Strictly Business:
An Interview with Rachel Boynton, director of Our Brand Is Crisis
By Michael Joshua Rowin

Some films become more than initially intended. In the case of her debut, Our Brand Is Crisis, Rachel Boynton documented American consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum’s presidential campaign work for Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, aka Goni, in Bolivia as an examination of U.S. political influence abroad. But after Goni’s victory and subsequent resignation from office over riots in reaction to his unpopular policies, Boynton’s film spoke in even more dramatic terms of the miscalculation of America’s selling of capitalist democracy to countries bound by radically different socioeconomic frameworks. Our Brand Is Crisis, then, is powerful cinema vérité for our time, in which globalization and America’s objectives for spreading its particular brand of democracy affect the world daily. I recently spoke with Ms. Boynton at the Adore Café in Manhattan.

RS: How did Our Brand Is Crisis originate?

Boynton: I’ll give you a little bit more than you want. [laughs] I came to New York in 1996 for graduate school. I moved to Paris after I finished college and went to the graduate school of journalism at Columbia. It’s a year-long program, and after that I worked in documentary filmmaking—it’s all I wanted to do, and I worked on two very long term projects. One was about political asylum in America called Well-Founded Fear, and I worked for two filmmakers, Michael Camini and Sheri Robertson, who I learned an enormous amount from. Then I worked on a series for PBS called Class in America. I spent this time being an AP, learning the ropes. For me, working on other people’s films was a great way of learning about the process, but I reached a certain point where I knew I was ready to make my own. I was on the verge of doing a fluffier story, a more philosophical story where I would have gone to a place called Christmas Island in Australia, when September 11 happened. And that whole experience of being in [New York] at that time, and feeling like I was living in a very important historical moment as a documentary filmmaker, made me recognize something I already knew, which was that I really want to try to tackle subjects that define our time, and I’m really interested in international stories about America’s relationship to the rest of the world. For me, being in the City at that time was a horrifying reminder of that.

I was a screener for the DuPont Awards, which is like the broadcast version of the Pulitzers, and I saw this series called A Force More Powerful about non-violent conflict in the 20th Century. There’s a segment of that series that was about the campaign to oust Pinochet from Chile, and there were all these interviews with American political consultants who went to Chile to help run the ad campaign to oust the dictator. The ads were hysterical—they looked just like McDonald’s ads, women running through fields of flowers going, “A Vote ‘No’ is a Vote ‘Yes’ for Chile!” They were great and hysterical and incredibly hopeful. I saw those and I thought, “That’s my movie.” I had been looking for so long, I was so frustrated and desperate to find it, and when I saw it I knew it—it was so emblematic of us as Americans, it’s political idealism meets the profit motive. It’s this wonderful optimism that we can change the world if we market our ideas right, if we just have the right sales pitch we can sell anything, because we believe so strongly in our own ideas. There’s a lot of idealism in it, a lot of confidence in it, a tremendous amount of chutzpah in the notion that you can go into some other country and help somebody become president of Bolivia, or Venezuala, or Israel. It requires a lot of balls, so to speak.

So in those ways I saw it as being fundamentally American, and it also brought up interesting issues about democracy at a time when—remember, I started this film before the war in Iraq began. And at that time there was a lot of talk about spreading democracy overseas. I was really interested in the idea of how can we as America help support democracy. I picked the guys I filmed because I was interested in how idealistic they were about what they did. Particularly the pollsters, they sincerely see themselves as supporting democracy around the world by helping leaders understand what the people think, and by helping leaders communicate their ideas more clearly.

I still regret not getting this one scene—while I was shooting in Bolivia Jeremy Rosner was working in Austria and Romania, and I regret not getting him sitting at a café, about to go into a meeting with the candidate in Romania, and calling up Bolivia saying, “I’ll be with you next week, Goni.” Which would show that this isn’t about him just here, this is about him everywhere, and us everywhere.

RS: How did you gain the level of access you gained to Goni’s campaign?

