CRAWFORD, Texas – For years, folks took for granted the pleasures of small-town life: unlocked doors, little traffic and a tranquility interrupted only by high school football games or passing train horns.
Then came George W. Bush.
So did tourists, eager to buy T-shirts and bobblehead dolls from the souvenir shops that filled once-empty storefronts. And the Secret Service, throngs of media and thousands of chanting, banner-carrying war protesters also descended on the one-stoplight town.
Documentary filmmaker David Modigliani's "Crawford" tells what happened to the community and its 700 residents after then-governor Bush bought a 1,600-acre ranch early in his presidential campaign in 1999.
"Generally speaking, there was this excitement, enchantment and economic boon that came with his moving to town," Modigliani said. "By the end of the film there's a sense of disillusionment, being tired of the attention and feeling like the novelty has worn off."
Already shown at several film festivals, it will make its Crawford debut June 8 — on a 50-foot outdoor screen at the football field, since the town has no movie theater. Tickets are $5 for residents, $10 for everyone else.
Modigliani, who moved to Austin several years ago after receiving a writing fellowship, said he decided to make the documentary — his first feature-length film — after learning that Bush didn't grow up in Crawford.
"I wanted to do a film indicting Bush for this political stagecraft, using this town as a prop," Modigliani said. "But I found something much more compelling, which was the people of Crawford: their stories, their journeys, their arcs. The film became about them."
High school teacher Misti Turbeville, whose progressive views increasingly make her feel like an outsider here, theorizes that the ranch purchase was a public-relations ploy. In one scene, her students discuss why Bush would choose Crawford: to give him a heroic cowboy image or because small-town folks are viewed as having good morals, they say.
Another featured resident is the Rev. Mike Murphy, pastor of First Baptist Church, who says not all of his members may have voted for Bush, but 99.9 percent probably did.
Modigliani filmed in Crawford from 2004 through last fall, also using news footage and residents' home videos — such as when the school band played at Bush's first inauguration.
"I kept thinking that we were finished shooting the film and things kept happening," Modigliani said.
Among them was the war protest led by Cindy Sheehan, the California woman who went to Crawford during Bush's August 2005 vacation and demanded to talk to him about the war that claimed her soldier son's life. The monthlong protest drew more than 10,000 people, many who set up camp in ditches off the two-lane road leading to the ranch.
Sheehan also sparked counter protests by Bush supporters, including locals who not only vehemently opposed her message but also were tired of the traffic and noise. The documentary shows resident Ricky Smith riding through town on a horse with "Cindy go home" written on its hindquarters.
"Fifty years ago, she'da been hung for treason," Smith says in the film.
The documentary pokes fun at the national media's portrayal of the town, revealing that television reporters doing stand-ups in front of a hay bale and barn were actually beside Crawford's school, several miles from the ranch.
But there are darker moments as well, such as the struggles of those who don't support the president in a town where the spotlight is now on residents' political views.
And it features Bush supporter Norma Nelson Crow, who grew up in Crawford and was excited to return and open a gift shop after the initial economic prosperity. But declining sales forced her to close the store in late 2006.
Modigliani said he believes he portrayed residents accurately, not as caricatures, and is eager to see the town's reaction. Murphy and others featured prominently in the film have already seen it.
"We're a diverse community ... and we're all in this together," said the Baptist minister. "I think that was portrayed in this film."