Gatewood Gailbraith

“If you like what you see tell your friends. ‘course if you don’t like it just hush up about it okay?” laughs Gatewood Galbraith, distributing campaign materials in a wide-brimmed black hat at the Fancy Farm Picnic in August of 1995.

Participating in a string of statewide political bouts spanning from 1983 to 2011, the late Mr. Galbraith is the subject of a documentary film premiering at this week’s fifth annual Flyover Film Festival.

Kentucky filmmakers Chris Iovenko and Tom Thurman felt a “heartfelt obligation” to complete the decades-old project upon Galbraith’s unexpected death in January of 2012.

Described by Iovenko as a “portrait and testament to [Galbraith] at his prime,” “Gatewood” documents its subject’s 1995 bid for governor and follows the charismatic and unapologetically honest Kentuckian as he campaigns through bingo halls, barbecues, union rallies and concert venues.

“Was it you I saw on TV a couple of years ago? And didn’t you say you wanted to legalize marijuana?” asks a woman after hearing Galbraith’s stump speech in a smoky bingo hall.

Restating the question for the audience in his own words, Galbraith responds, “The question is didn’t I run last time for governor on the question that I wanted to license and regulate marijuana as a cash crop? And let our farmers make that money instead of these international criminal syndicates? And do I want to put it in the hands of the terminally ill people who can use it for a medicine? And the answer to that question is yes.”

Chris Iovenko is a Louisville-native who has been living and working in film and television in Los Angeles for over a decade. But it was back in 1992, freshly graduated from college and newly returned to his hometown, that he found himself drawn to Galbraith as a refreshing alternative to the political mainstream:

I grew up in a family that was very engaged with politics. My family, the Binghams, ran the newspapers and so I was always pretty informed and pretty passionate about politics. As a Democrat through the Reagan ’80s and then the Bush years, [George H.W. Bush], I got discouraged and was not feeling very positive about the American political landscape. I was just pretty discouraged about the whole thing and then I ran into Gatewood and to me he just kind of embodied this kind of politician that I thought Kentucky specifically, but America generally, needed. I didn’t agree with him on every issue, but I felt that he was at this level of intensity and passion and conviction that I was totally unfamiliar with— I just hadn’t seen in another American politician.

“For me, it went far beyond politics,” explained Tom Thurman of Lexington, now a writer and producer with Kentucky Educational Television. “And I guess that’s because Gatewood went far beyond politics. One of the things I found intriguing about the man is he had that incredible capacity to alienate both the left and the right.

“And had a very unique approach to the political realm in that he was completely honest. And that’s a rarity that’s extremely appealing.”

Iovenko and Thurman had previously worked together on a profile of Kentucky-native actor Warren Oates among other projects, and decided on Galbraith as their next subject, with Iovenko directing and Thurman producing.

“My idea was to do just kind of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. I didn’t do a whole lot of interviews with people, mainly just Gatewood’s story and the story of this campaign,” said Iovenko. “I started following him in ‘94 because I felt that he had a good shot at winning, was my feeling or my hope anyways.

“And I wanted to make a movie about this incredible guy who against all odds wins the Governor’s office.”

Galbraith would go on to lose the election to future Governor Paul Patton, first in the Democratic primary and then in the general election as a write-in candidate.

“At that point I really didn’t feel like I had the ending that I wanted. I didn’t want to make a movie about this outsider, great candidate who gets trounced by much better funded, very dull, conventional politicians,” said the director.

Instead, Iovenko put the project on hold as he moved to California to further his film career. He intended to return to “Gatewood” at some point in the future, when Galbraith had either won election or was in strong contention.

“Needless to say… he never got elected and then much to my shock and sadness he died last year, 2012. And so I felt at that point, I felt that I had a real responsibility to go back and take another look at the footage and put what I had together.”

Thurman was able to send Iovenko the original tapes, which the director likened to opening a time capsule, having gone unseen for nearly twenty years.

Galbraith stencil

“It was fascinating going back over it and I was pleasantly surprised by how powerful the footage was,” he said. “I think Gatewood’s message was pretty prescient on a lot of issues. I think he was a man ahead of his time and I think he’ll be viewed that way historically.

“In regards to Marijuana and hemp, the laws are changing across the country. And I think that Gatewood’s message, that the way to solve things in a democracy is to give people more rights, not take them away, I think that’s something that’s still certainly resonates with me and I think it’s an important message for people to hear and take to heart.”

Although quite different than its original intent, Iovenko and Thurman are gratified to pay to tribute to Galbraith in any fashion, and confident in his growing legacy.

“I think one of the things was that he was so accessible. He was so friendly and warm, obviously eccentric, but he was well-versed, he knew his history,” said Thurman. “And even if you didn’t agree with all of his politics you appreciated his honesty in the way he expressed them. I think that’s something that everybody finds endearing.

“There’s somebody here in [Lexington] with an oversized stencil of Gatewood, with a big smile on his face, that people are spray painting all over town and have been for months. I just think it’s a wonderful gesture.”

“Gatewood” premieres this Wednesday, June 12, at the Clifton Art Center at 7:45 p.m. as part of the Flyover Film Festival and will be followed by a live post-screening discussion with Iovenko and Thurman. The filmmakers will then present a Lexington premiere at Natasha’s Bistro this Friday.

“I talked to Gatewood’s brother Hank [about the film],” said Thurman. “And Hank said, ‘you know, I’ve only got a couple things to say. Number one, it is an actual and accurate portrait of my brother. And number two, the line that best sums up Gatewood is when he says in the film, “’I not only inhaled, I drank the bong water too.”’”