The New York Times – Winning a Scrappy Race, and a Bit of the Limelight, Too

21 Sep

The New York Times

Winning a Scrappy Race, and a Bit of the Limelight, Too”

By Josh Benson

WOODSTOCK, NY, Oct. 1- so here’s the plot. Two Guys- one a legally blind right-wing mayor from a small town in New Jersey, the other a maverick political consultant who helped Jesse Ventura become governor of Minnesota show up at a film festival. The setting is a place where the audiences are so left-leaning that people once booed a film about a Cuban dissident because they found it too critical because they found it too critical of Fidel Castro.

Even weirder: The politicians are there as promoters of an award-winning independent movie that has been picked up for distribution next year in theaters across country. Oh, and one thing: They’re the stars of the show. “There are a lot of liberal hippies here huh?”
Said Steven Lonegan, the Republican mayor of the Bergen County town of Bogota, shortly before the screening of a documentary about his 2003 campaign. “You think they’re going to chase me into a corner and attack me?”

Mr. Lonegan, who recently sought the republican nomination for governor, emerged intact. But it was an odd cultural collision of New Jersey politics and art house cinema, indeed, this weekend at the sixth annual Woodstock Film Festival, where a group of producers from New Jersey toasted the accouncement of a distribution deal for the documentary, “Anytown, U.S.A.”

The movie, the creation of Kristinan Raga and Juan Dominguez, tells the story of the 2003 campaign for the mayor that takes unexpected, and the heart-breaking, twists and turns. “We were like, wow,” said Mr. Dominguez, a former Bogta town councilman who refinanced his house to pay the initial production costs of his project. “We realized as we were filming that we had something special on our hands.”

The story starts just weeks before the election, with the campaign of Mr. Lonegan, whose budget-slashing conservatism and bombastic style as mayor polarized the once tight-knit town of about 8,000. The Democratic challenger was almost tragically inept, brought out of retirement for one last run. Then a third candidate, a local high school sports hero who, like Mr. Lonegan, is partly blind, stepped in as an independent. He recruited Doug Friedline, a consultant who aided Mr. Ventura, to manage his write-in campaign.

The campaign was as hard-fought as any national race, without ever being in danger of being mistaken for one; there was no shortage of propaganda, rumor mongering and a bitter battle over lawn signs. And it all took place against the backdrop the Bogota High School football team’s run to the state championship, which came after the mayor’s austerity measures almost eliminated school sports.

The documentary is the antithesis of “The War Room”, the 1993 film that glorified the efforts of James Stephanopoulos in selling Bill Clinton to the American people. Almost inadvertently, its point is that elections are about hard work and, surprise, candidates and their policies.

Or, as Thomas P. O’Neill famously put it, providing the film with it’s opening, “All politics is local.” The documentary was produced by a group of filmmakers, including Mr. Fraga, who grew up in Leonia, near Bogota, and recently moved their company, Sirk Productions, to Manhattan from Fort Lee. “Anytown” was recently bought by Film Movement, a New York distributor, and will run early next year.

It was awarded best documentary at the Long Island and Minneapolis-St. Louis film festivals this year, and Mr. Fraga won best director honors at the Trenton Film Festival. Part of its appeal, perhaps, is that it is impossible to discern the ideological leanings of the storytellers. (Mr. Fraga is an affirmed liberal, while Mr. Dominguez- a former running mate to Mr. Lonegan- calls himself a moderate Republican.”)

Mr. Friedline said the message transcended partisan politics, “ I think this movie is about an opportunity to see what happens when someone gets passionate about the issues and throws him or herself into a campaign,” he said. At points in the film, Mr. Loegan is hissable. During a question and answer session after the screening, Mark Portier, of New Paltz, told him: “I just wanted to say what a treat this was. It’s like going to see ‘Star Wars’ and Darth Vader himself gets up to take a bow.

The remark rolled off Mr. Lonegan, who sees his star turn as the start of something big. “Come on”, he urged the producers at a party after the screening. “You’ve got to make a sequel. Just think of the great reality show we could do.”


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