Boynton: I asked everybody independently of everybody else. The first person I met with was Stan Greenberg, and on the same day I met with Tad Devine, not realizing that their companies are joined by an umbrella organization called Greenberg Carville Shrum. I met with Stan—he was interested but didn’t want to introduce me to Goni. That same day I met Tad, and he was interested, but also didn’t want to introduce me to Goni. I said to them both, well if I can introduce myself to Goni, would you be okay with that, and they said fine. So I had Goni’s former American political consultants introduce me to the candidate. And Goni said yes. Ultimately I got everybody to say yes independent of everybody else. It wasn’t like any one person brought me in, and that’s why I was able to get such good access, because I wasn’t anybody’s filmmaker, I was coming in independently. I owe a big thank you to Goni himself. This film would not have been possible if Goni had not been willing to open his campaign to me. My access was entirely dependent on the candidate saying yes, and I think it says a lot of good things about him that he was willing to be that open. In a funny way, it shows his level of confidence in how right he thought he was that he allowed someone like me to come in and film him. I think he really believed in the idea that he was the right guy for Bolivia.

RS: A lot of people saw that as arrogant.

Boynton: A lot of people did. That’s another theme of the movie that comes up over and over again, this notion of arrogance.

RS: That reminded me of American political campaigns in which candidates are sold by personality. Did you see that playing as big role in the Bolivian campaign?

Boynton: Definitely. Unfortunately, they couldn’t sell Goni’s personality! The grand majority of the country hated Goni from the beginning. Jeremy cites a figure in the polling presentation in the movie; he says something like, “Fifty-something percent of the country can’t stand you guys.” They know that from the very beginning, and that has to do with the past, that has to do with the fact that Goni instituted what was called Capitalization, which he saw as a way to bring in income and stabilize the economy. He was right, it did stabilize the economy, he created a system whereby he had 5% growth, as he says. So he did create an economy that was growing at a time when nobody else could. The fundamental conflict with Goni comes over Capitalization and the notion that he, through privatization, was lifting Bolivia out of poverty. He also believes that he created 500,000 jobs. He has the documents from Cornell University to prove it—it’s just that the people in Bolivia, they look at their lives…they don’t have jobs. And when they hear Goni talking about creating 500,000 jobs, whether or not he did it, that to them is arrogant. How can he get up there and talk about having created 500,000 jobs when all of their family members are out of work? When they don’t have enough to eat and their kids aren’t getting the proper education? But Goni, because of the numbers, believes he’s right. So it’s this fundamental conflict between what Goni believes, and what the Americans believe, and what the rest of the country believes.

RS: And selling that to the rest of the country.

Boynton: Right. How do you sell that? They knew that they couldn’t rely on Goni’s personality to carry the day. One thing they did that’s not in the movie—because you can’t put everything in the movie—toward the end of the campaign Goni didn’t appear in any of the ads. They cut him out of the ads altogether and they only used his vice president[ial candidate] Carlos Mesa. And Mesa was the embodiment of what the people actually wanted. The people wanted somebody young, somebody who had never been involved in politics. The only thing about Goni that the consultants thought they could sell—at least the major thing—was his ability to handle the economy in a moment of crisis. Hence the title of the film. The title refers to two things: it refers to the idea that they could play up the fear factor, that the country’s falling apart politically, socially, economically—we can’t afford to make a mistake, we can’t afford somebody new, who we don’t know, who might screw things up even worse. Then there’s: we have the ability to solve the crisis, Goni is the guy who can handle the crisis. That’s step number two, the capability card. It’s the notion that he had the economic wherewithal and the ability to handle an economic crisis to make it better.

RS: There’s one point in the film where Goni states, “Only in the U.S. can you think people will be persuaded by advertising.” What did you make of this statement?

Boynton: It’s one of my favorite lines in the movie, and I love that Goni says it. I love the fact that at the end of the movie, Goni sums it up. What he says, actually, is, “Only in America can you think advertising will fix it all—it won’t, it won’t. Sure, communication is important in campaigns, but you have to take into account deep-seated fears and resistances of people.” That’s the line. And it’s important as a notion when we’re going overseas, whether we’re in Bolivia or Iraq or Afghanistan or France or wherever we happen to be, just because we think we’re right doesn’t mean we’re going to convince other people that we’re right. Other people have a reason for believing what they believe. Personally, I think it’s very important to be able to see from another’s perspective, to be able to look through someone else’s eyes in order to understand the real dynamics of a problem, rather than trying to approach the problem from what you think the solutions are. That, to me, is one of the fundamental things that the movie is about—human relations. I consider myself an American patriot, because as a people we have a lot of fantastic qualities, as a culture. We live in a very can-do society, we have a lot of initiative, passion, belief, and confidence—those things make us strong as a country, but they also can serve as weaknesses, they can also get in our way.

RS: Do you see similarities between the political process in Bolivia and the political process in the United States, especially in how campaigns are run?

