroyed and they didn’t. But I’ve heard plenty of other cases of people who were filming police activity and the cops took the camera and either smashed the camera or destroyed the tape, or both. That’s happened plenty of times. But I think it’s probably on an officer-by-officer, department-by-department basis.
Nowadays almost everyone in this country has a video camera in their pocket by way of their smart phone. You just can’t get rid of all of those. Impossible. I know you’re out there in the Bay Area. There was a shooting of an unarmed BART passenger, and that was on multiple cameras filming the incident from people’s cell phones. To a certain extent you had the same thing [in 2004]. Our tape was great because the film from my camera crew shows the entire thing, without editing: from the police saying everyone have a safe march and go ahead. [The camera operator] never stopped rolling for like 15 minutes, until everyone was under arrest. You saw this clear and continuous perspective on it. I think that’s why our tape had such an influence. But there were also many other cameras in that crowd. There were cameras at the back of the march (and the judge cites that when he says there were people at the back of the march who can’t hear what the officers at the front of the march are saying). So he has the benefit of multi-cam film coverage of the event. That is a huge advantage in this kind of response, whether it be to police brutality or constitutional violations or what have you. Because everyone has a camera this is catching on as a tactic. People understand that it’s a way that they can fight back. I think that is only growing. I don’t think that’s going away. It’s going to become more and more prevalent. I think it has become more and more prevalent. You see that the way that Occupy Wall Street turned into a relatively small protest in New York City into a global movement was largely by way of these videotapes of people getting maced. I like to quote Clayton Patterson, who filmed the Lower East Side police riots back in the ’90s. His videotapes led to the dismissals of like 15 police officers and captains. He was doing this really when video cameras just came out. His take on it is, ‘It’s Little Brother watching Big Brother.’ I think that’s a good way of putting it.