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Director Michael Burns of Third Party, a new documentary film on politics

Michael Burns and Christine Ucich | 05.08.2003 01:28 | Social Struggles

A review of a new documentary film on US political third parties. The most comprehensive film to date on the subject.

Michael Burns on Third Party, a Documentary Film
Interview by Christine Ucich

Like many first time directors, Michael Burns started out making his first film about a personal experience. Intensely interested in third parties in Connecticut and active in the Green Party, Michael wanted to document the obstacles faced by local third party candidates when running against either a Democrat or Republican. However during the course of the project, he widened the scope of the film to include the larger topic of third parties in general, creating a documentary about many of the major third political parties in the US and the progressive platforms they promote. Titled Third Party: Political Alternatives in the Age of Duopoly, the film makes a comprehensive survey of today’s major third parties including Libertarian, Green, Reform, Labor, Communist, Socialist and Working Families. It also examines the corruption of the current two-party system controlled by corporate money and power. The Hartford Connecticut Independent Media Center (USA) recently spoke with Michael about his reasons for making Third Party and the film’s educational impact.

HIMC: What made you decide to make a film about political third parties?

Michael Burns: The simple answer to that question is that I was sick of hearing the mainstream media repeat ad nauseam and without reflection that the United States and its allies were democracies and that everyone else was a radical or rogue state - especially during the buildup to the Iraq war. It’s not that simple. Yes, our country is a democracy, but the Founding Fathers also acknowledge that our duty was to “form a more perfect union” over time. They saw that there were flaws in our country in 1776, and those flaws remain today, for us to try to correct. The growing façade of political choice in America is one of those flaws. So attempting to deal with these nuances and the foolish idea that the world is black and white was one of the pervading motivations for making this film.

HIMC: What role have third parties played in American history?

MB: Third parties have played a critical role in American history. It’s frightening to realize but, if you go to school in this country, you often come away with an understanding that history’s strides were made either out of the benevolence of some president’s heart, or out of the work of one man or woman, or something like that. This is very wrong. Improvements in this country have often come about because organizations including political parties, often working together, pushed elected leaders to make changes. This historical dynamic is by no means finished. It’s happening all the time, and it can continue to happen if people learn the history that has been kept from them. My film touches on some aspects of this, but the literature out there is abundant and worth spending some serious time looking at.

HIMC: During a debate scene between Green Party challenger Mike DeRosa and his Democratic opponent John Fonfara, the incumbent senator discusses the risks of fighting for serious issues that are important to voters. Do you think this is common of most US Democrat or Republican state and also congressional senators? Why?

MB: That’s one of my favorite scenes in the film. You have I think a very telling response to third party candidates in which the incumbent asks - and I’m paraphrasing - do you want the kind of senator that gets outvoted 34 to 1 or 99 to 1? That’s what he’s saying happens to third party office holders. That’s very interesting because it doesn’t say anything about the issues. Rather it asks people, “Don’t you want to be on the winning side?” or “Isn’t it just troublemaking to always be fighting against the system, and why would you want to vote for that?” That’s deeply disturbing reasoning at work. Much of American history, let alone world history, has been just that, a small number of people standing up to what looked like a tidal wave of injustice. Are you sometimes in the minority in the fight against injustice? Yes. Does that make the battle less worth fighting? Absolutely not.

HIMC: What were some of the highlights in producing the film?

MB: One highlight was getting to sit down with people like Ronnie Dugger, Howard Zinn, Francis Fox Piven, and Noam Chomsky. Here are some of the greatest intellectuals in the country. Truly our greatest natural resources! I mean, to actually engage them in questions, as simple as that sounds, was a profoundly moving experience. Another highlight was coming to the realization that you can make a film like this without much money or experience if you get a little creative, like with borrowing equipment, asking for volunteers, and being persistent.

HIMC: What is one message that you would like people to remember after seeing your film?

MB: One important message has to do with our last section of the film called simply, Hope. Howard Zinn very eloquently says that his hope for the future lies in the fact that history shows that when people in this country organize for change on a mass scale, serious things can happen, and poverty, suffering, and even war can sometimes be averted. I strongly agree.

HIMC: Was there anything you would have liked to include in the film but couldn't?

MB: I would have liked to explore one idea that we weren’t able to. There’s a deliberate effort that has been underway for sometime in American politics to get the average citizen to hate the government. You see this all the time. Insulting government, trashing public schools, transportation, services, public programs. It’s so constant in the media and from politicians themselves that it’s not even that noticeable any more. But it should be. The reason it should be is because people should realize that this strategy is trying to accomplish two things. First, it’s trying to get you and I to see the government as worthless, wasteful, and inefficient so that we won’t bother to participate. They want us to see government as corrupt and not worth caring about because while they don’t say it, they
know that citizen power actually has the potential for great change through politics. Second, what trashing government does is to open the door for the private sector, corporations, who are supposed to move in and take over inefficient government programs and run them better. That’s the scam. So looking at this program, the program to encourage people to decide that one of the most potentially powerful ways to bring about social change - government policy - is actually not worth bothering with, is something I wish we got into more.

HIMC: What short or long-term impact do you think this film will have on US elections?

MB: Virtually none. Things like educational movies and television programs are great, but their impact shouldn’t be overstated. In the end, it’s going to be up to the average American who currently says that he or she doesn’t care about politics, to realize that politics shapes our world and the world of future generations. TV and films for the most part aren’t going to help people realize that. My opinion is that only personal relationships and individuals working together will bring about the collective actions that may have an electoral impact in American politics. Maybe if my film was used by organizations, teachers, or parents to raise questions in the minds of others, then it could possibly have an impact, but only to the extent that it leads to something else more important once the credits have finished rolling.

HIMC: How can people find out more about the film and see it?

MB: Our website is a great place to start. It’s simply You can find a synopsis of the film there as well as bios of the filmmakers, ordering info, and contact information for many third parties. The film is available in VHS and DVD. There some plans to screen it around the US, so I would tell people to look for those. And of course, if anyone would like to organize a screening and political discussion afterward, that would be ideal. I’d be happy to work with anyone who wanted to put something like that together.

Michael Burns and Christine Ucich
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