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Director David Holbrooke Discusses “The Diplomat”

With both the fight against ISIS and the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris on American’s minds both at home and abroad, a doc doesn’t deliver much more timely lessons than those of David Holbrooke’s “The Diplomat,” a thoroughly investigated portrait of legendary Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (which thankfully is finally available for streaming on HBO). Holbrooke may be best known for negotiating the Dayton Peace Accords, which put a stop to the war in Bosnia 20 years ago, but his dedication to public service actually covered an entire half century of foreign policy, starting all the way back with Vietnam.

The film itself, directed by Holbrooke’s oldest son, recently played at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen – site of that failed UN Climate Change Conference back in 2009 – with David Holbrooke in attendance. So as a politically curious journalist also visiting the festival (who happened to spot Holbrooke in line to see another doc) I immediately decided to reach out to the director to learn more about his father’s extraordinary life–and how that life has affected his own.

Lauren Wissot: The sheer number of Washington insiders to appear in your film is pretty mindboggling. Everyone from Kissinger to the Clintons seems eager to pay tribute to your dad. Yet I can’t help but wonder about the folks who don’t appear as subjects onscreen. (President Obama – whose relationship with your father was often tense – is notably absent.) Who did you hope to talk to yet couldn’t convince to go on camera – and did they give specific reasons for declining?

David Holbrooke: We interviewed more than 75 people for the film and were only turned down by a few people, including President Obama and Vice President Biden. I wish they had been in the film, but certainly understand why they declined. There were a few other people we really wanted to get – David Axelrod, Stanley McChrystal and Admiral Mike Mullen – but they all passed. That was unfortunate, but more than outweighed by all the people who said yes, including three presidents (including two active ones), four secretaries of state, and many other seriously accomplished heavyweights. One day in NYC we did interviews with playwright and screenwriter John Guare, who is an Academy Award winner, Nick Kristof of the “NY Times” who won a Pulitzer, and Elie Wiesel, the great Holocaust survivor who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. At the end of it, my producer and I remarked what a great day it was for the film – yet none of those luminaries are in the film. They were tough to cut, but we had to be ruthless about moving my father’s story ahead. These interviews were amazing, but just didn’t do that enough.

LW: As a filmmaker and former TV news producer who also happens to be the son of a legendary diplomat, do you feel like you have a complex relationship with the media? It seems like your father certainly did, having been able to see through it even as he simultaneously used it.

DH: I certainly learned a lot from my father about the media, while also having my own formative experiences as a TV producer who worked at all the major network news divisions along with CNN. My father certainly felt that reporters were a valuable conduit to get his take on an issue out there. He was a guest on “Charlie Rose” more than 50 times (and subbed in for Charlie as a host when he was sick) and saw that as a particularly valuable outlet to reach influencers and decision makers. However he also saw this conduit as an opportunity to learn from journalists who he (mostly) respected as having a thoughtful and trenchant view on complicated issues. From his earliest days in Vietnam, he quickly realized that they knew as much as anybody and routinely more than many of his colleagues in the U.S. embassy there.

As for me, I really enjoyed working in TV news but felt I wanted to tell stories that had more depth and impact to them than what I was able to do in the limited format of something like “The Today Show.” Documentaries provide that opportunity in ways that I really value, which is why I program a documentary film festival in Telluride called Mountainfilm.

LW: What are some of the challenges faced when turning the lens on a close family member? Did you ever fear that objectivity would be lost – or that perhaps some of your interviewees would “hold back” in a way they wouldn’t with a director unrelated to his subject? To be honest, I sensed hesitation on the part of many of your subjects (General Petraeus comes to mind), carefully weighing their words in an understandable effort not to offend the son of a friend and colleague.

DH: I knew I was the only one who could make this particular film, but still, the hardest part of the process was figuring out my role in “The Diplomat.” It took multiple efforts to get that right, because I was not only the director, but narrator, character and son of the subject so finding that “voice” was tricky. One thing I did know, though, was that I was never going to be objective because as his son, that was impossible. That being said, I have been struck that many of the notes I have gotten about the film have mentioned my objectivity or clear-eyed sensibility. One of the things I always said in the edit room was that the film had to be loving but also equally honest, and I think that happened.

I think being my father’s son mostly helped with the interviews in the film. Hillary Clinton is as relaxed, thoughtful and forthcoming as she has been in any filmed setting, and I think that is because it was me who was interviewing her and she had great affection and respect for my father. Some other people in the film such as Generals Petraeus and Lute were challenged on getting the right interview tone with me because of the filial relationship, since they did not have an easy relationship with my father. While they are both somewhat awkward in the film, I give both men credit for sitting down with me since they didn’t have to.

LW: Did the filmmaking process itself allow for any big revelations that you feel you otherwise might not have had without being behind the camera?

DH: I think the big revelation for me is that I was able to make a film about my father. I went from being reasonably well-informed about his career to understanding it in a much deeper way, and with that knowledge, I came to know him much better. As I say in the film, I wanted to get to know him better in death than I did in life, and I certainly succeeded in that effort. That certainly wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t embarked on this odyssey of making “The Diplomat.” Another thing I realized is that everyone – whatever age and not just filmmakers – should interview their parents before it is too late. I never made that effort, which is really unfortunate, but I did make a film, which isn’t for everybody. However, I do think people should sit down with their folks and ask them about their lives, from their childhood to their dreams and aspirations. I think it is invaluable and with today’s technology, too easy not to do something that they will always treasure.

LW: Finally, since our paths just crossed at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, I’m wondering how international audiences have so far responded to the film. I assume most viewers in general know your dad through his negotiation of the Dayton Accords, which put an end to the Bosnian war, but are reactions different in Europe than in the States?

DH: The reception for the film internationally has been strong, but quite honestly, I thought it would be stronger. We were thrilled to screen at CPH:DOX (what a great festival) as well as Sarajevo and Jerusalem (both terrific as well) but there were a lot of international festivals that passed on the film, which surprised me. I see the film as a great insight into U.S. power over the last five decades, but that American-centric perspective may have not worked for some festivals. What we have found at these screenings is that the film resonates deeply with audiences who want me to try to explain my father’s take on today’s world crises, which is a very hard thing to do given that he died in December 2010, which was six weeks before the Arab Spring. At each of the international screenings, we have had diplomats in the audience who are all very moved by the film and find themselves inspired in ways they did not anticipate. The film’s last credit reads, “Dedicated to the next generation of diplomats,” so it is great to see the film working on that level.