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MIFF 2017 PACMen: Inside view of the Christian Right's campaign for the White House

Former actor turned documentary maker Luke Walker backed the wrong horse in the US election, and his film was the winner.

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Luke Walker is three films into his career as a maker of observational documentaries, but his CV is still out and proud about the highpoint of his previous life: "Luke was known in the UK for his performances as the gay handyman Bradley Clarke in the daytime soap Crossroads, where he was responsible for the first gay kiss ever performed on British daytime television."

Funnily enough, though, he didn't mention his daytime gay time when pitching the idea for PACMen, his portrait of the campaign to get retired neurosurgeon and devout Christian Ben Carson elected to the White House in 2016.

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PACmen takes us into the inside workings of a Super-PAC to answer one of the lingering questions of America's strangest election: why did Ben Carson run for president?

"Obviously there would have been plenty of people I was interacting with who would have been a little bit against that sort of thing, because of the whole Christian right place they're coming from," says Walker, who is in fact straight. "But it never really came up. As far as I'm aware, no one googled it."

The 41-year-old, who was born in the UK but has lived in Australia since enrolling at the Victorian College of the Arts 12 years ago, made his first film, Beyond Our Ken (2008), about devotees of Kenja. "It's about what it feels like to be in a cult," he says. The second, Lasseter's Bones (2012), was about one man's conviction that there was a reef of gold in the desert just waiting to be discovered. Making it became, he says, "a seven-year obsession" of his own.

When that was finally out of his system, he looked around for a fresh subject. He found it in another tale of dubious conviction.

Carson, a man with no political experience but deep religious conviction, had to be persuaded to run for the White House. Like most people, Walker had never heard of him until he popped up as a potential Republican Party nominee in 2015. "So I looked into his back story and it was amazing."


Carson was raised in poverty, flirted with serious trouble, and struggled academically before turning his life around – in large part, he claims, by reading Scripture. He eventually completed degrees in psychology, medicine and neurosurgery (he even spent a year working in a hospital in Perth). He was the embodiment of the American dream – anyone can reach the top, if they work hard enough – and he was black. Perfect.

He was, though, undeniably an outsider, which was a big part of the appeal for Walker. "I wrote to his campaign manager, Terry Giles, saying I thought he was the Rocky Balboa of the presidential race, and I sent him a copy of Lasseter's Bones. He wrote back a week later and said if you can be in Houston in a week, we'll talk."

A week later, Walker was in Texas. "We sat at opposite end of his enormous 12-seat table, being served dinner by his butler," he says. "It was like a scene from Batman.

"We hung out, we told jokes, we drank four bottles of the finest wine known to humanity. I lose track of the evening, but by the end of it he said, 'OK, let's do it', and suddenly I was making a film about Ben Carson's campaign. It was pretty surreal."

Terry Giles (centre) in PACMen, Luke Walker's documentary about the 2016 Republican primary campaign for Ben Carson.

Terry Giles (centre) in PACMen, Luke Walker's documentary about the 2016 Republican primary campaign for Ben Carson. Photo: Supplied

Walker's film focuses on the efforts of Carson's backers, through their fundraising Political Action Committees (PACs), to win the Republican nomination, and ultimately the White House. And initially, things went roaringly.

"There were two weeks where I thought I was an accidental documentary genius," says Walker. "He was at number one and he had a narrative that people were excited about. It felt like I was at the centre of an unforecast hurricane."

And then the gaffes began.

Carson knew nothing about foreign policy, and wasn't interested. He cited Bible stories as facts, and made it clear that he believed it was God's will that he enter the White House. And damningly, key aspects of his inspiring biography – which had been turned into a 2009 telemovie starring Cuba Gooding Jr – were cast in doubt.

Cuba Gooding Jr starred as Ben Carson in a 2009 telemovie based on the neurosurgeon's autobiography.

Cuba Gooding Jr starred as Ben Carson in a 2009 telemovie based on the neurosurgeon's autobiography. Photo: Supplied

Even as his vote slumped to 6 per cent, his supporters remained convinced that he not only could win but that it was God's will that he would. But with the money running out and Trump surging, Carson withdrew from the race in March 2016.

As one of Carson's campaign workers says in the film, "As a nation, we just chose to follow selfishness and greed and ego over integrity, intelligence and faith. That's what we've chose, and we're going to get what we deserve."

Despite that, Carson's backers eventually threw their weight behind Trump, because they saw him as their best chance of holding off the "devil" of socialism. "We cannot afford to let the Democrats have four more years," one of them says. "Even if Trump is the malevolent, and I believe he is, he still buys us more time."

That is evidence of the malaise in America, says Walker, the grip on political discourse of enmity and distrust that prevents each side from seeing the other as human.

"All through the film you see Carson's backers responding with fear to the rise of Trump, they're all appalled by him," he says. "But by the end they're trying to work out how they can get on board. So they sacrifice their principles, their Republican integrity, and with it America's authority all across the world."

Ben Carson, March 11, 2016, just moments before announcing he would endorse Donald Trump.

Ben Carson, March 11, 2016, just moments before announcing he would endorse Donald Trump. Photo: Lynne Sladky

Even Carson was persuaded to accept a post in Trump's cabinet (as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) – eventually.  

"He took a week or longer to decide whether he wanted to do it," says Walker. "It reminded me of The Life of Brian, that scene where Brian is being pursued by his followers and he turns around and says 'f--- off'. And they say, 'How shall we f--- off, Oh Lord?'

"That became Carson's curse, really. Once you believe God is delivering these pathways for you, how do you resist?"

PACMen screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Monday. Details: miff.com.au The Age is a festival media partner