For more than four years filmmaker Arun Chaudhary followed the American president Barack Obama. The result is thousands of hours videotape. He also wrote down his experiences in the book ‘First Cameraman’. “If the president is angry, he shows it in a very calm way. Like the kind of parent that says: ‘I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed’.” A portrait of Barack Obama by ‘the shadow of the president’? Yes, we can!
We have an appointment with Arun Chaudhary in front of the White House in Washington DC. He is dressed like we saw him earlier on photo and video: in a black suit with a tie and black sneakers. “The first couple of months, I was wearing nice shoes. But I slipped once in a while because of the slippery stones next to the White House. That’s when I started to wear sneakers”, Chaudhary explains. Half historian, half propagandist. That’s how you can describe his role in the media team of Barack Obama. With his camera and laptop Chaudhary made videos on weekly bases for the website of the With House. A piece of the footage will be released fife years after the last legislature of president Obama.
You are a filmmaker and a former professor at the New York University. How did you get the chance to become the first videographer at the White House ever?
Arun Chaudhary: “A good friend of mine works at CNN. She knew I was passionate with politics and she brought me on to the team of Barack Obama. Very soon I developed a close relationship with the senator. We had a similar sense of humor. First I followed Barack Obama as a senator. Later I became president Obama’s personal videographer during and after the campaign of 2008.”
“There’s always been people who filmed the speeches and the official moments. This is the first time that someone was getting behind the scenes moments on tape, on film. And not only on photo, but you can hear and see moves. We showed them on West Wing Week, the official website of the White House. Unlike Belgium our head of state is also the guy who gets it done. They can’t split those functions in a way that they do in a constitutional monarchy. ‘You do the cool ceremonial stuff and you’ll do all the work’.”
How many days a year did you see Barack Obama?
Chaudhary: “Just about every day, except for one day in the weekend. Especially on the campaign: it’s non-stop, you’re always travelling. I did not go on the vacations. I sent other folks to do that. I made a conscious decision that I did not want to go on vacation with the president. A: a had to break now and then. B: we had such a good relationship. Why push the envelope? And C: it was an opportunity to make other movies. During the president’s three vacations I went to the Gulf Coast to cover the oil spill. I went to Iraq – that’s how I spent my vacation: in Bagdad (laughts). And the last one was in Sudan where I saw the birth of a new nation: South-Sudan. That was something I was able to do as the White House videographer but would not be able to get as intimate with when you’re travelling with the president and all the security.”
Why not? Because you might say that these are the moments you get to know Barack Obama even more?
Chaudhary: “Oh yeah. I think you get to know him then. But in the Sudan movie I was trying to capture people on the ground. When the president’s there, they’re just reacting to the president. And you actually want to see a glimpse of a policy impact and America’s foreign policy on the ground. Sometimes it’s better not being with the president. Because he is always the star of the show, where ever he goes.”
What do you say to him? Mister president? Barack? Mister Obama?
Chaudhary: “After he was the president: always mister president. If you are feeling more familiar, then ‘boss’. Or POTUS, which is the acronym for ‘president of the United States’, that was a little more low key, like the familiar version of ‘mister president’. On the campaign it was always ‘senator Obama’. There are a couple of times that Barack slips out. He’s not someone who minds that at all. I don’t think he really cares about people calling him Barack. Not even a little bit. But It’s important for you because the person who work for is not just a person but the president. You get used to someone, you become workfriend with the president. You become used to that situation. And you do. Except that every day people who haven’t meet the president before, meet him. That’s always special. Regular people forget their names or his name. They start crying. Some people start singing. All kinds of things happen because it’s an emotional stay. So as much as you can forget these things are special, seeing him with ordinary American on a daily basis always reminds you that it’s something special going on. The White House is the same. You come to this building every day, you walk up the drive. It’s a beautiful old place, all this history. But you’re just coming to work in the morning, right? You’re tired, you got to get to your office to check your e-mail and a bunch of stuff. But when you’re leaving at the end of the day and you see people looking through those gates, all the tourists taking pictures, and they wanna know who you are and wanna know what’s going on inside that house, that’s when you remind what an honor and privilege it is to work inside the White House. It’s a dream job.”
