Magnificently facial-haired, glove-wearing self-proclaimed karate master and former R & B singer Jimmy McMillan first entered the public consciousness in October of 2010, when a video of the New York gubernatorial debate — in which candidate McMillan introduced his “the rent is too damn high” platform — went viral. By the next evening, filmmaker Aaron Fisher-Cohen and his crew had begun documenting McMillan’s political journey.
The resulting documentary, “DAMN!,” begins at the dawn of perhaps the zaniest political campaign since Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York City — well before McMillan captured the country’s fascination through a “Saturday Night Live” parody. It ends abruptly toward the troubling conclusion of McMillan’s campaign, leaving the viewer with questions about the relationship between viral media, fame, exploitation and the contemporary political system.
“DAMN!” will screen at Cinema Village August 12-19, but viewers can catch a sneak preview on July 28 at 7 p.m. at Brooklyn’s reRun Gastropub Theater.
MetroFocus interviewed Fisher-Cohen about what it was like working with McMillan, and the web of socio-political and representation issues addressed in the film.
Q. How were you introduced to Jimmy McMillan?
A. I started this small company called Fantastic Relationship Filmmaking and the idea is make films, have fun and get freelance work. The two other guys who worked on “DAMN!,” Kristian and Sam, and I were shooting this falconer out in Delaware, when Kristian saw the debate and sent me this email that said, “Oh my God, we should follow this guy around for a day.” He sent me a link to his website and I immediately wrote back, “Call him.” I think like 45 minutes later he came barging through my door and he said, “I talked to him. We just have to talk to his manager,” and by the end of the night we’d confirmed a film.
Q. During the campaign I remember looking at McMillan and thinking, “What an eccentric guy.” But in your film we see that it’s actually much darker than that. He says he has some very severe PTSD issues from serving in Vietnam. What was it like working with him?
A. I don’t even know how to express this, but even when you film a wedding, which I used to do, you’re not a person. You’re not in the relationship, you’re not interacting with people. You’re the camera. You’re just documenting.
That’s not to say I didn’t speak to Jimmy. I’m not going to pretend like I was a machine. He’s a funny, charismatic good-hearted person, so I enjoyed being around him. I think Brad Pitt and Jimmy would have gotten almost equal amounts of attention walking down the street at that time. He could walk down the street and every single person in New York said, “the rent is too damn high.” As a documentary subject he’s a gem because he’s cinematic looking and he knows how to be on camera. But at the same time he doesn’t necessarily connect thoughts. And he talks a lot.
Q. The film is critical of media and the way that we’re getting and processing information…As a filmmaker dealing with a subject who’s mentally fragile, how would you counter a claim that you’re exploiting your subject?
A. I think you can make that argument. The idea of the film is not to, obviously. It’s to open a forum for the discussion of the current state of media and politics, virality, money and fame. And what all those things are today. Unfortunately, as a documentary filmmaker, you stumble into exploitation just like the media.
It’s something I didn’t want people to think we were attempting. He clearly has some mental sickness that comes from post-traumatic stress. More than anything, the idea behind the documentary is to raise questions — as many questions as possible. There are documentarians like Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore who answer the questions for you. I’m fine with that form of filmmaking. It’s not my style. Most documentaries are a dramatized version of the truth. What we saw was something interesting and we hope that it’s nothing more than a dramatized version of the truth. At the same time that possibility of exploitation comes with the territory when you have a camera in your hands.
Q. The film starts out as a character study but then it evolves into something else entirely. At what point did you realize what the movie was really about?
A. I think a lot of that came in post-production. There were things I started focusing on as a cinematographer. There’s a joke in the film where he’s using a paper towel as a handkerchief and by the end of the film he has a really nice handkerchief. We were lucky. Not many people are able to get a subject that changes so rapidly over such a short period of time. That was great for our story. We weren’t even sure it was going to be a feature film when we were filming. It sort of became a necessity to make it into a feature because there were so many things it was about. I guess I realized that when I knew it couldn’t just be about Jimmy.
Q. Much of the film deals with viral media and how it affected Jimmy’s celebrity. How do you think viral media, as opposed to traditional media, affected his experience and your film?
A. I don’t think any of the media attention would have come without viral media. Maybe he’d be on one news station. No one would recognize him on the street. He is the epitome of a viral star. I think it’s completely from YouTube and the Daily Beast posting that New York 1 captured. And there’s a combination of things that take place for these things to happen, and one is the fact that they put it on YouTube. Two is the fact that people are so sick of politics. They’re sick of how phony it is. When someone comes along and flips it over and unintentionally, or maybe intentionally, turns it into a satire it’s really satisfying. So there’s a storm that creates these stars.
Q. At the end of the film he cuts off contact with you, but then he showed up at the premier at the Brooklyn Film Festival. What happened between you after you finished filming?
A. There was never any real anger. More than anything he’s fragile, and because he’s fragile there was a lot of misunderstandings. It’s the same reason he had an agent with a two-year contract that lasted two and a half weeks. There were times he was angry at us, but it was more like, “I don’t want you to film anymore. Don’t come to my apartment.”
Q. What is his view of his political future?
A. I don’t know. At times he seems very aware and at other times he doesn’t. I think his intentions became more oriented towards making money, which you can argue is a smart thing.
MetroFocus Multimedia Editor John Farley conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed. Farley and filmmaker Aaron Fisher-Cohen are neighbors in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.