Just in time for the election: Getting Through To The President is available on DVD. Made by our friends at Off Center Productions, Getting Through... shows what happens when New Yorkers are given enough quarters to call the White House comment line from a payphone in Washington Square Park to give the President a piece of their mind [see the trailer]. There are very few things Gothamist loves more using the phone AND voicing our opinions. We asked co-director Sarah Kunstler a few questions about the project, which she answered with the help of her co-director (and sister) Emily.

What inspired you to look at the expression of public opinion in this way?
We were brainstorming about a possible entry for moveon.org's "Bush in 30 seconds" contest. We didn't know if the White House even had a comment line, but we thought it would be interesting to see what people would say if they actually had direct access to their government and could get the President at the other end of the line. But the idea was too big for a 30 second spot. So we didn't enter the contest and made a 7 minute movie instead. Lawrence Konner from The Documentary Campaign really believed in the idea and agreed to finance the project. Without Larry's belief in the project, it never would have gotten made.

As the election nears, "Getting Througn to the President" strikes us as particularly relevant. Bush never gets asked questions like these, or has to hear comments like these, in real life. He is totally insulated from the American people.

Was it difficult securing the payphone location in Washington Square Park?
Our producer, Haskell King got permits from the Park's Department and the City of New York to take over the payphone on the south side of the park. Getting the permits wasn't difficult. But during shooting, Park's Deparment workers tried to shut us down. We were actually confused with a group from "The Apprentice" who had been
shooting illegally in the park. We eventually got it straightened out, but they managed to shut down shooting for a few hours.

We actually had a lot of problems during the 3-day shoot. It was right before NYU's graduation, so we had to compete with a power washer across the street that was making the campus pretty for parents. The Parks Department came to put tar in a hole about 5 feet away from us. One of the payphones broke, and another got so filled up with quarters that it ceased to operate. Hold times got longer and longer and we were convinced that the comment line operators had decided to stop answering calls coming from our payphones. But difficulties aside, it was a very successful shoot. We recorded over 100 phone calls. We got over 100 volunteers off the street to participate. And most amazingly, even when hold times got really excessive (45 minutes-hour), people held in there and waited.

Were there any other payphones in the city you were interested in?
We wanted a payphone bank with 3 phones in it. We wanted an old-fashioned phone bank, not the modern kind where the caller is hidden inside a locker-type box. So it was pretty easy to narrow down the choices. There aren't many payphones that look like this one left in the city. We also wanted a phone in a high-traffic area.

How many quarters were used for the payphone?
We spent about $400 in quarters. We were actually shocked that the White House Comment Line doesn't have a toll free #. (The number is 202-456-1111) The phones we used charged $1 for the first 4 minutes and 25 cents for each additional minute.

With the hold times, I am sure some of calls cost up to $20.

Have you left a message for the President?
We made some test calls. Our producer, Haskell, tried to see how long he could keep them on the line before they hung up on him. He was actually amazingly good at it.

He got them to care about him and give him life advice. One even suggested that he consider joining the military to improve his career prospects.

What are some other underutilized ways in which Americans could express their public opinion?
The White House Comment Line is probably not the best way to get your
opinion heard. It's a great thing to do, but it shouldn't be the only thing you do. I think a lot of people use the Line for cartharsis, and then afterwards, they don't see the need to do anything else. In many cases it probably serves as a way of diffusing dissent.

Americans should put pressure on their congresspeople to advocate for their interests. They should also take to the streets in protest and take it upon themselves to advocate for people and issues that they feel are underrepresented. And of course, they should pick up video cameras. As filmmakers, we are support the democratization of media.


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