Meet the Press is the definitive political news program, providing political figures a platform to connect with Americans on television for over 7 decades. The Meet the Press Film Fest aims to match its stature for short political documentary, and after five years running, it’s doing just that. Moving from D.C. to L.A. this year for a hybrid online and in-person event, the showcase is part of the larger AFI Film Festival. It will screen more than 15 documentary shorts, reflecting on our country’s history and exploring the current political climate in this context. NBC News correspondents and anchors, including Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell, Jacob Soboroff, Shaq Brewster, Ali Vitali and Morgan Radford, will be moderating conversations with filmmakers following each program virtually and in-person. LA Weekly spoke with Todd (Meet the Press host and NBC news director) about the project ahead of its rollout on Thursday, Nov. 11.
(Interview has been edited for clarity and length)
LA WEEKLY: Tell us about the Meet the Press Film Festival and how it came to be a part of AFI fest.
CHUCK TODD: This is our fifth iteration of Meet The Press film festival. We started this in conjunction with our 70th anniversary. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to host documentary films. But we basically partnered with AFI who have a huge presence out here, the way they have a good presence out there, and they really helped us get our sea legs on shorts. They said this was an under-served part of the documentary community and it was the perfect sweet spot for us.
How does this selection of films add to the political conversations you highlight on your show?
One of my greatest frustrations with this weekly Sunday show is, I have this great platform, but on the other hand, it’s hard to get to the nuance of some of these stickier issues. Take homelessness– you can’t do it in a five minute interview, let alone sometimes 10 minutes. And in some ways, having the context of a documentary short, even if it’s got a point of view, is a better way to educate people on a difficult and complicated problem in society.
So that was like, okay, this a way for us to scratch that itch. We want to get into the documentary filmmaking game too, but we really like featuring shorts because it’s a way for us to explore issues that we wouldn’t always do. So this year we’re part of AFI. I’ve contributed to AFI in the past but this is the first time I’m putting Meet the Press film festival as part of it. Part of it’s COVID too. This is a limited opportunity so that we could all do this together and do it well and safely. And it has pretty strict COVID protocol so that people can feel comfortable coming.
Can you tell us about a couple of the films you’re excited about?
Well, I’m excited about all of them but there’s two that I’ll point out. There’s one called Coded and it’s the story of a commercial artist named J.C. Leyendecker. I didn’t know who this J.C. Leyendecker was, but he was Norman Rockwell before Norman Rockwell. And back in the early 20th century, he also was living a fairly open gay lifestyle. I say fairly open for that time. He had a partner for 40 years and it was a time right before and even including the roaring 20s where he was an extraordinarily famous commercial artist, fairly wealthy for that time and had a pretty decent life. What’s interesting, is the filmmaker shows that -and the reason it’s called Coded– is the hidden language that commercial artists use to target certain demographic groups. And you see it today. And here, it turned out that if you’re not gay, you didn’t see the code. On one hand, it’s kind of tragic, because the sad part of this is, as society gets more uncomfortable with gay Americans in the 30s, 40s and 50s, they feel the need to hide and retreat. When he died, he had his partner destroy everything. He wanted no evidence of his work. It’s a telling and terrific short.
One that’s going to be tough for people to watch but I think people need to see is Lynching Postcards, which is about, in the early late 19th and early 20th century, right when cameras were still coming out, participants in lynchings of Black Americans were so proud of the moment that they wanted to be photographed. And then they’d send the postcard to their friends and family, and say, ‘Look what I got to do.’ This was the social media of the early 20th century.
That’s awful, but history often is.
Right. And it’s just… you sit there like oh my…. And first of all, the archive of these postcards is in a museum and center in Atlanta. We actually pair it with another film that celebrates the art that came about in the wake of the death of Breonna Taylor. And in some ways, the two films sort of help each other because one is painful art that you need to see to understand, and one is taking a painful moment and turning it into a celebration of the woman’s life. It explores what is it about Breonna Taylor that inspired so much artwork, whether it’s murals, whether it’s paintings. In many ways, taking in both of them at the same time, I think it just leads to understanding and trying to give particularly people who aren’t of color, understanding about why the moment that we’re living in right now is so important.
Even films about the past really resonate as the issues are still relevant. Did you curate the shorts to cover both past and present?
It’s a mixture really. Our goal is, even the stuff that’s historical, we believe it’s of the moment. Think about the debates we’re having about what history we’re supposed to teach in our schools, right? I’ll tell you one film we have that I think will matter to a lot of people in Southern California, it’s a documentary and one of the top Netflix short films for the year called Lead Me Home. It’s really is trying to understand how folks become homeless, telling their different stories. How did it happen? And look, I know it’s a big issue in California, but this is a national issue and a national problem and it’s obviously very relevant at the moment. We’ve got tent cities popping up in Washington D.C. I think we all need to understand that some of it is about affordable housing, and some of it is mental health. And understanding how we got here hopefully can help us find solutions.
