The idea is to democratize how history is written.
“All of you who are volunteers, give yourselves a round of applause.” The workers assembled in a St. Louis, MO office look around at one another as they clap and cheer. And now, urges the man at the front of the room, “Get out the vote!” It’s early in the morning on 4 November in 2008, the day Barack Obama was elected president. The volunteers are roused and ready to knock on doors and make phone calls, not knowing yet that their efforts will contribute to one of the largest turn-outs in U.S. history.
As one of the first scenes in 11/4/08, this room full of people seems a portrait of anticipation, the camera panning from one face to another. But if the handheld frame connotes a kind of pervasive eagerness, the scene here isn’t exactly typical of Jeff Deutchman’s film—because there is nothing typical about it. Even as its current version screens at Stranger Than Fiction on 15 June, it remains open to revision and amendment. “Where were you?” asks the website for this “participatory documentary.” And Deutchman really wants to know.
The website and the film are conjoined projects. “Two weeks before the election,” the film begins, “I asked friends of mine around the world to try to capture this day on camera and to send me their footage.” Contributors for now include some 26 filmmakers, professional and not, established artists like Margaret Brown, Joe Swanberg, Henry Joost, and Benh Zeitlin, as well as names you won’t recognize. The assembly of their clips and stories is at once daunting and strangely intimate. Organized chronologically, the film returns to some locations—St. Louis, Manhattan, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Paris—to show the day building to its climax. A first shot in New York shows a man with balloons, red, white, and blue, and obscuring his figure as he makes his way along the sidewalk. A couple of last shots show a pair of kids giggling on a curb in New Delhi and the sun rising in Geneva, Switzerland.
The images in between deliver pieces of experience, insight, and self-expression. A young cold-caller, head down and black hair over her face, wears a Motorhead t- shirt. “I’m just wondering if you voted,” she speaks into the phone. Her head comes up as she responds to an off-screen query. “I guess I’m here to support change,” she says. “I guess I’m here to do whatever I can do to help. I mean, I was holding signs a few days back.”
Holding signs is indeed a way to “support change.” As the film lays out—and sorts through—image after image, and scene after scene, it makes clear that signs matter. Signs are emblems, signals to action, means to express a self or a concept. “I’m stoked to be a part of history more than anything else,” exults one young voter on line in Chicago. A felon unable to vote observes goings-on, also in Chicago. “People of color will have hope and vision and aspire because they have seen it happen,” he nods. “That’s change already.” A woman in Brooklyn looks into the camera as she declares her intention to vote for McCain, even though she’s not thrilled with either presidential candidate. “They’re voting for him because he’s black,” she observes, “Not because of his policies.” Her interviewer asks, “Who’s they?” It’s not anyone’s fault in particular, she explains. “Often the people who know the least… in a lot of cases, that’s the deal. You don’t have to be an expert in anything.” Still, she adds, “I vote for bad reasons myself, sometimes.”
Her sort of self-awareness is repeated in interview after interview. The fact of the cameras - in so many places and turned to so many experiences, individual and collective—links the fragments, seems thematic. No matter the particulars of each story, subjects share their ideas and their experiences. “I’m sick of everybody telling me what a savior Obama will be,” submits a subway rider in New York. In LA, one maker turns his camera on his cell-phone to record his call to “Mommy Poo,” her headshot on screen as she relates the story of meeting Bill Clinton: “I walked right up to him,” she says. “It was very rude of me, but I had to.”
If Mommy Poo’s enthusiasm is charming, even infectious, interviews abroad suggest broader effects, the ways that signs and symbols expand and shift. An Obama fan suggests that even if he’s “a man of incredible substance,” he is “also a symbol… He is the American dream and I believe the world loves America because everybody loves our dream.” He’s a symbol, just as stories, dreams, and films can be symbols, means of communicating, of inspiring and informing. The symbols in this documentary shift and bump up against one another, create gaps and invite you to watch, absorb, and interpret.
One man in Dubai claims it’s the first time he’s heard that one candidate wants to stay in Iraq and the other to withdraw: the difference, however, misses the first point, the sign that Iraq has become. As he puts it, “Iraq will never be the same.” In Paris, a speaker informs a crowd of attentive listeners, “We know three words.” They respond, “Yes. We Can.” Such back-and-forthing goes to the film’s premise: it remains unfinished, at least for now. As more footage is delivered to the website and incorporated, its links and themes may be revised or reinforced. As the film folds raw footage into compilation, into something that resembles a narrative, it also becomes something else, a reconsideration of narrative per se, only loosely attached to a structure with a familiar beginning, middle, and end.
In form as well as theme, then, 11/4/08 does offer another way to think about history, one that is unfixed and overtly subjective, a collection of impressions and events, self-performances and declarations. As such, the documentary exposes the fiction of structure, the imposition of cues and form, cause and effect, character arcs and resolutions. Instead, 11/4/08 sets stories in motion.