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Evan Coyne Maloney, 32, who dresses and looks like a college student, may very well be America’s most promising conservative documentary filmmaker. Yet the Upper East Side resident hasn’t completed a single film.
The hype unaccompanied by output says a lot about the room for growth in the conservative documentary community. But a number of those on the right expect Mr. Maloney’s unfinished debut film, Brainwashing 101, to emerge as a breakout theatrical hit—or at least to make it to theaters, a feat few films of its political ilk have managed to achieve.
A sardonic attack on political correctness in higher education, Mr. Maloney’s film was hailed as the “most anticipated” documentary in 2005 by the American Film Renaissance, an upstart film institute based in Dallas.
People attending October’s Liberty Festival in Los Angeles apparently gave a preview version of it a standing ovation—though not of the duration of Michael Moore’s 20 minutes at Cannes. A critic writing for the insider Hollywood Web site Ain’t It Cool News called the first cut of the film one of the most “horrifying and hysterical documentaries I have ever seen.”
As the title suggests, the 46-minute film, which Mr. Maloney is racing to expand into a full-length documentary by fall, is his attempt to confirm the worst assumptions that conservatives have about what goes on at universities. His film is about the spread of noxious speech codes, abuses of power by vindictive administrators, and the arbitrary restrictions on academic freedom imposed on conservative students—cases of which, the film argues, are increasingly cropping up in universities. The film begins with images of Columbia University, a university embroiled in a controversy concerning students who say professors violated their academic freedom.
On the road with Mr. Maloney across the country, the viewer watches an economics professor from Mr. Maloney’s alma mater, Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, explain to the filmmaker that most white students at the school are “unconsciously racist” and that much of the “cutting-edge” work in his field is “being done in feminist economics.”
Mr. Maloney then turns his camera to the case of Steve Hinkle. A student at California Polytechnic State University, he was disciplined by school officials after posting a flyer promoting an upcoming speech by a black conservative who equated welfare and slavery. The school dropped charges against Mr. Hinkle only after a civil-liberties organization sued, saying the university was violating freedom of speech.
To top it off, Mr. Maloney interviews Sukhmani Singh Khalsa of the University of Tennessee, a Sikh convert who received a death threat by e-mail from another student angry over his conservative opinion pieces in the student newspaper. The university refused to punish the author of the e-mail, who called Mr. Khalsa a “towel head” and reportedly urged students to shoot the student in the “face.”
“The problem on campus becomes who defines harassment,” Mr. Maloney said in a recent interview with The New York Sun.
“Who on campus is going to stand up to a multicultural office or a diversity office?”
One of the more amusing scenes in the film comes when Mr. Maloney stops by the office of Cal Poly’s president, Warren Baker—in a “Roger and Me” moment—for an impromptu interview, only to be herded away by a grouchy assistant. Not a single university administrator has agreed to appear in the New Yorker’s film.
The story of how Mr. Maloney, who had little previous filmmaking experience, has become the right’s best answer to Mr. Moore starts a little more than a year ago in front of the home of the older documentarian.
After staking out the director for four days with a fancy new Panasonic digital video recorder, Mr. Maloney confronted Mr. Moore on a sidewalk on the Upper West Side, with the intention of provoking a flustered reaction from him. Mr. Maloney wanted to needle him with pointed questions about liberal bias in Hollywood and then post the footage on his blog, Brain-Terminal.com.
Mr. Moore, as it turned out, was game for the interview. He calmly told Mr. Maloney that documentary filmmaking “should be open to all people of all political persuasions.”
“It should not just be people who are liberal, or left-of-center, or whatever,” the Oscar-winner said. “Make your movies, and then the people will respond or not respond to them.”
Soon after the video of Mr. Moore went up on his Web site, Mr. Maloney received an e-mail message from Stuart Browning, 44, a goateed man from Miami Beach who has deeply conservative political views—and who boasts of having more money than the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, John Edwards [without having put any doctors out of business in the process of earning it].
At the time, Mr. Maloney had already gained some notice from the press with his 6- or 7-minute documentary shorts on left-wing protesters.
He videotaped antiwar demonstrators in New York in 2003 providing silly answers to questions about how America ought to deal with Iraq. He recorded a rowdy pro-Palestinian protest at Rutgers University, where one speaker screamed, “Long live the intifada,” and another protester whispered to Mr. Maloney on camera: “Are you nervous?”
The shorts, posted on Mr. Maloney’s Web site, were enough to impress Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com, who called Mr. Maloney’s Web video journalism “the wave of the future.”
