16 Jun Working in Progress
On Tuesday June 14th, 2016 I went to document a Donald Trump rally in Greensboro, NC. I heard about it on the radio that morning and immediately thought of my friend Jonathan who often works for Reuters. I figured he would be going so I hitched a ride. My plan was to shoot with the people outside the event, but on the way there I applied for credentials because I figured it would be good to be inside as well.
I had applied too late which was fine, but I still tried to talk my way in because there wasn’t much happening outside. When that didn’t work I sat down in the shade to figure out a plan of action. After about a minute of watching people trickle towards the venue, I heard a man yelling, “White Power!” I grabbed my camera and approached. He was wearing a big cowboy hat and a Willie Nelson shirt with Willie giving us “the finger”. Still, I wasn’t sure if he was being ironic until a minute later when the cops approached. They explained that we as citizens do have “free speech,” but that his incendiary language was dangerous and therefore prohibited. It was kind of a surreal conversation (see the video), and as I listened, it dawned on me that I wasn’t going to be allowed there much longer either. I was right. After they gave him and his friend the heave-ho, I was told I had five minutes to leave. I tried once again to get in with credentials, then I headed for the parking lot.
I often enter these situations with a vague idea of what I plan to shoot but try to remain open to what comes. I ran into a guy selling shirts and talked to him for a bit. They were vulgar, anti-Hilary shirts and people heading into the event loved them. I started to think about the people who sold things at the event and followed this up with another guy selling shirts. A few moments later, I saw a group of people who were representing the Militia Movement. I talked to them for a bit, and then a roving protest showed up. It was a loud mass surrounded by police. Having spent time with the militia guys, I observed the protest from their perspective for a while.
This event was taking place just days after the horrific events in Orlando, and this was largely an LGBTQ-led protest. After having filmed at dozens of protests, I get a little spooked around cops. These guys were generally working with kid gloves, but I still felt a bit unsure about going to shoot with the protesters as they were surrounded by masses of cops. I’m a “non-credentialed” journalist, and as such, I’m more at risk in these situations, so I try to be very cautious. The protesters set up shop across the street, and I made my way across the street to shoot a couple of people being interviewed by a local news channel. I like to shoot media doing interviews because it gives a context to the situation and how that situation is being portrayed.
Soon people began to stream out of the event, and I grabbed a couple shots of that. The protest moved on, and I filmed as two people were arrested. The militia men, who had been pretty calm, left next. I grabbed a couple of shots and went to meet my friend Jonathan. He was still inside transmitting his images from the press “pen”. I waited in the empty parking lot for about an hour and thought about what I had filmed.
Jonathan and I went to dinner, and as we talked it dawned on me that the work I have been doing around protests kind of held together in a strange way. Most of it is very observational. I tend not to interview people as much as prompt them to start talking. I haven’t seen the work as part of a larger project as I made it. It’s simply work that I have been drawn to making as a way to participate in political culture and to make sense of it. I have never had the impulse to make work that was direct political action. While many of my peers were making work as a part of “Occupy,” I wanted to make work that was at least tangentially separate from the movement itself.
The next day, I cut the piece from the Trump rally with some help from my partner Suki. I tend to piece them together and she smooths them out and helps them make sense. Even as I was shooting, I was thinking of Jeff Krulik and John Heyn’s “Heavy Metal Parking Lot”, a short film they made in the parking lot of a Judas Priest concert in 1986. Jeff went on to make a lot of other work, including a series of parking lot videos. This morning I woke up with a picture of how all of the work I have been doing holds together. In some ways, it might be boring to see a bunch of videos from dozens of events strung together. However, I think the passage of time will have given each documented event more weight. I can also see these videos as an installation where people can drop in – going from event to event. While the pieces tend to have a narrative structure, it’s a loose one, and it is possible to cut the pieces long and let people wander through time. The pieces are often quite subtle and at the time that I make them they have much less meaning on their own. When I woke at 6 AM this morning, I couldn’t go back to sleep due to a sense of excitement of the work falling together. Below I will post some of the pieces that I already have online with a little bit of context.
