Michael Pack just wanted to do a documentary on a typical six-month period in the life of a Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Fortunately, that's not what he got.
Stumbling onto times that were far from typical, Pack's crew followed House Speaker Newt Gingrich during the weeks leading up to the impeachment vote against President Clinton, the 1998 congressional elections that resulted in a surprisingly poor showing for GOP candidates, and the resignation of the Republican congressman from Georgia.
The result is a 90-minute documentary, tentatively titled "The Fall of Newt Gingrich," scheduled to air this August on PBS -- and this week at the Maryland Film Festival.
(The film currently is slated to be screened at 12: 30 p.m. Sunday at the Charles. However, the schedules are notoriously changeable, so check the Festival's Web site at www.mdfilmfest.com for updated information.)
Pack, who lives in Chevy Chase with his wife and three children, had just finished an earlier documentary, 1995's "Inside the Republican Revolution: The First Hundred Days," when he approached Gingrich about filming a slice of the speaker's life. It took about three years for the details to be worked out, but by the fall of 1998, the cameras were ready to roll.
"We thought we would see him conclude the legislative agenda of one Congress, win an election that was supposed to be uneventful, and then begin the next session of Congress," Pack says. "My original intent was a documentary on how the speakership works, and how Newt Gingrich has transformed the speakership."
Pack's cameras follow Gingrich through the halls of Congress, as he unsuccessfully tries to distance himself and his party from the impeachment process as it becomes increasingly unpopular. They follow him as he barnstorms the country, making personal appearances on behalf of GOP congressional candidates. The film includes follow-up interviews, featuring Gingrich and others trying to explain what happened.
As Pack would be the first to emphasize, going into a documentary with a set agenda can be dangerous. If nothing else, documentary filmmakers must be prepared to let events shape them; try doing things the other way around, and you're making films, not documentaries.
But even more important than not dictating how events happen, he says, is not manipulating people's opinion of those events. For Pack, making a documentary is a constant struggle to appear impartial.
"One of the earmarks of a good documentary is that it does not overly lead an audience," he says. "It's important that people be able to draw different conclusions from it."
Not that Pack is without a personal point of view.
"I found Newt Gingrich one of the most fascinating political figures I'd ever come across," he says. "And I always found him very likable. One of the mysteries is why so many people didn't."
Film festival documentaries
"A.J.'s Dogumentary," directed by A.J. Poulin
"Behind the Scenes of the Local News," directed by Robert S. Goald
"Blue Collar," directed by Todd R. Cole
"Enter," directed by Viet Bastian "La Esquina Caliente," directed by Michael Skolnik and William O'Neill
"The Fall of Newt Gingrich," directed by Michael Pack
"George Wallace: Settin' the Woods On Fire," directed by Daniel McCabe and Paul Steckler
"The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle," directed by Julien Temple
"Good Kurds, Bad Kurds," directed by Kevin McKiernan
"Juvies," directed by Liz Garbus
"King Gimp," directed by Susan Hadary and Bill Whiteford
"Long Night's Journey Into Day," directed by Deborah Hoffman and Frances Reed
"Paradise Lost 2: Revelations," directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
"Searching for Roger Taylor," directed by Aaron Barnett