When I first met Follow the Leader’s director Jonathan at Pennsylvania Boys State six years ago, I enjoyed being the guy (if only a 16-year-old guy at that) behind the camera – not in front of it.
In fact, I first struck up conversation with Jonathan because I was fascinated with his camera (especially the fluffy microphone), and wanted to learn more about his project. In high school, I co-produced a documentary about a failed dam project in my hometown of Milford, Pennsylvania. And I loved picking up the old home camcorder on the weekends to make ridiculous short movies with some friends in my neighborhood.
Being a participant in a film was something I never imagined nor desired, and I was particularly skeptical about a film focused on me. So what was it like?
Participating in a documentary is not like acting in a movie. That much I knew from the start and was comfortable with, because I never liked acting. It is also not like being interviewed for the 6:00 News (even for a very long interview!). This second difference took some time for me to learn and was, perhaps, the aspect I struggled with the most.
For anyone who aspires to be involved in politics, being authentic on-camera, or with any other recording device for that matter, is tough. Gosh, you might do something stupid, or say something that can sound terribly or be taken out of context (or, worse, in context). But Jonathan would always encourage authenticity because, he said, people respond better to human stories and honesty…the good, the bad and the ugly.
“OK, thanks for the CNN answer…now what do you really think?,” he would say.
As I got to know Jonathan more, and frankly trusted him more, participating in the documentary was more like going through life with a new friend who just happened to bring a camera along to our adventures and occasionally shouted some questions. I would at times forget altogether that a microphone was clipped to me (which made for some awkward moments!).
In the end, it all paid off. In watching the film for the first time, I saw my very real, unfiltered life – not an interview on the news. I saw a journey of political persuasion, personal relationships, and professional development – being shaped by time, experience and my environment.
And while my personal reaction to some scenes was like sucking on sour candy, I got the sense from those around me that they could relate to my story and learn something from it for their own lives. At a recent preview screening in Washington, D.C., a member of the audience even thanked me for opening up my life, realizing it’s not an easy thing to do.
So I’m glad I took Jonathan’s advice about authenticity and just being me. (A certain Republican nominee for president might also stand to benefit from doing the same.)