Sundance: Filmmaker Pelosi shoots first, asks permission later
Documentary short • Alexandra Pelosi's portrait of recovering New Jersey politician Jim McGreevey tells a story of faith and redemption.
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In "Fall to Grace," filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi profiles former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, who resigned in 2004 after declaring himself a "gay American."

The short film — screening in Sundance's Documentary Shorts Program II and airing on HBO in March — tells how McGreevey left politics behind to do good works. After resigning, he attends divinity school with a goal of becoming an Episcopal priest while he spends time working with female inmates at a New Jersey correctional facility.

"Maybe it's just because I've been around politicians all my life and I'm fascinated by the life cycle of the politician," said Pelosi, the daughter of U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "Jim doesn't have anything nice to say about politicians. He's a recovering politician."

"Fall to Grace" isn't so much about politics or even a whitewashed profile of McGreevey, but instead unfolds a story of faith and redemption.

Pelosi said she knows Sundance audiences might be suspicious of McGreevey's motives. "I have all these snarky, New York media-type friends — the kind that work at HBO — who say things like, 'Well, why would he do this?' And he's doing something. Which is more than most people are doing."

The backstory of her short film is worth a documentary all by itself. Pelosi's work certainly fits in the model of a shoestring Sundance indie film. Her biggest expense during filming was the $1.75 train fare from her apartment in New Jersey to meetings with McGreevey at the correctional facility.

"If you don't have a camera crew, it costs nothing," Pelosi said. "It was a zero-expense project. It was just getting on the train and going to the jail."

When she needed to hire an editor, she sought support from HBO. Despite her track record of making nearly 10 HBO documentaries during the past decade by herself, officials weren't convinced a McGreevey documentary was a good idea before they saw her footage.

"When I looked at just a little bit of it, I immediately endorsed it," said Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO documentaries. "She's a filmmaker sprite, and she's a very fine documentary filmmaker."

Added Lisa Heller, HBO's vice president of documentaries: "She's a one-woman show. I mean, we have people who go with big crews and a lot of support. She's out there on her own, and it is shocking how high quality her material is when it comes back."

That's Pelosi's style, to shoot first and ask permission later. "People still don't take me seriously," she said. "The camera's rolling in their face and they still don't realize it's going to end up on HBO."

She's also underestimated because of her shoestring filming methods. "When [subjects] see an old mom with a camcorder, they're not intimidated or afraid," said the 42-year-old Pelosi. "When my kids have events at their schools, the parents have nicer cameras than I shoot my documentaries with. So if someone sees me filming, they don't think, 'There's a documentary crew. What are they doing? Did they get permission to be here?' "

She started her filmmaking career on advice from Karl Rove, the former aide to President George W. Bush. Working as an NBC News producer during the 2000 presidential campaign, the daughter of the first female speaker of the House would often whip out a small, hand-held camera.

"Karl Rove would walk by and see me filming, and he'd say, 'Oh, I get it. It's better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission,' " Pelosi said. "And then I would just keep going until someone would tell me to turn it off. And, ironically, no one ever told me to turn it off."

The footage from the 2000 campaign became her first documentary, "Journeys with George," which she submitted to Sundance. When it wasn't accepted, "That broke me. I was like, 'OK, I'm not going to be a filmmaker.' "

The irony was that Bush "used to say to me, 'We're going to go to Sundance!' " It became a refrain, with Bush comparing Pelosi to filmmaker Michael Moore. "But he used to call me Roger Moore because he would mix it up," Pelosi said. "Then I didn't get in, and that was sort of crushing. After that, I never applied again."

Until this year, when Pelosi submitted "Fall to Grace" to Sundance the same way every other filmmaker does — sent off the film and hoped for the best. "People assume because of my last name I know people," she said. "I don't know anybody. I don't even know who to call."

Pelosi is thrilled the TV network is paying her way to the festival. "I couldn't even pay for the airfare to go to Sundance," she said. "And do you know how much the hotels cost?"

Plus there's the expense of finding baby sitters for her 5- and 6-year-old sons. "I can't be gone for a week," she said. "I don't have a nanny. I have to raise my own kids. They're already mad I'm going to Sundance. I'm, like, 'You don't understand. I've worked my whole life to get to Sundance.' It was something I always dreamed of. And here I am reborn at the age of 42.

"And my kids are, like, 'Who's going to pick us up from school on Monday?' "

spierce@sltrib.com —

'Fall to Grace'

The last screening of Alexandra Pelosi's short documentary about former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey will be Saturday, Jan. 26, at 8:30 p.m. at the Holiday Village Cinema 1, Park City. It's part of the Documentary Shorts Program II.