… nothing American about it. Infact it probably has more to do with a general fascination for history, the history of power, history created by current affairs, and then, about the creative access to records of the powerful, real and reel. Skrao is generally known to be and ribbed about being obsessed with history and American presidents in his circle; I am always learning of factoids that are pepper our conversations, infact I stopped calling myself a history buff after I met him. 🙂
My own POTUS fascination is more an extension of popular obsession for dynasties and the hidden lives of those who rule us – ably supported by addictions to The West Wing, and Youtube videos of interviews and other trivia. Shakaal, my ex-roommate’s boyfriend introduced me to the first season of The West Wing – and I was hooked so tightly that I used it as my route to escape the tragedy of my dad’s death! My unsuspecting brother Chinnu had no idea of how life was going to be possessed when I introduced him to the first episode of the first season. Skrao has resisted, but not for long because I plan to get the collector’s edition of all seasons.
This Sunday was spent talking a lot about history and the making of it. From the story of the rise in interracial marriages and children of mixed races in the bigoted Southern states in the US to excerpts of the Wikileaks cables about the Gandhi family and Indian politics in the ‘Hindu’ newspaper. But what stoked my interest most was the discovery of documentaries on Netflix. Um, well, I guess they aren’t discoveries – Skrao has been mentioning them for a while and I chose to watch ‘The Odd Couple‘ during lunchtime over a short documentary. (In short about that movie – classic 1968 comedy that had me clutching my sides in laughter). Later at night, when he started to play the hour long documentary, I was glued to the screen in minutes.
‘The President’s Photographer’, as the name suggests is a narrative about the Official White House photographer’s attempts to archive nearly every moment of the presidency – in this case, The Obama term. The show was filmed in the first sixteen months and mainly around the time when the Health Reform Bill was being debated. With a 13 hour working day, and unimaginable access to The Oval Room, even and especially during important and historic meetings, as well as rather private family hours, Pete Souza captures around 20000 to 80000 pictures a month that encapsulate every hour of Obama’s term. As a matter of fact, he is not allowed to delete any of these pictures – they officially belong to the National Archives and the Presidential Library. About 5% of these pictures captures ‘handshakes’ – a matter mundane to the President, but momentous for the ordinary citizen clutching on to the President’s grasp !
Digital photography of course allows him such liberty that wasn’t available to earlier photographers. Think about it, digital photography was not around during the Clinton administration – in my mind, that is still recent ! (Though I have been told, that these days that Pulp Fiction is now considered a classic. Hmph ! ) The documentary mostly features the current presidency with a few references to the past – one that stuck with me was about how Prez. Nixon disallowed free access to the Official Photographer, Ollie Atkins, in his time. On his last day of the presidency, just before he spoke to the nation about his resignation, he bellowed at his photographer who’d taken one picture before the last address and was obviously waiting for his prized catch – the moment after Nixon resigned. Nixon refused to pose for any more photographs and only allowed the CBS videographers.
That makes me think of the power of photography. It has greater allure of retention than video does – video calls for greater attention spans, I guess. There is probably something innately embarrassing about the video recording, the only ones we usually enjoy are of kids in the uninhibited self. The photograph, I think, engages the viewer in a long stare and permits us to build our own scripted narrative of the moment encapsulated. With Skrao’s developing interest in photography, we delighted in observing the different lenses used to capture the President in introspective, retrospective, and powerful moments. And moments where he totally succumbs to children, like when he bent down to a little boy who wanted to verify if he shared the same style of haircut.
I end this note with my favorite part of the narrative (a one-hour voiceover by Morgan Freeman) – “A (presidential) motorcade has a certain glamour to it. But the realities of security mean that the president and the first lady often arrive in some of the least glamorous parts of the building“. In this case, they were traveling in a dirty grey freight elevator. That image lingers.
We watched the video on Netflix, but found the same video here. Highly recommended viewing. Also, other documentaries on Netflix have been very promising. For now, we’re watching the commentaries on India 🙂