As a brilliant documentarian of political consequence, Greg Barker delivers another outstanding documentary highlighting the events that transpired during the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency and the rise of the totally unexpected with his latest project The Final Year.

Barker effectively pulls back the curtain behind one of the most perplexing yet fundamental departments of the American government with a focus on the Obama administration’s foreign policy team.

The thought-provoking documentary is personified by the daily struggles of former Secretary of State John Kerry, former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, and former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Barker offers audiences an unprecedented insider’s perspective as he follows along as Obama’s foreign policy team struggles to race the clock and wrap up current projects as they reflect on their accomplishments during their tenures, such as the Iran deal and significant strides to repair America’s standing global leaders following the war in Iraq.

Barker successfully captures the passion and compassion that was the Obama administration, while portraying the utter heartbreak of the transition to the Trump administration’s agenda. ScreenPicks got to speak to the award-winning filmmaker about his motivations and The Final Year. 

In 2011, The New York Times described you as “a filmmaker of artistic and political consequence.” This film proves that. How do you feel about that label?

Greg Barker: I take it as a compliment. [Laughs] I mean, I read that piece. It was on a different film about Islam. I’ll take it.

What were goals and objectives when making this film?

GB: Fundamentally it is about telling a good story. I look for worlds that we normally don’t see captured on screen. You know, the inside of diplomacy and the foreign policy establishment is certainly one of those worlds. It’s also so opaque, dry, and boring. I wanted to kind of get behind that and capture what I knew to be the case: that these are jobs held by ordinary people who are making difficult decisions and they disagree like anyone else in the workplace. I knew the last year of Obama’s presidency would be a historic year. Of course, I had no idea what was going to happen. But my gut feeling was that something would happen to give the narrative spine in the film that would be compelling.

What major themes about the Obama administration were you trying to convey, if any?

GB: I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of the Obama administration. My view is that this is a group of people who have been together for a decade. It’s like a band. There’s like the lead singer and supporting musicians who have made the same kind of music for over a decade while experiencing their internal disagreements and challenges. I really wanted to get a sense of who these people were, what motivated them, and how they changed. Also, how they are going to deal with this emotional last year. To continue the band analogy, they knew they were breaking up and that they were putting out their last album. That, in itself, forces people to reflect and rush to the finish. I just wanted to be along for that ride so when stuff happened, we would be there. Not only in the policy sense but more the emotional way.

What were your personal politics going into the project, or did you just want to do it from an objective journalistic standpoint?

GB: I was driven by my own personal politics. I lived overseas during the Bush presidency and saw first -hand how America’s standing deteriorated in the aftermath of the Iraq war. So Obama coming in to try and correct that is something I thought was kind of a worthwhile endeavor. Now, by the end of his presidency, there were lots of things to discuss and debate, like Syria or the relationship with Russia. But I wasn’t going into it with the goal of say “look how good these guys are” or “look what a disaster they were.” I wanted to get a sense of all that. I tend to work in these shades of grey. Not good, not bad but in the middle. That’s where, for me at least, the insight can be found. Where I kind of place myself in the world of these characters then have the audience decided what they would do if they were in their same situations. If you disagree with Obama on certain issues, it’s in there. If you support him, it’s in there too. Whatever your visions going into this film, you’re getting insight into the human dynamic behind this distant world that is the foreign policy establishment.

Did you learn anything new about Obama or his administration while making the film that you find particularly interesting?

GB: Yeah, it’s just being around for so long. We filmed for 15 months. Since we were not part of the normal press operation, we saw stuff up close that you are not going to see unless you are working inside. It’s reflected in the film, the internal disagreements they had. Particularly, Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power disagreeing over Syria. Also, I appreciated the consistency of Obama’s foreign policy message. This guy’s worldview was pretty consistent whether you agree with it or not. Even with all the pressure of leaving office and dealing with so many challenges, like the rise of the totally unexpected, Trump. This film, in a lot of ways, is like the Titanic. We all know the iceberg is there and they are essentially clueless as they approach disaster.