How did you work? Did the media team of Barack Obama tell you which days you were allowed to film?
Chaudhary: “At the White House a was left at my own judgment what I should film. The mandate was to document the presidency for history. It’s a hard thing to think about when you’re one person. I looked at the schedule day by day and week by week and try to make sure I was picking a variety of things. The stuff that we release is just the tip of the iceberg. There is an enormous amount of material that we gathered. And this will may be public to everyone five years after the end of the president’s administration. If Obama is re-elected, this will be nine years.”
Are we going to see family stuff in the unreleased footage?
Chaudhary: “There will be some family things, but not too much. I was allowed to walk in the Oval Office and film things for West Wing. But one thing the president was clear about: try to leave the girls out of it, unless it is something official. One of the main priorities of the president and the First Lady is to make sure the girls grow up as normally as possible. A big part of it is that was don’t feed the constant curiosity people have of what there are doing every day. If a ran across the girls playing with the dog I wouldn’t necessarily film it. But if I ran across the president playing with the dog, I would definitely film it. He was always fair. ‘Think twice before you film the girls’, he said.”
You didn’t film all, but you saw all, I suppose?
Chaudhary: “Sometimes the girls were at school. The president always, very traditionally, every day would usually break off at around 18h30, 19h to go have dines with his family. That was not sometime that we would film or photograph.”
Did you sometimes sleep at the White House?
Chaudhary: “No. If you were working late night, there are and couches and showers. Sometimes you do have to work through the night. But not that often. But if you’re sleeping, you’re sleeping at your desk, on the floor or on a couch in the building right across the White House.”
You travelled around the world in Air Force One. Is it dangerous following Barack Obama?
Chaudhary: “I think it’s very save following Barack Obama. You’re surrounded by the world’s greatest security team and secret service who are everywhere all the time. Doing their thing. Extra-ordinary professional people. Not that I feel unsafe now. But sometimes I miss the sounds of security: all the guns clicking together. I know that it sounds very strange to say. But it becomes such a familiar noise.”
Didn’t you have to wear bullet preventing jacket?
Chaudhary: “No. Nobody. Some of the Secret Service guys do. In general obviously the president has some saying how it goes. But most of them take the advice of the Secret Service, no matter what party.”
WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET
If you were to describe Barack Obama in three words. How would you do that?
Chaudhary: “Thoughtful, curious and supportive. People ask me: what is the president like? And usually they follow it up with: is he really like that? Is he the person that we see on tv? And the answer is: yes. A hundred percent. He is exact the same person on tv as he is in real life. Which is extra-ordinary rare. And which made my job easier for me but also made my job possible. I can not think of a single politician whose senior advisors would let him be filmed all the time. Because they would worry that he would say something strange, do something weird. Everyone though my work was a good idea. Everyone knew that he has this remarkable ability to be himself under all circumstances.”
In which way he is supportive?
Chaudhary: “He is a very calm person. He is a master of solving problems. He likes to seek out who the most uncomfortable person in the room is. And make sure they feel a little more comfortable. He loves people around him bring on the best of themselves. Witch allows him to relay on them. Thanks to his ability to communicate what he wants to people very affectively. And to expect them to get it done but also to allow them the space to let them do that. Everyone in the staff has a job to do and he lets them do it. During the great campaign in 2008 he set the tone and set the goals. But he didn’t micromanage people on his team. Whereas Mitt Romney is the CEO and feels like taking control of all the aspects of the campaign. To his credit, when thing go badly, he says: ‘This is my fault as much as everyone else is’. And that’s good of him to do. But he is a cannibal for his team. He is holding the steering wheel too tight instead of letting his campaign manager drive while he goes and speaks to the American people.”