In 1987, the day after I graduated from high school, the klan came to march in my hometown of Chapel Hill, NC. This was the first real “shoot” of a political event- or any event really- that I ever did. When I moved back to my childhood home a few years ago I found the negatives and scanned some with my iPhone. When I put them online a friend of mine pointed me towards sound that the local radio had recorded. Suki and I married the sound and the picture. This morning I realized that I immediately thought to do this because it is what I have been doing for the past 10 years with a lot of other work.
I think it was in 2004, about a year into the war in Iraq, that I made this short film in Times Square. In 1999 my wife and I had started our first documentary, and our first political film- “Horns and Halos”. It follows an underground publisher as he tries to republish a discredited bio of GW Bush. During that process we followed him at the Republican National Convention and at the inauguration. These were the first major political events/protests I went to. Once the drum up to the Iraq war started I went to several major protests in NY, but as a participant rather than a shooter. At this point in time I was increasingly frustrated by the war and the media. I wanted to get an uncut view of what people thought about what was going on. My intern Stephanie and I went to the crossroads of the world and just started asking the question. We wanted to make an uncut documentary so that it would have as little of our point of view as possible. Eventually we made one cut because it got a bit boring. For the most part though it’s a snapshot of a moment.
That year I also shot with the Billionaires for Bush for the film, but that story got cut. Here’s a short version of it.
A couple of weeks after I shot “What Do You Think About The War in Iraq” I realized that the Republican National Convention was coming to New York. I went to a public protest organizing meeting and stated that I wanted to make a film. After the event, I met two other filmmakers, Gabriel Rhodes and Keefe Murren and agreed to join forces with them. We made a film called “August in the Empire State”. Much of what we shot didn’t make it into the film. I want to now go back to those tapes and cut something. I spent a day outside of the jail as people who had been caught up in mass arrests were released. I will put that together for sure now that I have a context for it.
From 2004 to 2010 I shot extensively on a documentary about a communities fight to keep from being bulldozed for a basketball arena and development project. I filmed a lot of protests during this process but I was generally focused on my character so this work doesn’t fit as well in this context. That film had a hard landing into the culture, but found its audience a few months after its release when the occupy movement happened. I went down there and started to do a lot of shooting. The first week I documented mostly in photos. The second week I went down to simply ask people why they were there
A couple of weeks later I flew to Seattle to show “Battle for Brooklyn”. The Occupy movement was just starting there and I made a similar piece.
I then cut a series of other short pieces from Occupy which culminated in a compilation about the first month called “Month One”.
I didn’t do much shooting around the 2008 election due to “Battle for Brooklyn”. In 2012 I travelled to Charlotte for one day to shoot for an organization called Our Time. I was there to shoot celebrities talking about the election for them but in the downtime I made a short video about democracy. I can’t find it right now as it is not online but I will add it when I can find it.
In 2013 my family moved back to the house that I grew up in in North Carolina. At the time the Moral Monday movement was taking off, so I went and shot a short piece about that.
In 2015 as the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction I went to document a confederate flag rally.
Shorty after that I saw this re-enactment of the original US protest- the beginning of the stamp act revolt and whipped out my phone to capture it. The night before I had shown my short about the Klan rally (see above) and when I came out of that the Paris attacks had taken place. Something about having this event felt strange. What was even more profound was leaving this rally to go see a film called “Wilmington On Fire” right after this. It’s a doc about the overthrow of the elected government in Wilmington and the wholesale killing and expulsion of the Black upper and middle class residents of the town. Their property was stolen and the story was suppressed. It was hard to fight off the cognitive dissonance that this re-enactment brought forth.
When Bernie Sanders began to run I could very quickly see the his campaign in terms of the context of the Occupy Movement. When he came to North Carolina we made this short film with this context.
Now that I have a better sense of how these works hold together I look forward to making more work.