Charting Nader's Unending Campaign
Friday, February 23, 2007
Ralph Nader. There. Did that make you mad? Still smarting from the last two presidential elections? Just the mention of the former Green Party candidate's name can trigger rage, devotion or melancholy, mostly among Democrats who accuse Nader of having siphoned off votes from Al Gore and John F. Kerry.
Those accusations jump-start "An Unreasonable Man," Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's documentary examining the life and contradictions of Nader, who was raised by Lebanese immigrants in a Connecticut mill town and now, on the eve of his 73rd birthday, has become one of the most controversial -- and, the filmmakers attest, misunderstood -- figures in contemporary American politics. (See review on Page 30.)
Though an extended interview with him is interspersed throughout the film, Nader says in a recent interview, "I had no interest in shaping it." The filmmakers (both veteran TV writers) assembled video and photos spanning four decades and interviewed about 150 people, including contemporary critics, recent campaign workers, former Nader's Raiders and other public-interest activists from the '60s and '70s.
The movie charts Nader's dramatic leap onto the national stage in 1965 with the release of his book "Unsafe at Any Speed," a scathing critique of car manufacturers, and the resulting threats and spying by General Motors, congressional hearings and auto-safety regulations, including mandatory seat belts. The filmmakers also highlight Nader's network of consumer advocacy organizations, tell stories of his upbringing and, eventually, chart his entry into electoral politics.
Nader's 2000 campaign is rehashed through interviews with columnists, academics and advocates, some of whom remain angry -- very angry.
And so is Nader, who leans forward with his lanky frame and fans out his fingers when making a point. He adamantly denies having any regrets about his presidential campaigns and says his critics are "engaging in political bigotry" against third-party candidates. He also accuses them of intellectual laziness: "For people who are really analytically deep, when it comes to this, they're like adolescents in terms of their acuity. It's the most amazing thing."
How does Nader expect audiences to react to "An Unreasonable Man"? As for those still crying "spoiler," he says, "it'll give them pause, let's put it that way."
But he says that, more important, he hopes Mantel and Skrovan's film will inspire the "video generation" by showing them how his work prompted regulations protecting Americans, from seat-belt laws and food safety to environmental protection and the Freedom of Information Act. "They'll see a time when politicians got things done, when people came to Washington to represent the people for a change. And now it's like we're a society stuck in traffic. We can't get anything done!"
Finally, 'Days of Glory'
Nader might recognize something of himself in Rachid Bouchareb, a Frenchman born of Algerian immigrants and director and co-writer of "Days of Glory." The film, called "Indigenes" in French and Algeria's nominee for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, follows a group of North African soldiers fighting to liberate Nazi-occupied France during World War II. (See review on Page 30.) The richly historical film made an immediate impact in France: It prompted President Jacques Chirac to restore pensions to Algerian veterans of the war, reversing a law that had been on the books nearly 50 years.
Speaking in French, Bouchareb, a passionate crusader for immigrants' rights, explains: "I showed the film to Chirac before he made the decision, at the end of September, to abolish the discrimination that had existed for more than 50 years: A French soldier could get as much as 30 times more than a soldier from Algeria, Morocco, Senegal. That was a law decided by [then-president Charles] de Gaulle in 1959," in the midst of the Algerian war for independence.
Bouchareb says that after watching the film, Chirac and his wife "were very moved. . . . On the day the film opened, September 27, he went on TV and said, 'It's done. Starting the first of January 2007, an Algerian soldier will get the same pension as a French soldier.' "
That victory was sweet for the director, who says he was inspired to make "Days of Glory" in honor of his ancestors who fought for -- and didn't receive recognition from -- the French, from the 1870s, when Africans from the colonies fought in the Napoleonic wars, until Vietnam. "What I heard at home, growing up, were stories of the war in Indochina, where my uncle fought" in the mid-1950s, and stories of the Algerian war, which happened when Bouchareb was a boy. The director says he was never taught about his ancestors' bravery in school, and that's his next project: "What we want to change now in schools is . . . the history books in schools, [to incorporate lessons] about the African solders who liberated France, because there's nothing about that in history books now."
Bouchareb is a firm believer in the power of film to effect social change. "You have to be convinced that, one day, injustice can be abolished. That I learned from American movies. When I saw films about the civil rights movement, when I saw films like 'Mississippi Burning' . . . those always affected me . . . always said to me, 'It's possible!' "