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Jerry Brown opens up on his political legacy in new documentary premiering in SF

Still from "Jerry Brown: The Disrupter" | Courtesy of SFFILM

Documentary filmmaker Marina Zenovich calls Jerry Brown a disruptor, but he’s also an interrupter. 

“I find that a non-question,” the former California governor cuts in during the opening of Zenovich’s documentary, Jerry Brown: The Disruptor. The film's world premiere opens SFFILM’s Doc Stories, a six-day celebration of documentary films from across the world that runs from Nov. 3 through Nov. 8.  

It’s not the only testy moment in the film, which is bookended by frank conversations between director and subject. The two have known each other for decades and have a breezy repartee.

Zenovich’s father, George N. Zenovich, served as a California assemblymember, senator and judge.

“Sacramento was a big part of my life growing up,” the director said, noting she has known Brown since she was a kid.  

Zenovich takes full advantage of her personal rapport with Brown, leaning into the dynamic in order to draw out a side of Oakland’s former mayor that people have rarely seen in his decades of public service.

“It's a more playful side," she said. "It's a funnier side. It's a more truthful side."

It’s also a side that portrays Brown as inherently Californian. “I really wanted to premiere this in San Francisco, because it's Jerry's town,” Zenovich said. 

California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks as U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi looks on during the "Gifts to the Bridge" dedication ceremony at the Golden Gate Bridge on May 25, 2012. | Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Jerry Brown was born and raised in San Francisco, and he exemplifies the city and its ideals. He rang the warning bell on climate change back in the 1970s, before it had become a common part of popular discourse. He had a monastic-like asceticism and devotion to his work, informed from his time in a Jesuit seminary. And like the phoenix on our city’s seal, he rose from the ashes to reinvent himself—pulling off a stunning comeback after unsuccessful bids for president and U.S. senator and a long break from politics. 

“California is incipiently American,” journalist Todd Purdum says in the film. “The things that eventually wash over the rest of the country tend to start in California.” 

Brown, whose father Pat Brown served as state’s governor from 1959-67 and is considered the architect of modern California, held the top job in Sacramento for a historic four terms—from 1974-1982 and 2010-2018—with stints as the mayor of Oakland and California attorney general in between. 

Jerry Brown disavowed the perks of public office: He cut his personal staff, got rid of the executive jet and didn’t take a raise. He lived in an apartment instead of the governor’s mansion, and he sent back gifts, even refusing the lifetime pass to Disneyland that comes with the job. He traveled in a powder-blue Plymouth instead of limousine. 

Zenovich hopes that the leaders of today—as well as future politicians—might take inspiration from Brown’s legacy.

“If one person sees this film and is inspired to have a career in public service, then I will have done my job,” she said. 

The project has been a dream of the filmmaker for many years, and Zenovich received her first funding for the film from SFFILM six years ago. “It’s a full-circle moment,” said Jessie Fairbanks, director of programming for the festival.   

If politics is “the art of the possible,” as one interviewee says in the film, then Brown embodies the trade with his unlikely comeback for a historic, second two-term governorship after decades out of office and a year of meditative study at a zendo. 

Zenovich has a long history of making films about men with complicated public personas—from Roman Polanski to Robin Williams—but insists it’s unintentional.

“I just follow my nose,” she said. 

Jerry Brown brought the same intensity he had for the seminary to all his endeavors. “Jerry doesn’t have a light touch,” one of his friends recalls in the documentary. 

That fearlessness and self-confidence fueled his success as a politician and also his often-tempestuous relationship with journalists. 

“What is happy?,” Brown asks at the end of the film in what sounds like both a barb and a koan, interrupting Zenovich. “You gotta be more concrete.” 

Doc Stories features an array of full-length and short documentary films, all of them Bay Area premieres. The closing night screening of Sr. about filmmaker Robert Downey, Sr. at the Castro Theatre will be attended by Director Chris Smith and Robert Downey, Jr. 

SFFILM - Doc Stories

Vogue Theater, 3290 Sacramento St.
Closing night at Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St. 
Virtual screenings also available 
Nov. 3-8, Various Times | $16-$25

Julie Zigoris can be reached at