It has been two years since the death of Paul Wellstone, the little guy with a big heart who channeled all the tenacity he developed early in life as a champion wrestler into a career as a progressive leader with an allegiance to the underdog. But judging from the omnipresent bright green bumper stickers bearing his name and the frequency with which his legacy as an ideological bridge-builder is being invoked in this most divided of campaign seasons, the senator's memory remains as strong as ever. It has been during this period of transition from mourning to acceptance that filmmakers Lu Lippold, Dan Luke, and Laurie Stern of St. Paul's Hard Working Pictures labored on their documentary Wellstone!, set to premiere Thursday at the Central Standard Film Festival before opening at the Bell for a 10-day pre-presidential election run.
The film--with nearly half of its roughly $400,000 budget coming from individual contributions collected through a Wellstone-style grassroots effort (including pass-the-hat house parties)--has provided a means for Lippold, Luke, and Stern to work through their grief and deliver the senator's story to a broad audience. But it has also presented many challenges, particularly with respect to constructing an accurate portrayal of a man about whom so many people held, and continue to hold, such strong and diverse opinions. Finessing Wellstone's triumphs and failures, not to mention his assets and flaws, consumed the three filmmakers, who wanted to celebrate a rare human being without falling into the trap of hagiography.
"Every day felt like an undertaking," says Luke, interviewed recently with Lippold and Stern at a Seward neighborhood restaurant. A producer, editor, and graphic designer with extensive experience in public television, Luke is married to Stern, an accomplished documentary writer and producer who admits feeling "intense anxiety" about taking on the project. After obtaining the necessary go-ahead from Wellstone's sons Mark and David (who decided not to be interviewed for the doc), as well as access to the family archives, the trio went to work. They had already gathered some footage from shooting at the campaign headquarters during the days after Wellstone's death. But they needed to agree on a format that would accurately portray the late senator and allow adequate description of Sheila Wellstone's significant role in his life, as well as her many independent contributions as an activist on behalf of victims of family violence. "We were talking nonstop about them," says Lippold, a producer and director of several award-winning documentaries and short films, including her portrait of artist/activist Margaret Randall. "We heard their voices every day."
Though the filmmakers momentarily considered unconventional approaches to their biography, they settled on a mostly chronological arrangement that led to some tough choices about what to leave on the cutting-room floor. Wellstone's boyhood, his family life with Sheila, his battle to keep his job as a Carleton College professor, and his development as an activist are included. Also in the film are passages that detail his aborted run for state auditor (he lacked the math skills), his David-and-Goliath senatorial campaign victory against Rudy Boschwitz, his votes against the first and second Iraq wars, his battle against welfare reform, his bipartisan effort to achieve parity for mental health treatment, and his vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, a decision that many believe he ultimately regretted, but which nonetheless created tension between the senator and his gay supporters. Along the way, the film shows the varied sides of Wellstone's character, a man who wanted to elevate every issue to priority status and sometimes made politically unsavvy moves; it shows him as a fiery speaker who could stir up a crowd even on the most mundane of matters, as a man who loved his family and deeply admired his wife. As Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin notes in the film: "Paul would go into battle and didn't care if he went alone. He may have had a bad back, but he had a spine of steel."
"It's really painful," says Stern, "to think of the cool stuff we left out"--including, for example, Wellstone's stance against the anti-flag-burning amendment, which earned him some criticism from veterans. The filmmakers approached some of Wellstone's adversaries and critics for interviews, including Boschwitz, Norm Coleman, Vin Weber, and a few Carleton colleagues, but almost all of them declined to participate. (Sara Janacek, a Republican pundit in Minnesota, did agree to be interviewed, although her footage didn't make the final cut.)
Lippold adds that she and her colleagues also stayed away from conspiracy theories surrounding the crash of Wellstone's plane. "We're talking about his life, not his death," she says. Still, the sad fact remains that he is gone, and the filmmakers struggled with how to end the film--how to balance tragedy with the inspiration that his legacy provides to many. It ultimately concludes with a recap of the controversial memorial at the University of Minnesota and the creation of tools to keep the work alive--Wellstone Action, Camp Wellstone, and the Sheila Wellstone Institute.
The filmmakers also hold specific personal memories about Wellstone that informed their desire to work on the project. Lippold, for example, was a student at Carleton during the bushy-haired and T-shirt-wearing professor's rocky tenure, but didn't take his class because she couldn't get "an easy A in political science," as some other former students, including former campaign manager Jeff Blodgett, joke in the film. Stern, as a journalist, covered Wellstone over the years, meeting him for the first time in the spring of 1993 before the NAFTA vote in Congress. As collaborators, the trio's initial effort involved covering a summit of sorts between Turkish and Greek journalists. "If we survived that, we could survive anything. It was an intense experience," says Stern. "There aren't many people [with whom] I'd want to dive into this project, but there's workable chemistry here."
While acknowledging that Wellstone! "could have been edgier or braver," Stern says she believes the film's strength, like Wellstone's, lies in its ability to reach consensus; it is, after all, the product of three perspectives influenced by the thoughts, feelings, and memories of many, many more. "People have said that Paul is a polarizing figure," Stern offers. "I hope the documentary conveys that he was about conversation. If we don't start talking to each other, it won't get any better."
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