Boynton: Yes. That’s one of the things that I do believe—right now, in an election year, it’s a really important time for us to be looking at how our own system works and how candidates get branded. It’s important for us to understand the system in order to participate in the best way as educated citizens. Obviously, one of the secret pleasures of the movie is that by watching the process in Bolivia you’re actually watching the process as it happens in Arkansas, in Louisiana, in New York in California—it happens this way everywhere. Except in New York and Arkansas they’d never let you film, whereas in Bolivia I was given access.

RS: Do you think in the present political climate, where neo-conservatism is trying to overtly remodel entire regions of the world, that your film serves as a sort of cautionary tale?

Boynton: Well, that’s for you to decide. You tell me what you see it as. I’ll tell you what I think about the movie—it’s very important that people coming in to see this movie come out with their own interpretation. Obviously I’ve been talking about my opinions about what the movie says, so it’s not that I don’t have any opinions. But I’ve really tried to make a non-partisan, non-judgmental film that will allow all sorts of people to have all sorts of opinions. If you see it that way, great. As I’ve said, there are a lot of lessons to be taken from the film that aren’t just about Bolivia and aren’t just about Latin America but are about [America’s] relationship around the world. I got a lot more questions coming out of the movie than I did answers. Questions like, when we talk about democracy are we really talking about democracy, or are we talking about market economics in terms of what we’re spreading? Or are we talking about both? Are we talking about some combination of the two? If we really want progressive capitalism to work around the world, what exactly needs to be done? We can’t just have an election and then walk away. Whether we’re talking about a political system or an economic system, just because you have an election doesn’t mean you have a functioning country. So I hope there are a lot of questions to be taken out of the movie, questions that are relevant to all our foreign relations.

RS: Before you mentioned that the consultants were idealistic. Do you think the fact that the campaign consultants and pollsters were true believers in the good of what they were doing was a problem, in the sense that it blinded them to the complexities of Bolivian politics while they were selling Goni?

Boynton: I don’t know if I can answer that. I’ve never really been involved in a political campaign before making this film, and I was struck by how campaigns are run. I let it be known that I have a lot respect for both Goni and the consultants. I think it was important to make the film with respect and to treat them with respect, because they’re making very powerful decisions about what to do with their lives. Goni could have retired—he didn’t have to do this, but he did. And you might not agree with why he did it, you might not agree with the personality traits he has that encouraged him to do it, but I still see it as a brave thing to try to do. These people are working in jobs where they can fundamentally change the world, and that takes guts, it comes with a lot of responsibility. It’s very easy after the fact, looking at the disaster that resulted, to look at Goni and the consultants and to shake our heads and say, “How terrible these people are.”

You’re asking a question about the dynamics of the desire to win. In a campaign, it’s all about winning. That’s their job. If the candidate wins and they continue to work, the job description changes. Then it’s no longer about winning, it becomes a lot more complicated. One question to look at is the notion of listening to the people—how much does a candidate listen before the election and after the election? How much should a leader listen?

RS: Were the people kept in sight by the pollsters, or were they turned into demographic numbers and percentage points in how they were treated by the campaign?

Boynton: I think the consultants and Goni cared about the people, I don’t think they ever thought about them only as numbers. That said, at a certain point, you’re looking at the numbers to see where your percentage points are and where you can get numbers to win. At a certain point, it is about numbers. It’s both. One thing I became conscious of while making the film is the qualities of a good leader. To be a good leader of a country requires the ability to care and to see the numbers simultaneously. It’s a rational approach and an emotional one. The way we play the game today, the way the world works today in terms of our brand of democracy, as [chief GCS strategist] Jeremy Rosner says, the most important thing is to win. And once you get into office then you can worry about trying to bridge the gaps between your policy goals and the desires of the people, all the problems you can’t deal with during the campaign.

RS: What did you think about the cataclysmic events that occur at the end of the film?

Boynton: There are all these myths about the god of destruction. Bolivia’s a great example of the god of destruction stepping in, and this notion that maybe things need to be torn down before they can be built up again.

Bolivia’s not the only place in the world where things like this are happening. I see this as a film containing questions about globalization. A lot of places around the world are asking themselves questions: Do we really want democracy? Do we really want market economics? Are these systems really going to bring us solutions? And if we as a country believe the rest of the world should have democracies and should function with market economics, then we really need to get serious about supporting them in some way and making sure these systems bring benefits to people. Because if not, they’re not going to last. But I left the film with a lot more questions than answers—saddened, but hopeful.