The Final Year presents behind the scenes glimpses of President Obama’s foreign policy team during their last year in office.
Directed by Greg Barker, the documentary follows the journeys of Barack Obama, former Secretary of State John Kerry, former UN ambassador Samantha Power, and former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes as they travel the world as diplomats and navigate issues related to American foreign policy. The film primarily highlights the goals of the team, namely, to bring lasting reform to American foreign policy with more emphasis on diplomacy than war, as well as internal disagreements, outreach to foreign countries, and the team’s response to the unexpected election of Donald Trump. More than giving actual insight into the inner workings and ideology behind foreign policy under the Obama administration, The Final Year humanizes the main actors behind its decisions and underscores the inspirational impact of speeches and personal interactions citizens around the world that is typically overshadowed by the impact of violence and policymaking.
After the DOC NYC screening, appropriately almost exactly a year after the 2016 election, director Greg Barker was joined by Rhodes and his former senior advisor, Rumana Ahmed, for a Q&A on the documentary. In terms of initially getting permission to make the film, Barker had connections to Power and other White House representations from his previous films Sergio and Manhunt, which provided him a bit of an entree, but even so, he said, “that didn’t make it easy to happen at all.” Rhodes admitted that at first, he was a skeptic and kept the proposal at an arm’s length because it seemed like a strange idea, but a couple things happened that made him agree to participate. He explained, “One is as we started to get later into the final year, I would, as you see in the film, spend all this time preparing to do a press briefing that seemed very important that day, and yet I started to realize, ‘Well, nobody’s going to remember the press briefing I gave on June 2nd of 2016, but this could actually be a record that survives and that people could view next year and five years from now and ten years from now,’ and suddenly the thing that seemed like the least important thing I had to do that day, allowing these guys access, felt more relevant than these fleeting moments that I knew were going to run out.” In reference to an article that tarnished his reputation as e continued, “The other thing is watching the episode I had with The New York Times Magazine piece that worked out so well—I actually really reflected on that, and that’s right about the time that Greg was really pushing, and I realized that there are two ways to respond to something like that: to recoil or to give more access. If you feel like you’ve been burned by access, usually people recoil. I thought the opposite, you know, ‘That wasn’t me—let’s let these people follow me around.’ Actually, if I’m going to complain about the media, which I did on occasion, a documentary maker is someone who is going to show nuance. My problem is if people don’t understand what we’re really trying to do here, then I have a responsibility to let people see what we’re trying to do.”
When asked about her experience of watching the film, Rumana Ahmed responded, “By the end, after the election, to echo Ben, it made me realize how important it was to document this as a reminder of what was possible, and I think for younger generations who haven’t had that inside view, for them to be able to see a lot of the younger that were in the room, that were in the building, Ben included, I mean all the advisors that were there who are not old—not everybody—but it gives that perspective that it is achievable, especially the ending, which captures the raw emotion that we were feeling.” Ahmed is often known for her Atlantic article, “I Was a Muslim in Trump’s White House,” in which she describes her experience of lasting no more than eight days under the Trump administration. “I could’ve stayed on through June 2018, which is when my contract ended, and I chose to stay having those doubts and having those fears, understanding the realities. There were still some things I would have been able to work on—one of the things I got to work with them on is Cuba, and you kind of hold on to that little bit of hope that some of the things we did work on could continue potentially, and that’s why I stayed on. But within the first week after January 20th, the speed at which all these different policies were being rolled out was terrifying and shocking. We all felt that we kind of knew what to expect, but the reality of it actually hitting that quickly was quite different. For me, I never would’ve in a million years imagined I could be allowed to have a voice in the White House, and people like Ben gave me the opportunity.”
The Final Year will open in theatres on January 18th, 2018.
Photo by IMDB