“The thing you can really see through backstage video – that people couldn’t see by looking at speeches – is the president’s curiosity. This president is a very intellectually curious fellow. He asks you a question and asks you two more questions about the person. He is kind a like a dad. He wants to know what you know, how you know it, when you learned it. For example when he visits a glass factory. Usually these stores are crap, right? They are just photo opportunities. People usually don’t expect questions. But the president has got questions. ‘Let’s say I don’t know anything about glass. Let’s start with the beginning. How do you make glass?’ He wants to know the answer. I don’t think George W. Bush was very curious. If he had a videographer, you wouldn’t see that same kind of questions. Obama will jump in, roll up the sleeves and learn how to do things.”
Is he a real family guy?
Chaudhary: “He is very much like a dad. And not just with his family, but also with his staff. When I said I was leaving, he wanted to know exactly what the plans were. Also with other people he wants to know what the grades are and the results at school. There’s a wonderful family. There’s very close. And the whole family does seem to have the ability like he does. Michelle is the same way to be able to create private space, even if in public. The president and his wife are very good together. My favorite times to film would be when the two of them were hanging out. Their sense of humor is very funny, self-deprecating sometimes. If they’re doing a joint taping and one person messes up, the other would go ‘you messed that up’. Once the First Lady missed her line. And the president was like: ‘You don’t need to do that again. None of these guys have got to tell you that, because you are the First Lady. But I don’t care’.”
I read a quote from Obama talking about you. ‘Arun is a nice guy, but he has to have his hair cut’.
Chaudhary: “(laughts) Yes. Funny situation. One moment I wasn’t filming him but a telephone in the room. I needed something special for a shot. The president is curious, like a said. He asked what I was doing and apparently looked at me clearly. And you know what? It wasn’t just that my hair was pretty long. I also hadn’t shaved in a couple of days. I did look pretty bad (laughts).”
Only that day?
Chaudhary: “Yeah. Generally I look pretty good. I think that was a day which I thought I wasn’t have to come to the Oval Office. So I woke up in the morning, didn’t shave. As it turns out they said: we need you over here. (laughts) I almost got away with it.”
Is the president vain?
Chaudhary: “No. Not at all. In fact for the first couple of weeks of the presidency he was attacked by the people of president Bush for not wearing blazer all the time. Or for putting his feet of the Oval Office. Or this picture with the holes in the bottom of his shoes. In the weekends it was all right for us to come casual. You do not have to dress up. Especially if you are calling in an a Saturday or a Sunday. He tries to be respectful of people’s work-life balance as much as possible, which in a place like this I guess is impossible. But the president tries to make it a little more possible. For example. He had that playground set up. Not really for the girls because they are too old for it. But so that staff members who had kids could come in while it’s there day for the kids. It’s really hard to have a good work-life balance. It’s one of the reasons I had to leave. For the second time I become a dad in November (Arun Chaudhary is living in Washington DC with his wife Laura and little son Leo and they are expecting a baby girl, MS). That’s one of the president’s favorite things of being president versus campaigning. He lives over the store now. He has a shop and he lives over it. At the end of the day he right away goes to see his family. That’s something that the Obama’s really value. And in a way probably makes leaving Chicago and moving to Washington really worth it.”
A nice moment in one of the videotapes is when the president heard you would become a dad and he said there is nothing to be worried about.
Chaudhary: “Oh yeah. Have you this little piece of footage? Indeed. I was filming him and telling that my wife was pregnant. He congratulated me and said: ‘There is nothing to be scared of. Just dive right in there. You’ll gonna be great’. Those conversations have been very valuable for me. He was one of the first people who told me: ‘Look, your kids personalities are the way they are when they come out. You can’t fight it, you have to go with it. They are who they are.’ Learning to accept that was definitely a good advice for me from the president. A dad figure, like I said. Which is funny, because he is a very young president.”
Is he sometimes not this nice guy? Does he get angry?
Chaudhary: “Very rarely did I see the president angry.”
