Aiming for a snapshot of the American electorate during the final countdown of a very, very long presidential race, producer Jeff Deutchman comes far closer than he did with his more off-the-cuff, Obama-celebratory 11/4/08. The documentary 11/8/16 compiles Election Day portraits of 16 subjects, captured by 18 filmmakers, into a mosaic that’s not so much revelatory as humanizing.
The huge political and social divide is in full evidence, but the strength of the doc is that it shows that those sides aren’t as monolithic as the red and blue blocks on electoral maps suggest. The willingness of the average American, whether on one of the coasts or in the country’s vast middle, to hear opposing viewpoints remains seriously in doubt, but the film offers an opportunity to do just that, showcasing sincere, well-meaning Americans who occupy various points on the political spectrum. Some are better informed than others. A number of the subjects express a lot of the same ideas, half-baked and otherwise, as do cable pundits, but their ground-level view adds context and immediacy in a way that professional blatherers can’t.
Hardly earth-shattering, but illuminating nonetheless.
Competing in the Hamptons and slated for a November theatrical release, the film isn’t headed for a box-office landslide. Given the almost daily dramas associated with the Trump administration, the last hours of the race might feel like ancient history to potential viewers, too painful for some and beside the point for others. Yet Deutchman and his team of directors — who include Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry), Martha Shane (After Tiller) and Bassam Tariq (These Birds Walk) — tap into the ballot-box suspense, anticipation and, in some cases, indifference, from intriguing angles.
Dividing the day into morning, afternoon and night, 11/8/16 wisely eschews a music score as it moves among its various locations, and offers only one piece of scene-setting information: A title card explains that as the day began, the latest polls gave Donald Trump a 7 percent to 29 percent chance of winning.
Among the subjects are a Sikh cabbie in Queens, a West Virginia coal miner, a military veteran in Miami, a community organizer in San Jose, California, a Clinton campaign employee, a supporter of third-party candidate Evan McMullin in Utah, and a Kent State student.
Most entertaining, in an unsettling way, are the interactions between a Massachusetts couple who run a small business while raising their young sons. He proudly wears a Make America Great Again cap. She voted for Trump with reservations, constantly questions her husband’s optimistic assumptions and, in the closest thing the film has to a refrain, repeatedly tells him to “take off that stupid hat.”
Most compelling is the Alabama man, Anthony Ray Hinton, who was exonerated after 30 years on death row and whose opportunity to vote has special meaning for him. The restoration of voting rights is not automatic for exonerated felons, and the details of Hinton’s victory aren’t spelled out. But suffice it to say that he wears his “I Voted” sticker on his forehead all day long. More than that, his philosophical but practical musings on race and power in the United States are exceptionally potent.
The film includes several exchanges on the racial divide, including a neighborhood conversation between a local politico and a few of her fellow black Chicagoans parsing the troubling legacy of the Bill Clinton administration for African-Americans. In hipster Kingston, New York, a white artist proves insistently optimistic about Hillary Clinton’s chances as the evening wears on, while his wife voices dark concerns. Earlier in the day he listens to a black neighbor explaining why he chooses not to vote.
Trump supporters talk economics, Clinton backers talk gender and accomplishments, and those standing outside the system deliver some of the film’s most cogent arguments. They include Vermont organic farmer Boots Wardinski, a Liberty Union Party candidate for lieutenant governor who notes that being truly committed to strong principles is the antidote to getting elected. The diehard environmentalist received 2 percent of the state’s vote, and viewed the presidential race as immaterial.
Another outsider, a self-described “houseless” Honolulu man, living in a tent, can’t vote because of his prison record. His ignorance of the presidential campaigns and wall-to-wall media coverage looks like a kind of bliss, heightened by the island setting.
But issues are well past the point of arguing — at least in terms of voter turnout — during the hours captured by the filmmakers. Journalists’ reluctant discernment of the ballot-box upset is its own subject. At Philadelphia public radio station WHYY and in the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times, journalists who’d drunk the same pollster Kool-Aid as most Americans prepare to report on the election of the country’s first female president. They meet the surprising results with no blatant emotion, calmly changing gear — and headlines.
Elsewhere the film tracks shock, elation, despair. In San Jose, community organizer Jesus, himself a Dreamer whose citizenship is on the line under a Trump administration, tries to soothe neighbors’ deportation fears. A pall settles over New York City’s Javits Center, where Clinton supporters have gathered, expecting to celebrate.
The film is sensitive to the us-vs.-them factor. Watching news coverage of the election results, West Virginia miner Eric Hayhurst bristles at news anchors’ use of the phrase “rural areas,” interpreting it as code for “uneducated.” Had he heard it, he might have felt the same way about WHYY reporter Dave Davies’ end-of-night, off-the-air remark: “Wow. There’s anger out there in the hinterlands.”
Whether or not Election Day is far enough in the rearview mirror for Americans to examine it objectively, Deutchman’s doc aims a spotlight on what should already be obvious: Voters equate self-interest with national interest, and there are perceived, if not non-negotiable, conflicts between various groups’ goals. But the key takeaway from his film, in which Bernie Sanders’ name is never mentioned, may be that that this huge, complicated country deserves more options than the two-party system affords.
Distributor: The Orchard
Production companies: The Orchard, Cinetic
Curator/producer: Jeff Deutchman
Directors: Duane Andersen, Don Argott, Yung Chang, Garth Donovan, Petra Epperlein, Vikram Gandhi, Raul Gasteazoro, Jamie Gonçalves, Andrew Beck Grace, Alma Har’el, Sheena M. Joyce, Daniel Junge, Alison Klayman, Ciara Lacy, Martha Shane, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Bassam Tariq, Michael Tucker
Executive producers: Dana O’Keefe, Paul Davidson, Danielle DiGiacomo, Brad Navin
Directors of photography: Gustavo Acosta, Don Argott, Yung Chang, Tacara Donaldson, Garth Donovan, Petra Epperlein, Raul Gasteazoro, Jamie Gonçalves, Andrew Beck Grace, Chapin Hall, Alma Har’el, Alison Klayman, Jed Alan Klemow, Tyler McPherron, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Skyler Sorenson, Bassam Tariq, Casey Unterman
Editors: Jon Lefkovitz, Martha Shane
Venue: Hamptons International Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
No rating, 104 minutes