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November 6, 2006

Word on the Street

Narrative/doc hybrid The F Word finds new audience just in time for Election Day

I remember that day: Aug. 29, 2004, a punishingly hot Sunday in Manhattan, a few hundred thousand people inching northward through Chelsea, closer and closer to Madison Square Garden, all the fever and noise of the city plugged into Seventh Avenue for an unmistakably ambitious afternoon of protests against the Iraq War and George W. Bush and the Republican National Convention that had just moved into New York and would soon prove to be the crown-fitting appointment for the president's second term in office.

It's impossible to forget, really, if you were there, but filmmaker Jed Weintrob and his lean four-person crew took their cameras along anyway to shoot part of his fiction-documentary hybrid The F Word (airing in its television premiere tonight at 9 on IFC). The film follows indie radio host Joe Pace (Josh Hamilton, above), a casualty of FCC fines totaling $1 million who takes an impromptu remote tour of New York during his last day on the air. Coinciding with the last day of the 2004 Republican National Convention (at least according to Weintrob's narrative license; the Seventh Avenue rally actually preceded the RNC), Pace's show enlists commentary from a slate of real protestors alongside professional actors who channel the political charge that had galvanized the city in the lead-up to that year's national elections.

"I'd been interested in the crossing of free speech and politics, and also in the world of the administration and Iraq and the crossing of the lines between fiction and reality," Weintrob told The Reeler. "It's about the reality of what we try to create for ourselves -- certainly politically in our minds -- and the actual reality of what's going on. It seemed to be an interesting way to sort of visit it, not really from a totally partisan point of view -- obviously the film is left-leaning, but everyone gets their voice -- but really to take a look at what the mood of the city is. It sort of came from a desire to get out there and do something and to tell a story about what we thought people weren't seeing."

Tweaking the situational shooting model of Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, which made legendary use of its turbulent Democratic National Convention backdrop in 1968, Weintrob pieced his story together using everything from news items to e-mail correspondence; he drew the FCC angle from the troubles afflicting Howard Stern and NPR host Sandra Tsing Loh, while integrating political riffs and full-on scenes from more than three dozen friends and colleagues who responded to solicitations for content for his film (Weintrob attributes the script to a total of 38 writers). He and his co-producers funded their microbudget through some private financing and several non-profit sources, and they spent most of August preparing for an eight-day shoot at the end of the month.

Even with the plans at hand -- filming a pro-choice march over the Brooklyn Bridge, joining the protest group Billionaires for Bush for a mid-afternoon snack, checking in at Ground Zero -- shooting The F Word required the fast-and-loose ethos not only dictated by the tenets of indie film, but also by the strictures of that week's overbearing security measures. To Weintrob and Hamilton's credit, however, it's their clever work within those strictures that pushes the film a dimension beyond the shrill, swaggering agitprop found in so many of their contemporaries' documentaries.

"When we were shooting the scene in front of the Free Speech Megaphone (an immense red bullhorn in City Hall Park), it just happened that it was pointing at part of the state building, and it looked like a really great missile launcher, I guess," Weintrob said. "So we did literally have the men in black with the submachine guns come down to us, stop us, ask us what were shooting, and then literally ask us to see our film. We had to play back the film for them in the camera. And you know, when three big guys in black with submachine guns come and say they want to see what you shot and what the fuck you're doing, parts of the whole free speech thing sort of go out the window."

But when the Aug. 29 rally faced its most tumultuous crackdown, Weintrob and his crew rolled all the tape they could. Crosscut with Mayor Bloomberg's skin-crawlingly patronizing Aug. 30 speech to the GOP delegates ("Welcome to my New York, your New York, our New York, everybody's New York!"), the footage unspools like a surreal, violent aria of arrests and shrieks. Is it played up? Probably. But is it consistent with the film's free-speech survey? Pretty much.

The F Word premiered to a good reception at Tribeca in 2005 (alongside Conventioneers, natch, a politically charged romance also shot during the RNC), but by Weintrob's own admission, its momentum had slackened in the long shadow of the election's aftermath. But he knew he wanted to revive it as the midterm elections approached in 2006, and earlier this year he was encouraged by the reaction from a Columbia University class whose professor had screened the film. "There was sort of a newfound resonance," Weintrob said, adding that the DVD is scheduled for a Nov. 14 national release. "Not only in the sense that here is a document to prove that there were half a million people in the streets of New York in 2004, but also just to really look at what our political system means -- what our fictions and realities that we conjure and take apart daily mean. And that became the interesting thing in bringing it out in 2006. And we had a bunch of different options because the political documentary has become something of a subgenre of late."

Thus IFC, and thus its premiere on the eve of Election Day -- two years removed from its inspiration yet re-establishing its currency in no uncertain terms. "Doing a small theatrical release would have been fun, and we certainly had the option to do so," Weintrob said. "But this really seemed the best way to get the film out there and get the most people possible seeing it."



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