The filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi has made 14 documentaries, none more intimate, laborious or destabilizing than her latest. The subject is her mother, Nancy Pelosi.
The younger Pelosi, 52, has been filming her San Francisco-bred family since before her mother became a Democratic congresswoman, and captured her ascent (twice) to speaker of the House, along with many other political moments. “She invites the family to everything — every State of the Union, every time she gets sworn in,” her daughter, the youngest of her five children, said.
She has also been witness to her mother, now 82, becoming a target of right-wing criticism. “Fox News made my last name into a curse word years ago,” Alexandra Pelosi said.
She and one of her sons were at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as the speaker was rushed from her office to a secure location amid the attack. The footage the filmmaker shot that day was later shared with the House committee investigating the events, and it provides a dramatic capper to the documentary “Pelosi in the House,” which will air on HBO starting Tuesday. Culled from more than 800 hours of footage collected over decades, it portrays Nancy Pelosi, who announced last month that she would step down as speaker, as an energetic, dogged politician.
As with Alexandra Pelosi’s other documentaries, including several that followed Republican leaders and Trump voters, this one was shot vérité style, and, Pelosi emphasized, told only from her vantage point in the moment.
The film was largely completed before the October home assault on Paul Pelosi, Alexandra’s father, which, she said, has sent her spiraling. At Thanksgiving, her mother brought in a priest to conduct a prayer service at home. “Every one of my family really felt that the priest was helping them heal,” Alexandra said. “But I was looking out the window at the [security officers] with their big rifles, and I was just praying that they’re not going to go away now that she’s no longer speaker.”
We spoke one afternoon while she was en route from her home in New York to Washington to attend a State Dinner. Her mother, whose family nickname is Mimi, had called earlier to offer fashion advice — as if, her daughter joked, she doesn’t have enough on her plate. “She’s still got to make sure that I’m dressed appropriately.”
The two of them are quite different, said Alexandra, who also calls her mother by her full name: “She’s like a silver-linings person and I’m a dark-cloud person.” Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
How is your dad doing?
He’s getting better every day. But I don’t know how you ever recover from everything that happened after the attack. Getting hurt is one thing, but becoming the punchline for, you know, narcissists on Twitter that are looking for clicks and spreading conspiracy theories about him — I think that probably will hurt for a while. The idea that grown-ups like the governor of Virginia and sitting members of Congress were making jokes at his expense, that people were using him as a political football, an 82-year-old man getting attacked in his own home, left unconscious in a pool of his own blood — that’s what’s traumatizing. [The Virginia governor, Glenn Youngkin, later apologized.]
Understand the Events on Jan. 6
- Timeline: On Jan. 6, 2021, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald J. Trump raided the Capitol. Here is a close look at how the attack unfolded.
- A Day of Rage: Using thousands of videos and police radio communications, a Times investigation reconstructed in detail what happened — and why.
- Lost Lives: A bipartisan Senate report found that at least seven people died in connection with the attack.
- Jan. 6 Attendees: To many of those who attended the Trump rally but never breached the Capitol, that date wasn’t a dark day for the nation. It was a new start.
A lot of your career has been talking to people who are politically divergent from your family. You’ve always made the case that there are points of connection there. What do you think now?
The attack on my father really destroyed my faith in humanity. I have a lot of friends that showed up in Washington on Jan. 6 — I know people that stormed the Capitol that day. I’m not ready to hug it out with them yet. I was in the Capitol with my 16-year-old son who kept asking me, Why do all these people hate Mimi? I didn’t have a good answer. Because they don’t like her politics? My kids have phones, they see press about the Oath Keepers saying they wanted to hang Nancy Pelosi from a lamp post.
I’m a nobody and I have to have security now, because people don’t like the things my mother has done in her public life.
On Jan. 6, as you’re being hustled through a tunnel to a bunker, you know enough as a filmmaker not to stop rolling. But what was going through your mind?
The Capitol Police officer kept pushing my son back because he wasn’t sure if they [the rioters] were going to gas the tunnel. Or if they were going to come charging toward us. There was a true panic: Are we just running into our own trap?
As a documentary filmmaker, of course I wanted to say behind. But when we returned to the Capitol that night, I realized that it was good that I went with my mother because you saw [the destruction].
Had you been worried about violence before that afternoon?
I have made so many of these movies, road trips through America, and I’ve met so many decent people. I’ve stayed in their home, gone to their barbecues.I was never afraid. And I never thought that [anyone was] coming to hang Nancy Pelosi from a lamp post.
I brought my kids; I thought it was a good civics lesson for them. Everybody inside was focused on the events of the day. And my son kept looking out the window and saying, what if they stormed the Capitol?
I just don’t know how we ended up here. I don’t know how we call this a democracy. If this is the price that people have to pay if they want to run for public office — who would ever sign up for this? The threats have not stopped.
You filmed your mother in the halls of Congress, and at home doing laundry while on a call with Mike Pence. But you don’t have her do a full sit-down interview. Why not?
Nancy Pelosi is never going to sit on the couch and open up for you. If you want to learn anything from her, you just have to watch her work. I spent Covid filming Nancy Pelosi on the phone yelling at [former Treasury Secretary] Steve Mnuchin. She wouldn’t call it yelling — she would call it negotiating.
Has she seen the film?
I tried showing her. But she’s the harshest editor. She’s not someone who’d collaborate on an artistic project.
This is not an authorized documentary. She did not sign a release. I don’tthink she’s going to sue her daughter, but she’s not going to be happy. I’m sure she’s going to call me the moment she sees it — my husband [the Dutch journalist Michiel Vos] and I have a game going, of how many things she’s going to have on her list. I would guess a dozen solid “you shouldn’t have included this” and a list of a dozen things [to use] instead.
How long have you been filming your mom?
Forever. It started with a disposable camera I got for Christmas when I was little. I became the paparazzi of the family. Taking pictures gave me something to do — the boring political functions. And then as she went into leadership, I realized there’s a really interesting distinction between what was going on in the room where it happened and the way it was presented.
In the film, we see her as a matriarch a lot — you show her getting ready to announce Trump’s first impeachment, say, while arranging a birthday card for a granddaughter. Why did you include those details?
She has five very different children, and nine very different grandchildren. We all rely on her to be there for us. She was at the birth of all of her grandchildren regardless of what’s happening in the world. When my children were born, I think she was even directing the doctors.
She still has to show up for all the birthdays, do all the regular grandma stuff. We don’t just give her a pass because she’s got a day job. That’s the backward-and-in-heels part of her job.
Did you learn anything about her watching the film?
She believes that what they do in that Capitol is God’s work. Her father served there. She served there for 35 years. She thinks of the Capitol as the temple of democracy — a sacred place, more than the Vatican, probably. Jan. 6 was a scar on her soul.
She has lots of Republican friends — you don’t see that in the public sphere. She didn’t like the Iraq war, but I thought she and W. [George W. Bush] should’ve had a buddy film — they got along like peaches and cream.
She’s still proud of everything she’s done. You see her on TV as this sort of perma-grin, finely coifed lady. She doesn’t come home, take the pearls off and gossip about Mitch McConnell. She’s always a lady; there’s no off switch. It doesn’t matter if she’s a rank and file member or the speaker. She’s still going to be marching into that Capitol in her heels, and trying to fix bills. And she believes it’s noble.
It’s up to the rest of us to debate, if we believe that.