In the fall of 2003, Mr. Browning and Mr. Maloney founded a production company, On the Fence Films, whose first film would be Brainwashing 101. The expanded version has the working title Ministry of Truth. Mr. Browning set the budget of Brainwashing at $250,000, a little more than 4 percent of Miramax’s reported investment in Fahrenheit 9/11.
Mr. Browning and Mr. Maloney said they have no idea whether the expanded film will ever find its way into your local Cineplex.
The most support they’ve gotten so far is from the organizers of the two conservative film festivals held last year.
“Evan has a lot of charisma,” the president of the American Film Renaissance, James Hubbard, said.
“He balances that out with a sharp intellect, and he’s funny. When you want to tell a story, those are three great things to have.
The final version of the film will also answer the question about whether the technology used in making documentary films has become so inexpensive and accessible that anybody who can tell an interesting story has a chance of making it big.
Mr. Maloney works out of Starbucks or his tidy one-bedroom apartment. He has 100 hours of footage stored in what is called a Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks—a data-protection device that costs more than some cars. He edits raw footage with Apple Final Cut Pro software, using an Apple Power Mac Dual G5.
When he’s interviewing on campuses, he wears a black T-shirt, loose-fitting Gap jeans, Rockport shoes, and, sometimes, a Yankees baseball cap that makes him look like an Irish version of the pitcher Mike Mussina. When he interviews would-be hostile subjects, Mr. Maloney puts on a blank face and speaks with a deadpan, dry delivery.
“The most effective way is to ask very simple, basic questions, so they don’t think I dislike them,” he said, “because I don’t dislike them as people. I may not agree with their viewpoints.”
It’s an interview tactic he used effectively on a Bucknell professor, Geoffrey Schneider, the faculty member who spoke about his students’ unconscious racism.
In an interview with the Sun, Mr. Schneider said he was “basically manipulated into appearing” in Mr. Maloney’s film. “I was told originally I was going to be interviewed for a film about professors’ academic freedom and attempts to censor professors,” he said.
Mr. Schneider, a specialist in what is called institutionalist economics, said the film was edited in a “ridiculous” way that made it seem as though Bucknell students learn only about Marx and feminist political economy. “I also teach Austrian economics,” he remarked, saying he was sympathetic to all the ideas taught in the economics courses.
“It’s silly to say our curriculum is politically correct and biased in favor of liberal ideas, and then to use as an example what is taught in one day, in one course,” Mr. Schneider said.
He stands by his comments on student racism: “Everybody comes from a specific background, and Bucknell students tend to be white upper-income. If they are white upper-income, they come with certain baggage”—such as negative stereotypes about black Americans.
“One of the things we try to do, which so angers conservative students, is to unpack these biases that we all have, to try to analyze them for what they are,” he told the Sun.
For Mr. Maloney, the professor’s comments are the type of thinking that provoked him into making the film in the first place. “He doesn’t see political correctness as a problem,” Mr. Maloney said.
His views on higher education were strongly influenced by Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, the 1991 polemic against political correctness, and by the famous case involving a University of Pennsylvania student, Eden Jacobowitz, who was charged with racial harassment after shouting, “Shut up, you water buffalos,” at a group of black students.
“To me, it kind of illustrated what political correctness is all about,” Mr. Maloney said. “It was a form of hypocrisy. It was shoehorning every incident into the box of race, class, and gender.”
He describes himself as a “libertarian conservative” and considers Ronald Reagan his political hero. He cannot explain why he steered toward the right while growing up in a liberal city, other than to recall the time he delivered a speech in front of his class at JHS 167 Wagner about the danger of nuclear weapons. “I realized I didn’t believe a word I was saying,” Mr. Maloney said.
A B student at Bucknell, Mr. Maloney edited a conservative newspaper, the Sentinel, which he recalls was occasionally stolen from circulation centers and trashed. After graduating in 1994, he hopped around between his two passions, politics and technology, designing software for various failed tech companies and assisting the failed campaigns of various New York City Republican politicians.
One of the developing trends among conservative documentary filmmakers is their background in the technology industry. Mr. Browning, who paid for “Brainwashing 101,” became rich as one of the four co-founders of Embarcadero Technologies.
Two years after launching Brain-Terminal.com, Mr. Maloney was inspired to make a movie by watching news reports of the antiwar protests that preceded America’s invasion of Iraq.
“They kept showing signs of Bush with a swastika on his head. You can’t think that mainstream America thinks Bush and Hitler can be equated,” he said. “I remember thinking, if there is a protest in New York, I’m going to film it.”