For Vanessa Roth, No October Surprises
The Director of "The Third Monday In October" chronicles a day in the life of confident leaders of the future

By Omar P.L. Moore |  The Popcorn Reel

Vanessa Roth, director of "The Third Monday In October" (photo: Omar P.L. Moore)


May 8, 2007

It's been a long day for Vanessa Roth.  On this very sunny scorcher of a late Tuesday afternoon she has given more interviews than she cares to remember.  Roth has flown across the U.S. from New York City to be here for screenings of her new documentary "The Third Monday In October", which just last week screened at the Tribeca Film Festival there.  The concurrently-running San Francisco International Film Festival marks back-to-back festivals for Roth, and she has barely had time to catch her breath.  She has just finished taking pictures with a member of the press who is apparently oblivious to Ms. Roth's obligation to grant an interview to a patiently waiting journalist.

"The Third Monday In October" features a group of middle school youngsters from four different schools in the U.S. -- in Texas, Georgia and two in California.  The film tracks eleven of the various schools' presidential candidates campaigns in the year of 2004, just as the country's presidential election campaign between John F. Kerry and George W. Bush is winding down.  The youngsters are just as passionate (if not more so) as the adult politicians in reality, in Roth's engaging, humorous and occasionally dramatic documentary about strategy, competition, politics and leadership.

Many light bulbs popped for director in making this documentary.  In addition to being a filmmaker who has made significant documentaries about people and life issues for over a decade, Roth is a mother, and children have been her dedication for years.  The San Diego native who has been living in New York City for many years, worked as a child advocate in the Family Court in New York, and in the New York City school system as well as in the Los Angeles Rape Treatment Center.  And this was all before she began her filmmaking career.  Currently Roth has produced the documentary "Freeheld: The Legacy of Laurel Hester", which will be showing in numerous festivals in the United States throughout this year.

On this day though, the topic of conversation is politics, specifically as portrayed in "The Third Monday In October".  The director talks about how the ideas and the decisions to run with certain ideas evolved into a film that received the Audience Award at the Austin Film Festival in Texas last October.

"It sort of came as a very, sort of strange combination.  My daughter was in elementary school and they were having student council elections at her school.  At the same time there was voter registration happening for adults outside the school -- this is in the spring of 2004 . . . the country was pretty divided . . . and I started just wondering how do kids -- is that trickling down to kids, do they understand this sort of great divide in our country about politics right now?  And I thought it would be interesting to follow these kids in competition, and I thought middle school, at the time where kids were really figuring out their identity -- and I thought, 'what an interesting way of understanding of how kids were viewing politics . . . and getting into that though through the elections, which I knew were going to be quirky, I knew they were going to be silly and funny moments, and moving moments . . . and then you were going to have this competitive spirit to it because you know it's an election -- there are going to be winners, there are going to be losers.  So it had sort of that natural arc in it."

Three candidates for school president in America: In the state of Georgia, Noelle Jones and Kayla Bacon talk negative campaigning, while in California, Katie Kane worries about the big speech she will have to deliver.  (Photos: Big Year Productions)

"The reason I wanted to make the film too was, I do believe that -- and it's really hard not to fall into this I think, but -- because we're so blitzed with media images and things, that -- advertising and marketing and gimmicks, popularity and looks -- all those things play such an important role in how people get elected and . . . it makes me question the, just democracy in general, and [whether] choices are democratic or not, why we vote for who we vote for . . . image is so, so much a part of how we [as Americans] elect people in the adult world but that was one of the things I wanted to show in the film that you have some kids who really have a lot of substance, who really want to do the work but they don't have the marketing background of the other kids, and it's always that kid with the Superman cape that wins!"

Vanessa Roth spoke about how surprised she was that most of the parents she encounters when she does documentaries about children and young adults essentially sign their kids' lives away on the release forms they are given, granting permission for their sons or daughters to be chronicled in Roth's documentaries.  Perhaps their willingness to do so is reflected in their trust and confidence in Roth and her ability to do right by her subjects and present them in a balanced, yet unvarnished way.  Or it could be down to parental gullibility.  Or, to hear the director herself describe it, other motivating factors, which may come into play, as they actually did on "Third Monday".  "The only real hesitancy that we got . . . there was one parent in this film that really wanted to have a lot of control over what part his son played in the film . . . and that father also wouldn't be part of any of the filming because he didn't want the people he works with to know his politics.  Which I thought was interesting too." 

The documentary was shot over a couple of weeks in the fall of 2004, though a feeling persists while watching it that we have known the teenagers involved for a lot longer than two weeks.  Similarly, time was a factor that the director admits she underestimated when it came to completing the "Third Monday" project and getting it out for public consumption. 

"I naively went into this thinking that 'the story, the arc of the story, it's right there, it's going to be easy to put together . . . we can edit it quickly and it can be out in the spring of 2005.'" 

At this point, Roth supplies a breathless laugh.  Her energy, even at this hour of which for her has essentially been two days in one, what with the time zone difference across the U.S., is refreshing.  She spoke with ambition and precision about her goals and expectations for her film, and after the recorded portion of the conversation with this warm, wide-eyed, humorous and energetic conversationalist ended, would further talk with a sense of surprise and disappointment about distributors, whom so far have shown no interest in picking up "The Third Monday In October" for theatrical distribution.  As the idea of getting the film an audience on public broadcast television in the U.S. is being floated, Roth expresses a confidence about the quality and depth of her film over other similarly-situated documentaries which have achieved distribution, while hastening to add that she doesn't mean to brag when she hails her work over other more prominent and well-known documentaries.

Francisco High School presidential candidate Mick Del Rosario's message is clear.  (Photo: Big Year Productions)

The time invested in Ms. Roth's film was something that is more typical of documentaries than most feature length films.  For instance, the "Third Monday" editing process lasted for a long time.  After shooting on days in September, October and November of 2004, editing went on until and through the summer of 2006.  The daunting task for Roth and her crew of filmmakers was to parallel track four different elections and eleven candidates while keeping the narrative and story arc flowing and at the same time retaining an emotional resonance for the candidates.

One of the candidates, Jenny Wong, from Francisco High School, a school located in the city of this very film festival, was for the director typical of being trapped by the cultivation of an adult's image-shaping and massaging of reality.  In this case, the adult was Francisco's counselor/advisor Angie Averitt.  "To me she [Averitt] represents something that happens all the time, this thing of wanting to create this sort of image to people and afraid a little bit of if [the] certain truth of things come out then what are you going to do? and just being overwhelmed by that.  So, and I think that she understood that she overreacted to that."  Roth went on to say that "One of the questions to me -- I think Jenny brings up great things about needing better books, better food.  I think the question is is whether student council has any say over those things.  But . . . I think that that idea, that teacher, that sort of social control thing, where like, 'don't let people talk about the real things or else all chaos is going to break out!"  She says this last quoted line in a funny, exaggerated panic and hysteria.

"I think that [type of fear and social control] mirrors the larger world perfectly, you know, tragically -- but perfectly.  If you just pretend everything's okay, there won't be any defense."

"The Third Monday In October" features some surprises in the elections process, but nothing as scandalous or nearly as controversial as the results and revelations that emerged during the U.S. presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, or in the Ukraine elections of 2004.  Even within the microcosm of the schools profiled in Ms. Roth's documentary there were some things that may be familiar to some students everywhere: the over-protections of adults in general and parents in specific; the specter of low expectations and cautionary edicts (and overreactions) from some teachers about their students.  The contrasts between adults and children in the schools profiled is alternately stark and similar.  Earlier in the conversation the director wondered if "we" in America stopped growing after the eighth grade in school given the process depicted in her documentary and the political process in recent U.S. presidential elections.

Perhaps that line about growth was said tongue-in-cheek, but for Vanessa Roth her intentions of helping and chronicling children and shining a light on them are not in any doubt.

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