It seems like there’s so many more political documentaries out lately in general. I find myself gravitating more towards these than even the music ones. Obviously, post Trump, we all want to be really aware of what’s going on in our government and I think we’re all more politically involved now. Would you agree?
Oh, I’ll take it a step further. You know how you know when a democracy is stable? When you don’t have to care. I’ll just be honest, I’ve been the same way. I always say it’s not just my day job, I’m a citizen, too. I do believe that you become more engaged when you fear your rights are threatened. It’s just a fact. I’ve noticed the same thing both with myself and with others. And I have a larger theory about documentaries in general. I’m Gen X, but I think Millennials and Gen Z think more visually. I think younger generations prefer to sit and watch a 40 or 90 minute documentary. And by the way, some of these documentary shorts I sort of view as the new magazine articles. Remember magazines and that big long story that might take the entire plane flight to read? Now, I think in some ways, you get a better version of that story in a 40 minute documentary. It’s a lot harder to make but I also think it’s a lot more dynamic, and it’s a lot more inviting. I think it’s an opportunity if you’ve got a great story to tell.
More info on the Meet the Press Film Festival at FEST.AFI.com. Full lineup below.
PROGRAM ONE: WHERE I BELONG
Home can be a place, a community, or a memory. The search for belonging takes many forms.
- Golden Age Karate
USA, 5 min
Directed by Sindha Agha
Teen karate pro Jeff Wall teaches senior citizens self-defense at a local nursing home, giving them the tools to feel in control, connected and cared for.
- Coded: The Hidden Love Of J.C. Leyendecker
USA, 29 min
Directed by: Ryan White
The coded advertisements of legendary early-20th century gay illustrator J.C. Leyendecker quietly, but directly, acknowledged a community that was forced to live in the closet.
- The Train Station
Canada, 2 min
Directed by Lyana Patrick
In this beautifully animated documentary short, filmmaker Lyana Patrick narrates her family’s powerful story of love and survival at Lejac Indian Residential School.
- Lead Me Home
USA, 38 min
Directed by Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk
A short presenting the epidemic of homelessness in America with candid testimonials from the unhoused. A poetic portrait of our culture’s fraying edges and the people who inhabit them.
PROGRAM TWO: PROMISES
America is a land of promises, but some promises are traps.
- The Facility
USA, 27 min
Directed by Seth Freed Wessler
A group of immigrants, detained inside an infamous American detention center as the pandemic spreads, organize in protest to demand protections and their release.
- The Interview
USA, 20 min
Directed by Jonathan Miller, Zachary Russo
The film forces viewers to confront their own feelings about justice and mercy, while revealing the heavy toll our current system takes on incarcerated people and their families.
- Bree Wayy: Promise Witness Remembrance
USA, 29 min
Directed by Dawn Porter
A film by award-winning director and 2021 AFI DOCS Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree Dawn Porter that looks at how the art world responded to the death of Breonna Taylor by using art not only as a form of protest but as a space to heal.
PROGRAM THREE: DEMOCRACY … ON THE LINE
Around the world, defending democracy takes work.
- Party Line
USA, 7 min
Directed by Lydia Cornett
At the early voting line in Ohio’s most populous county, civic duty is a public performance.
- Red Taxi
USA/Hong Kong, 14 min
Directed by Anonymous
As protests unfold in Hong Kong, RED TAXI shows a city in upheaval through the eyes of those who must traverse the streets day and night to make a living.
USA, 38 min
Directed by Emma Francis-Snyder
An exploration of July 14, 1970, when members of the Young Lords Party stormed the Lincoln Hospital in South Bronx, making their cries for decent healthcare heard by the world.
PROGRAM FOUR: GHOSTS & LEGACIES
America’s dark racial past isn’t in the past.
- Meltdown In Dixie
USA, 40 min
Directed by Emily Harrold
A film exploring the broader role of Confederate symbolism in the 21st century and the lingering racial oppression which these symbols help maintain.
- Lynching Postcards: ‘Token of a Great Day’
USA, 16 min
Directed by Christine Turner
From 1880–1968 over 4,000 African Americans were lynched at the hands of white mobs. These lynchings were commemorated through souvenir postcards that would ultimately be subverted by Black activists to expose racist violence in the U.S.
- They Won’t Call It Murder
USA, 24 min
Directed by Melissa Gira Grant and Ingrid Raphael
Mothers, sisters and grandmothers of those killed by Columbus police, seeking justice in a community bound together by grief and a system that refuses to call these killings murder.
PROGRAM FIVE: AFTER THE WAR
The trauma of war leaves room for new understanding.
- Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis
USA, 34 min
Directed by Daniel Sivan and Mor Loushy
During WWII, a group of young Jewish refugees are sent to a secret POW camp near Washington, DC, and they soon discover that the prisoners are Hitler’s top scientists.
- Mission: Hebron
Israel, 24 min
Directed by Rona Segal
Israeli soldiers are recruited at age 18 and, only months later, are already overseeing Palestinian civil life. Former soldiers describe their time in Hebron, the most troubled city in the West Bank.