Arun Chaudhary used to spend his workdays hanging around the Oval Office, camera in tow. But now, for an afternoon, he’s in a SUNY Buffalo State lecture hall that’s shaped (and nearly sized) like a shoebox.
It was a few minutes before 1 p.m. when a young woman walked into the basement room. With a backpack slung over both shoulders, she was clearly a student.
“Is this the support group for Bernie Sanders?” she asked.
Sure, call it that.
Chaudhary, the former White House videographer, is the digital creative director for the Vermont senator’s presidential campaign. That puts him in charge of video and photo content, but unlike his days working for President Obama, he’s not teeming with staff.
Which is what brought him to Buffalo.
As the Sanders campaign gears up for the April 19 Democratic primary contest against frontrunner Hillary Clinton, Chaudhary is looking for Sanders supporters with a bent toward filmmaking. He’s teaching them how to create videos that are pro-Bernie (and not anti-Hillary — he’s adamant about that).
Chaudhary is hitting Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Westchester and Brooklyn. But his first stop was Friday afternoon at Buffalo State.
Yeah, you could call this a Bernie support group.
“It’s a video storytelling workshop,” said Chaudhary, who’s 40 and looks the part of artistic filmmaker with a mop of salt-and-pepper hair and an untucked white button-down peeking out beneath a gray sweater. “It’s for people who are filmmakers, photographers, graphic designers, even well-wishers.”
“OK … ” the woman said blankly, pausing for a beat before spinning on her heels and walking out.
Chaudhary, firing up a slideshow on a laptop emblazoned with a “Billionaires can’t buy Bernie” sticker, was unfazed. People may not understand at first; he gets that. Grassroots filmmaking is an unorthodox campaign strategy for a major presidential candidate. It’s new even for him, and he’s the guy who came up with the idea.
“An unlikely campaign like this is going to have to develop some unlikely tactics,” said Chaudhary.
In 2008, Chaudhary was working as a videographer for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s well-funded presidential campaign. When Obama won, Chaudhary become the first official White House videographer, traveling the world with the president and having nearly full access to the White House. (The only room Chaudhary couldn’t enter was the Situation Room). He captured Obama’s public and private moments on video, producing a webshow (“West Wing Week”) and other videos.
Chaudhary left three years into Obama’s first term, in large part to spend more time with his son Leo, who’s now 6 and accompanied his dad to Buffalo. Chaudhary published a book, “First Cameraman,” and joined the D.C.-based mobile tech firm Revolution Messaging, which now handles Sanders’ digital strategy.
Chaudhary calls the Sanders movement “a scrappy, insurgent campaign,” which means they’re unafraid to start small – which this first filmmaking workshop was. As Buffalo State’s bells chimed 1 o’clock – the appointed start time – a small cadre of Bernie fans walked into the room: A middle-aged man in a burgundy sweater; a college woman in a hoodie; two high school boys, one with ink-stained khakis, the other with a gray long-sleeved Bernie shirt; and Taramarie Mitravich, a recent Villa Maria graduate who is now one of Chaudhary’s Revolution staffers.
Chaudhary got to business by showing a full-screen picture of raw fish.
“We basically are serving up the senator’s remarks sashimi to the American people,” he said. What he meant: The campaign staffers’ job is to make all of Sanders’ speeches and statements available to the public in full context, unfiltered by the media.
“Which is great,” he continued, “but like making good sashimi, it does take all of our time. That’s where you guys come in.”
Chaudhary encouraged his group of supporters-turned-students to use the campaign’s publicly available videos to make remixes of the senator’s remarks, or to profile local Bernie activists or events. He offered a list from the campaign’s staff of issues to consider exploring: energy, housing, income equality, police reform and race, trade agreements, outsourcing, money and corruption in politics, and Wall Street.
Sanders’ own videos – ones produced by Chaudhary and his colleagues – have racked up hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions, of views. But Connor Kwilos – the teen in the gray Bernie shirt – shared a concern.
“It’s awesome that your campaign is doing so well online,” said Connor, a 16-year-old junior from Lake Shore High School who’s been producing videos since age 5. “It’s just that I’m scared that all those views and hits are not coming from the demographic that doesn’t support Bernie.”
Chaudhary agreed. “Who knows whose seen that?” he said. “That’s why I’m hoping coming out of here, three or four videos out of Buffalo, if the right 200 people watch each of those videos, it is so much more important than 20,000 people watching another one.”
But Chaudhary wants his deputized filmmakers to wield criticism with care. “It’s always important as a person to be punching up and not punching down,” he said. “What I mean by that is it’s always OK to attack people in power. It’s never OK to attack the powerless.”
Well, it’s almost always OK to attack people in power. But not so much Hillary Clinton. Sanders supporters may “disagree with her on all of the issues,” Chaudhary said, but Clinton “is an amazing, accomplished woman who has dealt with a lot of institutional sexism in her life and who is still dealing with that.”
What’s more, he said, the “heart and soul” of the Sanders movement is millennial women, ones who may have other women in their lives telling them they’re wrong to support Sanders. Think of them, Chaudhary said, when you’re considering an attack on Clinton. Clenched fists won’t catch her – but open arms might.
“You (may say), ‘I’m just attacking Hillary Clinton,’ ” Chaudhary said. “You’re not. You’re punching down on every woman in America.”