Docs

AFI Docs ’13: From Watergate to Super 8

As AFI Docs kicks off in Washington DC, realscreen launches a series profiling a range of female doc-makers, starting with director Penny Lane (pictured), whose all-archive doc Our Nixon aims to cast new light on the former U.S. president.
June 19, 2013

As AFI Docs kicks off in Washington DC, realscreen launches a series profiling a range of female doc-makers, starting with director Penny Lane (pictured), whose all-archive doc Our Nixon aims to cast new light on the former U.S. president.

Forty years after the Watergate scandal forced U.S. President Richard Nixon to resign, the political drama has been chronicled in numerous documentaries and narrative films.

Just when it seemed like all angles from which to approach Nixon’s life and downfall had been exhausted, director Penny Lane and her coproducer Brian L. Frye discovered, in the U.S. National Archives, a collection of home movies shot – for fun – by his closest aides, John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman and Dwight Chapin, between 1969 and 1973.

The FBI found the 26-hour collection in Ehrlichman’s office and confiscated it as part of its Watergate investigation. The filmmakers had the footage digitally preserved and, for dramatic effect, edited together its seemingly banal personal moments with excerpts from Nixon’s incriminating White House tapes.

The resulting all-archival film, Our Nixon, attempts to capture the disconnect between the way historical events are viewed in hindsight and how they were experienced at the time.

“We had no idea what kind of film it would be,” Lane tells realscreen via phone from the SXSW Film Festival, where Our Nixon screened following its premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in January. “Every single time I said to someone we’re making this film from these Super 8 home movies, they would always say, ‘Oh that’s so interesting!’

“I don’t think people would have been that excited if I said they were the home movies of Reagan’s chief of staff,” she adds.

In reviewing the footage, Lane was initially drawn to two things. First, there were the images of Nixon’s aides on the job and clearly enjoying themselves, whether goofing around or working hard. In an era largely remembered for hippies and the dawn of the Anti-Establishment movement, this offered a glimpse at what the so-called “squares” were up to.

Richard Nixon in a still from "Our Nixon"

Secondly, it dawned on Lane that Ehrlichman, Haldeman and Chapin were representative of what Nixon called the “silent majority” – the people who supported and voted for him. Thus, she also found the endless images of Americans coming to the White House, and lining streets to greet the president fascinating.

After all, these were the people responsible for Nixon’s overwhelming victory in the 1972 general election, with the Republican claiming 520 out of the 538 Electoral College votes and just over 60% of the popular vote.

The Super 8 footage documents memorable events such as the 1972 Republican National Convention, the anti-Vietnam war protests, Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding and Nixon’s historic trip to China. But they’re seen through the lens of seemingly mundane yet telling moments such as press secretary Ron Ziegler nervously biting into a tangerine during the China trip, or Nixon politely applauding during a Communist ballet.

The primary reason Nixon remains such an enduringly fascinating character is the Watergate scandal, an event Lane initially attempted to avoid. But by ignoring the scandal altogether, she says the film read as though she was attempting to somehow rehabilitate the former president.

To frame the Super 8 footage and give Our Nixon a narrative thrust, she included new clips of Haldeman, Ehrlichman (pictured below) and Chapin doing interviews with well-known TV personalities such as Barbara Walters, Mike Wallace and Phil Donahue. Other clips featured in the film come from such collections as the Miller Center for Public Affairs, the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies and T3 Media.

“You can’t talk about Nixon and not talk about Watergate because you know that Watergate is the end,” she says. “But he didn’t know that Watergate was the end. There is something really important in engaging with the way people actually lived their lives as opposed to how they think they lived their lives with the benefit of hindsight.”

John Ehrlichman in a still from "Our Nixon"

Now in the public domain through the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C., the Super 8 collection is available for anyone to peruse. After the FBI confiscated the material, it would become the property of the U.S. government when the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act became law in 1974.

Three decades later, the NARA reproduced them onto 16 mm color inter-negative film stock. When Lane and Frye decided to make a documentary, they discovered the prints were duplicates and in poor quality. Feeling the material compelling enough despite its condition, they decided to proceed.

Fortunately, in 2011, Haldeman’s estate donated the original stock to the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum but since it didn’t have the budget to preserve the footage, the filmmakers paid for archival-quality 4K scans for the entire collection, with help from supporters on Kickstarter.

Archival footage has been an integral part of Lane’s previous work. Amateur footage will feature heavily in future projects such as Nuts (working title), a doc about a conman, and The Rules of Evidence, about the legal practice of using motion pictures as evidence in court cases.

“Trying to experience history in the present is really important intellectual work and it matters. It keeps you from coloring everything with hindsight,” she maintains. “The way that we receive this kind of historical narrative is usually all tidy and clear. We know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, but that isn’t the way life is experienced.”

  • ¬†Our Nixon screens at AFI Docs in Washington DC on June 22 and 23, with the screening on June 22 being a free one.
  • This feature originally appeared in the May/June 2013 edition of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
Realscreen magazine May/June 2013
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