In an unfortunate test case for the theory of nominative determinism, the idea that the act of being named can in some way determine the course of your life, New York-based Congressman Anthony Weiner was a promising star in the progressive left of the Democratic party when he came undone thanks to a series of spectacularly public dick pics.
With trusted Hillary Clinton adviser and wife Huma Abedin standing by his side, the frisky phone sexting cyber-philanderer was resuscitated enough to have a tilt at New York mayor only two years later, incredibly.
Former political aide Josh Kriegman worked as Weiner’s chief of staff before ditching the cut and thrust of DC politics in favour of filmmaking alongside co-director Elyse Steinberg. He’d been trying to convince a wary Weiner to tell his side of the scandal but it wasn’t until the mayoral run that Weiner got the green light.
Watch 'Weiner' now at SBS On Demand
Debuting at Sundance before its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, Weiner’s one of the most mind-boggling documentaries in this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival line-up. There is never a dull moment as you follow this smartphone, dumb move phoenix rising and then falling all over again.
Pick your moment of madness and then another, more flabbergasting, one will be along in a minute, with an increasingly exasperated Wiener becoming ever more volatile. Even Kriegman, behind the camera, is prompted to ask, during a cascade of catastrophe, “Why have you let me film this?!”
It’s a good question. SBS Movies went hard with a few more.
As a former employee, was it your intention to resuscitate Weiner’s career?
“My pitch to him was not necessarily to rehabilitate him as much as it was to allow him tell a more complete version of his story. He kinda had his entire career wiped out and became this punchline overnight.
“People all over the world were watching, really amazed that he was going for a comeback and were counting him out, thought he was a joke, that there’s no way voters could forgive him. I’d known him as a multi-faceted and dynamic, complex human being, as we all are, and wanted to get past the scandal and see the reality behind the headlines.”
Abedin is equally fascinating to watch as she attempts to navigate a minefield both personal and professional, with parallels to the Clinton scandal. How do you perceive her treatment?
“Huma was obviously ridiculed, reduced and judged for what he did and attacked for standing by him, in some cases even more intensely and viciously. She’s not the only woman we’ve seen in that position, being judged very harshly for the mistakes of her husband. Why shouldn’t she have a right to make this choice in her marriage without judgement? I think many viewers will feel that just like him, her story and who she is is far more complex and nuanced than you might think.”
Is there hypocrisy at play in our moralistic expectations of politicians and our clickbaity hunger for salacious entertainment?
“There doesn’t seem to be a private sphere in public life in the States any more, especially for our politicians. Everything is considered relevant to public service. It didn’t used to be that way and it’s certainly had an impact on our politics and on who wants to be a politician.
“Anthony understands that to have a voice in the political conversation in American politics today, you really need to find a way to put on a show and the political conversation has become so much defined by what’s sensationalist and entertaining, more than what substance there is and I think no one represents that more than Donald Trump.”
Yes, about that, why isn’t Trump being held to the same high standards?
“Trump has demonstrated the ability to get away with and be rewarded for things that until him basically were disqualifying. He does seem to be breaking all the rules in a way that has a lot of us scratching our heads - and in some cases, wringing our hands with concern about what our political process has become.”
Are we, as media consumers, partly responsible for unleashing the beast of mercenary political commentary and the plunge to rock bottom?
“There are some people who see this film and blame the media. It’s all the media’s fault and if it weren’t for the media, Anthony would have a great career. I think that’s overly simplistic. We all play a role in the system as it functions now. Of course the media played a role, but so did Anthony and so do we as consumers. It’s a complex dynamic.”
Given the Trump factor, is it conceivable Weiner could rise again?
“Anthony recognises his political carer is probably over. He asked for a second chance and it obviously didn’t go well. He has said that it’s hard to imagine he could be taken seriously again, but one thing we’re seeing in this politically toxic atmosphere today is that few of us have any idea of what’s going on anymore and it’s very hard to predict the future.
He obviously has tremendous talent as a politician with extraordinary charisma and he’s really good at it. He has political instincts in his bones. We’ll see what happens next.”
Weiner is currently screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival before a limited season at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in September.
Watch the trailer: