I had the honor and privilege of presenting a new documentary, “Carterland,” for its world premiere at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival on the grounds of the Carter Center itself.
We had the directing brother duo, Will and Jim Pattiz, and even Jimmy Carter’s grandson, Jason Carter, present. This marked the first event to happen at the Carter Center since the pandemic, and the moment was serene. The film has stuck with me in a way very few do — not only because of what it taught me about a transitional time in American history, about the only American President from Georgia but just as much, if not more, how it serves as a reflection of right now.
“Carterland” succeeded in setting the political record straight. Jimmy Carter was an effective leader and not a politician focused on power and gain. The film makes a compelling case that Carter was a leader who made selfless and courageous choices, facing the largest and most neglected issues of the time — some of which still resonate today — such as the energy crisis, runaway inflation, the environment, the Panama Canal, peace in the Middle East and more.
This film is especially important for our time, as it reflects what followed the most tumultuous administration in American history in its time (Nixon) and how, through challenge after challenge, Carter chose what was right for our country over what was right for them politically, so that we can move forward as a nation. One doesn’t have to examine hard the parallels between Nixon and Trump, and that the present marking the first time inflation has risen in America since Jimmy Carter.
Anyone who saw the 2020 film “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President” will recall that film shows the unlikely and unorthodox candidacy and then win by President Carter. Instead, “Carterland” illustrates what he was able to do as a result of that. If looked at as a Jimmy Carter documentary trilogy, “Rock & Roll President” can be seen as the first and third volumes, which detailed Carter’s time before and after his administration. In a fun way, these volumes showed how he understood the culture surrounding him, which led to an unexpected win but largely skipped over his accomplishments as president. “Carterland” instead serves as a vital volume two. It makes a truly powerful, touching, and inspirational case of Carter as the most under-appreciated President in American history.
The film heavily features interviews from Vice President Walter Mondale, Ambassador Andrew Young, President Jimmy Carter’s eldest grandson Jason Carter, and President Carter himself, among others. The film’s agenda is clearly to defend the reputation and legacy of Carter’s presidency, and perhaps the two leading defenders are Vice President Mondale and Ambassador Andrew Young. Both of which spoke directly from first-hand experience working alongside the President.
Right off the bat, Vice President Mondale starts the film by saying: “The story usually goes about President Carter, well, he’s a nice guy and a good person, great ex-president. But he’s a failed president who was never really able to rise to the challenges of his time. That’s what you hear. That’s the story we’ve been told, but it’s all wrong.” It should be known this film was the last time Mondale appeared on camera before passing, and so these words serve as one of his parting thoughts.
If you’re looking for a film that objectively weighs the strengths and weaknesses — point by point — of Carter’s presidency, this is not that film. This film is made by two young filmmakers who at first only had a mild awareness of President Carter’s presidency, namely his work around conservation.
The Pattiz Brothers decided to take a deep dive and, in so doing, kept discovering more and more first-hand accounts of people who worked for him, with him, or studied his presidency. With fresh eyes, they discovered he was a very accomplished president who did some incredible things that have been lost by popular history. It’s obvious these two filmmakers are now fans of President Carter. The film becomes their vehicle to correct his record as president and affirm the film’s early claim that President Carter is one of, if not the most, underrated presidents in American history.
The film takes a genuine and unfiltered approach through its archival images, footage, and the fact that there is no narrator reading from a written script, which instead uses only accounts from first-hand people who are either closest to Carter or have studied his presidency. The use of photos from the Carter Library, as well as the archival footage, is interlaced so poignantly; the interviews of people’s accounts are shot so artfully; and the original footage the Pattiz Brothers filmed really speaks to their background in nature conservation film. One is left awestruck by the number of things he accomplished and how ahead of his time he was, and yet it is tragic because not only do you know he ultimately did not get re-elected, but that over the years, popular perspective painted an unfair and inaccurate view on his presidency.
My takeaway from the film ends up being, at the risk of sounding like a complete film nerd, a version of a quote from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” but about President Carter. He wasn’t the President we deserved, but the one we needed.
The film unpacks complicated and nuanced issues that took place over the four years of the Carter presidency. They were the intersection for the generations before and after, and this was somehow boiled down into just two hours. It lays them out in a coherent way, but you also have the knowledge that President Carter would choose what was right for the nation over continuing his political career. It requires the undivided attention that only a cinema can provide to fully grasp and appreciate it.
I was so glad that one of our programmers at the Atlanta Film Society, Lauren Rector, came across this film and brought it to my attention, and I couldn’t be more proud that they selected this film to be a part of the festival. It went on to be chosen by our distinguished jury to win the “Best Documentary Feature” prize and has been featured at a number of other film festivals since.
In a similar way, I ended up being involved with the Atlanta Film Society, then the Plaza Theatre, and recently the Tara Theatre: I saw this incredible cultural work that’s significant to Atlanta with no one else stepping up to shepherd it forward. It’s because of that sense of obligation that the filmmakers and I share this story with the community and help continue President Carter’s story. A portion of the proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Carter Center to support continuing President Carter’s humanitarian work.
The filmmakers have had many conversations with a number of distributors, but none of those led to a fruitful offer, so I got involved in the role of Executive Producer, and I am taking it to theaters starting here in Atlanta and soon to be in other cities. Our hope is that it will then attract proper conversations about digital rights for rentals, streaming and so on.
Part of why I personally felt a pressing need to get this film released is underlined by a point Ambassador Young makes in the film, saying, “I don’t think we began to appreciate Martin Luther King Jr. until he passed away. I think the same thing will be true of Jimmy Carter. He will have to move on to the next life before we stop long enough to appreciate how great a president he truly was.”
My hope is that some people will see this and appreciate him in a way they had not before and do that while he is still with us. This point is made even heavier as President Carter was recently quoted saying about the film, “I want this played at my funeral.”