The stars are aligned for filmmaker David Van Taylor, a Washington native.
Three weeks ago, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to support his work in film. Then he found out that his newest documentary, Advise & Dissent—about the recent battles to confirm Supreme Court justices—would open the Politics on Film festival. Two days after festival organizers said they wanted the movie, Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement from the Court, making Van Taylor’s film a timely counterpoint to the controversy any Obama nominee will spark.
“In a way, Advise & Dissent is a movie I’ve been preparing for all my life,” says Van Taylor, who adopted the “Van” in his name as a joke when he was a student at Georgetown Day School. He’s the son of the late Harriett R. Taylor, the senior judge of the DC Superior Court, and the prominent civil-rights attorney William Taylor. Both of his parents were deeply involved in politics, and Van Taylor’s father worked closely with Senator Ted Kennedy and others to defeat Robert Bork’s 1987 Supreme Court nomination.
At the time of the Bork battle, Van Taylor had just graduated from Harvard, moved to New York to teach in an inner-city school, and was a fledgeling filmmaker. He dressed as Bork for Halloween that year, he recalls.
Van Taylor’s documentaries have often reflected his grounding in the political process. He was a producer and director of A Perfect Candidate, made in 1996 about Oliver North’s Senate campaign—a movie Washingtonpost.com’s Chris Cillizza calls “the best political film ever.” He makes no secret of his liberal leanings but “the highest calling of a documentary is to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and confront a different set of beliefs,” he says. “If a film just tells you what you already believe, what does it accomplish?”
Advise & Dissent documents the confirmation battles over John Roberts, Harriet Miers, and Samuel Alito. Van Taylor began work on the movie in 2005 but didn’t finish editing until last fall. Why did it take so long? “One confirmation battle turned into three,” Van Taylor says. The election of President Obama and a Democratic majority in the Senate changed the context of future confirmation processes. The challenge was to use the Roberts, Miers, and Alito stories to help people “understand what’s at stake when we choose judges,” according to Van Taylor. “This is the place where people get to have legitimate influence over the kind of justice the third branch of government provides.”
Van Taylor is now working on a documentary about the history of documentaries for the Public Broadcasting Corporation.
Advise & Dissent opens at the E Street Cinema Wednesday, May 5. The showing is followed by a panel discussion hosted by CBS news chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford. The panelists: Van Taylor; Manuel Miranda, chairman of the Third Branch Conference, who helped devise the conservative confirmation-wards strategy; and the executive vice president of People for the American Way, Marge Baker.
Don’t be surprised if the filmmaker’s father asks the toughest questions from the audience.
>> We’re keeping close tabs on President Obama’s search for a candidate to replace Justice John Paul Stevens. Follow along over here.