How do you feel about the film’s release being one-year after the transition to the Trump administration?

GB: I felt like the film would be better served by waiting a bit, like late spring or summer even though some folks felt that we needed to get it out soon. I think it took time to settle in. I am happy with the release. I have never had a film that plays on so many different levels for an audience. At the screenings, you see people experiencing two narratives. The narrative on the screen and the narrative in our brains applying what we have seen to what is going on today.

The scene where Obama visits Hiroshima, for example, is always very powerful for me. But it wasn’t until well into the Trump presidency when the threat of nuclear war started becoming more real with North Korea when I started to appreciate how differently Trump and Obama spoke about nuclear war and that’s very powerful and totally unexpected. Previously, it was an emotional scene because no one was thinking back in 2016 when Obama visited Japan that threats of nuclear war were right around the corner. So yeah, I think one year after is a good time to tell this story. It also reminds us that things do change. Hopefully, the message of hope in this film can inspire us and young people to help make a difference. I like to see people who go through a range of emotions when they watch and then they are motivated to get involved at the end.

Are you planning on doing a follow-up film detailing how the Trump administration is un-doing pretty much everything Ben and Sam accomplished during Obama’s presidency?

GB: [Laughs] We’ll see. We’ll see how long they’re around.

What would you say the major differences between the Obama administration and the Trump administration are?

GB: On foreign policy, I would say that the Obama administration actually had a foreign policy and I don’t see one in the Trump administration. I say that as a filmmaker, a guy who spent a long time traveling the world, and who studied international relations. This is not a way of doing foreign policy in any sense, which I think is frustrating our allies. There’s no clear policy and no framework about to approach the world. That would be the biggest thing. And that can take a while to repair.

What is your next project? Will you do anything on the Russian interference, Mueller’s probe, tensions with North Korea?

GB: All those things are very hard to know. I don’t know. All those things are possible. I think we are living in a unique political moment but also a unique media moment. It is very hard to know as a documentary filmmaker what to focus on. This film took two years from the idea to getting it out into the world. So it is hard to say where we will be in two years. It’s is satisfying that I have this film that speaks to the moment. But I am not sure what I will be doing next in this space.

As someone who has seen parts of the world that many have not, what’s your biggest fear for the future?

GB: I fear that the story of this country is badly damaged and I hope we can put it back together. Our national story has always evolved. But I do worry about what point do we a start disagreeing with what is taught in schools. I feel like the disagreement is becoming fundamental. If we don’t have that, what do we have? I feel like we are this point where people want to respond by just criticizing and being divisive. Not just in politics, but in any debate on social media. People are being harsh and critical. I feel like there is an underlying narrative of our country that is being chipped away and my fear is that it’s going to be irreparable and where we end up as result. I lived in the UK for a long time and I love it. But it’s a country that has lost its national story and as a result has become less relevant in the world. They just don’t know what their country stands for anymore. And if that happens here, we are in big trouble.

If you were a billboard, what would say?

GB: Listen! Listen! Listen!

What are you most passionate about? What motivates you to make these films?

GB: I just like telling stories. I love the process. I love the intellectual side of it the artistic side of documentary filmmaking. The kind of leaping into the unknown when you get a project then when you take it out into the world. I feel very lucky to be able to be in a position where this is my profession. I like the mix of journalism and film. I love the process of the editing. I don’t like just typing away at a computer. I also love the physical aspects of the filmmaking.

What is one thing you want audiences to take away from The Final Year?

GB: I always try to find some measure of hope in stories I tell so I hope people come away feeling inspired and wanting to get involved. I don’t really care how they get involved, just so that they do. I think it’s easy to feel hopeless and powerless now because of this divisive climate that we are in. It’s exhausting and depressing. I hope people take away from it is a sense that you can actually make a difference. Get involved and go out and try to make a difference in the world. That’s what I tell my kids. I have had college students write me after screenings at universities around the country saying that before they saw the film they wanted to study business but after the screening, they wanted to go into public service. And I think that’s great!

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