Chaudhary: “Yes. Very rarely. Looking to the archives, there will certainly some anger there. It’s not that we hide these things. But he’s a very calm person. If he becomes angry, it’s because someone is being unfair or disrespectful for no reason. Or when someone’s loading their power over the staff.”
What does he do or say then?
Chaudhary: “Verbal. But very calm. Like the kind of parent who says: ‘I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed’. He is very good of projecting that one. You feel his disappointment. And no one wants to let down the president of the United States.”
In the intro of your book, we read: ‘It’s not my goal to describe what the president eats’. But I happen to be interested in those kind of things. Is he a vegetarian for example?
Chaudhary: “No. The president is an omnivore. He is very fund of all different kinds of food. From healthy stuff all the way to burgers. He is very good in having a variety of food. But I don’t really know what he eats for breakfast and I’m not interested. He eats three meals a day, I can only speak to that. He is a big believer in working out. I don’t know what the routine is in the morning, but he keeps being trim and fit.”
Does he sport?
Chaudhary: “He plays basketball and organizes games. At the White House converted the tennis court into a basketball court. So he don’t have to go very far to spend twenty minutes, getting some energy out.”
Barack Obama also got critical remarks during the past four years. A group of Americans are disappointed. How does he deal with the criticism?
Chaudhary: “He doesn’t. He and his advisors don’t think about the critics at all. In Washington we say: ‘Today you are smart, the next day you are dumb’. You have a lot of ups and downs. You have no idea how busy things are. If the president was taking time to react every criticism that came on across his desk, he wouldn’t have time to do anything. So the president avoids watching a lot of tv. He is mostly reading briefings for getting his news. I think his main news on television is sports center. He prefers to watch that and not get all the vitriol. Because here in America most of political tv has nothing to do witch facts. It’s not informative. It’s about opinions and talking heads. You can make yourself crazy listening to that stuff.”
Despite of that, does Obama watch television often?
Chaudhary: “The president has a very good taste in movies. He likes some of these long form narratives, thoughtful considerate storytelling. He is quite a good writer, as you know. He definitely likes literate television.”
What are his favorite movies?
Chaudhary: “Casablanca is a movie that he likes quite a bit. Also The Godfather trilogy. It’s funny when they would ask him trivia. ‘Who takes the gun and leaves it behind in the second movie?’ And he will always have the right answer. (laughts)”
I guess you will confirm that the president is smart?
Chaudhary: “He is very, very smart. He is also smart enough to answer questions like I’m answering: authentically. In 2008 a tv guide did a survey and asked Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama their favorite television shows. Obama said: ‘I like The Wire’ and things that he was watching. And Hillary Clinton just rattled of just the three most popular shows in American television: CSI, American Idol and one more show. You can just tell when someone is honestly telling you what they’re watching and someone who is just talking. The president is comfortable with his tastes. And as an expert in movies I’m impressed in them as well.”
On November 6th 2012, the day you become 37 years old, the American people choose a new president. Is Barack Obama going to be re-elected?
Chaudhary: “I will be the president will be re-elected. Also in this campaign he shows his authenticity to the American people. And we see an opponent who has repeatedly refused to do that. You have in this case ‘authenticity and thoughtfulness’ against ‘money’. In a way it’s a sort of match up to proof the things I talking about in my book. I had no idea when I started writing that this election would absolutely be the litmus test for it.”
What do we put on the tombstone for the president and for you?
Chaudhary: “For the president I couldn’t say. His greatest accomplishments are probably still ahead of him. He’s so young and such a remarkable person. I don’t even think they will necessarily be in the presidency. By the time his tombstone is engraved, who knows what the legacy can be? For myself: ‘Here lies Arun Chaudhary, he trusted the materiel’.”
On our way back to the Washington DC airport, I’m asking the taxi driver if he is following the debates on television between the candidates Obama and Romney. “Not seen very much of it”, he answers. “Not interested. I already decided who I’m gonna vote for: Obama. He gets a lot of critics for his health care and the economy in America. But the former president Bush has made a mess of it. Obama will need eight years to clean this mess up.”