November 7, 2002

Off the Record with Jonah Green

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I already know what Johan Green ’06 looks like when I make plans to meet him at Collegetown Bagels. He doesn’t have the same luxury, so I make it clear that I’ll find him. When I get there, he’s standing at the counter bobbing a tea bag in his cup of hot water and finishing up his transaction. He doesn’t look much different than the rest of the people in the place. But I recognize Green for two reasons. First, he bears a strong resemblance to his father Mark Green ’67, the Democratic candidate from the controversial 2001 mayoral race. And secondly, I saw Green in a film he shot and produced entitled OFF THE RECORD: One Family’s Look at the Unusual 2001 NYC Mayoral Race, which was recently screened at the Hampton’s Film Festival.

Composed of Green’s footage from August of 2001 though November of that year, OFF THE RECORD is a remarkably astute look at politics and political life from two unique perspectives: first as a filmmaker and second as a son.

And because Green had obvious and exclusive access to his father’s personal life and his campaign, the film comes off as part diary and part historical record. There’s a certain authenticity to the film that comes as a direct result of Green’s familial ties with the candidate. As opposed to news footage, where a viewer is allowed to freely criticize and judge a four-minute segment, OFF THE RECORD is a challenge of sorts that pits public life against a more intimate existence. Indeed, the film opens with footage of a gap-toothed Mark Green as he appeared in 1984, the year Jonah was born. He jokes openly about the gap in between his front teeth and comments on the high-tech orthodontics it would take to bring his smile together. This image is then contrasted to the Mark Green of late 2001: clean cut, well dressed, silver-haired, distinguished. The tie is straight, the smile genuine, and, you guessed it, the gap is gone.

Cut with shots of the city, of his father’s many campaign stops and speeches, and with several scenes shot in the Green’s NYC apartment, OFF THE RECORD is an important and intriguing film for New Yorkers and non-natives as well. The film examines several political questions. Namely, loyalties are questioned, bonds formed and broken, finances are addressed. Fundamentally, the film poses this question: What wins an election? Is it hard work? Dedication? Sincerity? Or, does winning a race more closely correspond to the size of the check one is willing to write.

I sat down with Green to talk about the film, his family, his father, his politics, and Cornell. Much like his film, Green had a lot to say.

Daze: Had you ever worked in film before you decided to make OFF THE RECORD?

Jonah Green: No, I’d learned to edit — very loosely — the summer before I made the film. I interned at a place downtown, but other than that it was mainly screwing around with my friends and a camera. I began filming the campaign in August [2001] and, at that point, the story was not a thrilling one. I thought that if I was going to make a documentary it would go like this, you know: Frontrunner Wins. But, there’s no real importance in that. But then things escalated. You know, the first date for the primaries was September 11, so that proved to be interesting. It’s funny because it really started as a family video then it became a more elaborate family video and eventually I said, “Wow, there’s a story here” and I decided to make it a formal documentary while also getting credit for it at Horace Mann. So, it was a really good deal for me.

Daze: What was your Dad’s take on the idea?

Jonah Green: Of course, I had to edit out all the times he said “Oh, go away, put the camera down” or something like that, but after a while, I don’t think he really noticed. I mean, I wasn’t an outsider. I was just part of the family. I would walk around in my boxers filming. So, they weren’t bothered because they didn’t think anybody would really see it. That’s why the film is really informal. And that’s why I think the film is really honest. I don’t think they [my family] thought it would have an audience. I didn’t know, either. We thought it’d get maid for my class and then kind of sink in my drawer.

Daze: What kinds of constrictions were placed on your filming? Were there any times that you absolutely could not film?

JG: Yeah, actually there’s that shot in the documentary where there’s this press guy, Joe, who says, “Hey, take that fucking thing off me.” He was always the guy to say “Go away” but that was part of his charm. My dad was pretty good about it. He never really said anything like “You can do this” or “You can’t do that” but because I’m his son, I had a pretty good idea of what I should and shouldn’t do. I had to use my best judgment to not really muck up the film with too much politics. It is, of course, a political film, but I didn’t want it to be so obnoxiously liberal. Of course, there’s no way it can be unbiased because I’m also a subject in the documentary also. There were some things like dealing with [Rev. Al] Sharpton that I didn’t really want to get into because it was so detailed and so nasty that it didn’t do anything for the plot. It just gives you a bad taste.

Daze: You knew September 11, 2001 was going to be a big day because it was the primaries, but it turned into a big day for other reasons. How did that affect your production?

JG: It was a weird — I don’t want to say foreboding — but it’s a weird thing to happen on a day when you expect to be partying at the end of it. I was of course extremely interested [in the primaries] because of the election