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For decades, U.S. strategists-for-hire have been quietly molding the opinions of voters and the messages of candidates in elections around the world. In the first documentary to enter the rooms where strategies and decisions are made, director Rachel Boynton follows a team of U.S. political consultants, including James Carville, as they help Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada become President of Bolivia. With access to think sessions, media training and the making of smear campaigns, we see how their marketing strategies, the same as those used to market McDonald's, shape the relationship between a leader and his people. Winner of the 2005 IDA Best Feature Documentary Award.
 

 Our Brand is Crisis

I remember flying from La Paz to Miami in March 2003, coming back from what I had thought, when I flew down, would be my last trip to Bolivia. (I'd started shooting Our Brand is Crisis a year earlier, following Clinton's former political consultants to South America as they ran the presidential campaign of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada—aka Goni.) On the plane, I desperately wanted a long, hot bath and a shot of good whiskey. Tom Hurwitz, one of the DPs I worked with, was sitting behind me. I remember feeling glad that he had come, what a relief it was to be working with a DP (Director of Photography) I trusted and liked when so much of the film's story was in such an uncertain place.

The capital of Bolivia had been overtaken by riots only a few weeks before. The fate of the government—and of any politician who had traditionally held power—was very much in question. We'd flown down to shoot the capital post-riot—the ministries and government buildings destroyed by stones and fire—and to film an interview with Goni, among other scenes.

A couple of days after we arrived, I was invited to go out with Goni for a walk. I took a taxi to his new home. He'd moved into the place just a few days before, afraid for his security. It was a house that had been remodeled by General Banzer (the former Bolivian dictator), and there was a small military compound on the grounds. Apparently, during the violence a few weeks before, there had been an unsuccessful attempt to kill Goni. It was more like a warning than a truly focused assassination attempt; someone had fired rounds into his office when he wasn't at his desk. But Goni was obviously shaken—enough to move out of his beautiful home into a modern atrocity surrounded by guards.

I walked with him and his wife around the cement house as they did "chaya"—an indigenous ritual done on Fat Tuesday as an offering to Mother Earth. He walked with a glass of alcohol and his wife followed with wine. A cholla woman who worked for the family trailed behind with a plastic bag filled with sticky flower petals and bits of an apple-like fruit. The woman tossed the fruit around the perimeter as Goni poured alcohol in the corners. Another woman was setting off firecrackers, which made me jump and cover my ears. Goni didn't flinch.

Afterwards we went for a walk in the hills, just him and me and a long train of bodyguards. The guards carried umbrellas and bottles of water for us. They hovered around, ready to cover Goni if there was rain or to help him across the rough patches, where the path had crumbled off the cliff. We talked about the horrible situation, and about the influence of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United States. I told him I hoped the film would help Bolivia procure aid. I sensed that was why he had asked me to meet him—to impress on me the direness of the situation and the fact that my country had influence, the power to intervene with dollars and diplomacy. By then, I had been shooting for a year, filming this crucial moment in history as it unfolded. And I'd seen its secret side: the American consultants behind the scenes, and what they had done to influence public opinion and the shape of the government in Bolivia. How ironic that now Goni was turning to me and my camera to influence opinions back home. (What power lay in the hands of the public!)

After our walk, we drove to Goni's other home, the one he had lived in during the campaign. There he and his wife did chaya again. This time I helped toss the flowers. Goni said doing chaya was asking for luck in the coming year, asking for the earth's blessing. I suspected he would need the luck, and I wished him well.

On the plane coming home, my footage in my carry-on overhead, I thought about how I was in the middle of an unpredictable, international situation, potentially a great Latin American tragedy. How would it all unfold? Was it possible that the country could fall apart and be rebuilt again, stronger than before?

Tom tapped me on the shoulder and offered to buy me the whiskey I'd been hoping for. "So are we going back again?" he asked.

And I realized I didn't know the answer. We would all have to wait and see what kind of luck the year would bring.