Jeff Smith's mama didn't even believe in him. That's how slim the chances were for the St. Louis native who threw his hat into the political ring in 2004. "You're not running for anything; you're just running away from a stable job," is how Ms. Smith put it. "You're too young," "you have no experience," and "you need to fix that lisp" is how others reacted when the short, skinny, then-29-year-old teacher "who looked like he got his suit from Garanimals" ran in the Democratic primary race to fill Dick Gephardt's vacated seat in the United States House of Representatives.
But for Frank Popper director, producer and editor of the new documentary Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? Smith represented an alternative to the frustration many Americans harbored over the 2000 election and subsequent Bush administration. Popper had long voiced his dissatisfaction to his friends and family. Then Popper's father suggested that he harness his emotions to a film project, and all Popper needed was a subject.
"One day I was at a book-signing event downtown, and Jeff was working the crowd," Popper recalls. "He said, 'Hi, I'm Jeff.' And I said, 'I know who you are.' He said, 'Yeah, you and 35 other people.'" It was a 30-second conversation. I sat down and said to the woman sitting next to me, 'I think I'm going to make a documentary about him.' It was a gut feeling."
Popper's documentary, which received the Audience Award for Best Feature at Silverdocs AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Film Festival in June, follows Smith from the beginning: establishing a campaign staff (a motley assortment of guys, all in their early twenties and none with formal campaign experience), locating suitable headquarters (complete with flaking paint and war-zone-caliber bathrooms) and withstanding the scrutiny of local media figures not to mention sitting around at Einstein Bros. Bagels, accosting cars on Delmar Boulevard and hitting Uncle Bill's Pancake & Dinner House at 4:30 in the morning.
Although urban-education reform and deficit reduction are touched upon, Washington mostly presents Smith as a man of action over ideas. Full of optimism, he has already co-founded the Confluence Academy, a group of charter schools that emphasize math and science. His grass-roots campaign focuses on canvassing neighborhoods door-to-door, speechifying in urban churches, harnessing the energy of 350 young volunteers and giving his cell phone a bigger workout than Paris Hilton does. Presidential candidate Howard Dean even makes a guest appearance at a rally, but in the end the film largely eschews political chatter to present a simple question: What can America's current electoral system offer a candidate with no money, experience or political connections? The answer, unsurprisingly, is reflected in Smith's election results.
In a field of ten, Smith was not only one of two candidates with the same last name, but he also had to contend with the tactics of front-runner Russ Carnahan, the state representative with the instantly recognizable surname.
Popper, meanwhile, dealt with his own unique hurdles. "When I approached Jeff, I was the whole production company," he says. "I wasn't just the producer/director. I was the camera guy. I was the sound guy. I was by myself doing everything, so I was always having to make decisions about picture and sound and where to be, who to follow, which made it very difficult. I never knew where the action would be, and I always lived with the fear when I was with one person that I should really be with another. Jeff used to break my heart when he'd say, 'Man, you really missed the good stuff last night.'"
Smith is currently running for Missouri's Fourth District State Senate seat. Popper, meanwhile, is starting a documentary about New Orleans music in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, sussing out distribution deals and fulfilling requirements to be considered for an Academy Award nomination for best feature documentary. Though he hopes Washington will follow in the footsteps of previous Silverdocs winner, Oscar nominee and fellow election documentary Street Fight, Popper's top goal remains creating nationwide dialogue.
"I hope people leave the theater talking about this movie, talking about how the system we have for electing politicians to office is broken," he says. "But now that I've said that, I hope that people will leave the theater feeling uplifted because I think the film shows how the system, broken as it is, can be fixed, that there is hope for the future. It shows how an inspiring candidate can, through the power of dynamic ideas and hard work, gather an army of young, energetic volunteers who make a difference that they can do the impossible. There are a lot of documentaries that show what's wrong with our country right now. But if this documentary shows anything, it shows what's right with it."