Now in theaters and available on Amazon Video On Demand, the new documentary 11/4/08 takes a unique approach in capturing the historic 2008 election day, on which Barack Obama was elected President. The film is a shining example of a fascinating new genre: A user-generated, participatory documentary. Director Jeff Deutchman asked a wide range of moviemakers—from up-and-coming talent to established indie auteurs like Henry Joost (Catfish), Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths) and Joe Swanberg (Alexander the Last)—to record their experiences of 11/4/08.
The result is a vast overview of how people from across the world experienced this monumental day: In St. Louis and Austin, idealistic volunteers hope to turn their states blue; in Chicago, voters turn up in droves as Obama himself appears to cast his own vote; in Alaska, children are as invested in the election results as their parents; in Paris, an organization discusses whether there could ever be a black President of France; in Harlem, a felon contemplates whether any of this will actually affect his life.
MM recently caught up with Deutchman to discuss 11/4/08, including the pros and cons of making a user-generated documentary.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): How did the initial idea for 11/4/08 come to you? Why did you think the best way to make a documentary about the historic 2008 election day would be to make a compilation of user-generated material?
Jeff Deutchman (JD): Around the time of the election, there were a few different ideas swirling around in my head. One was my earnest desire to see Obama elected. But I’ve always been interested in the film medium as a tool for preserving history. Even beyond documentaries, cinema is a medium that’s inherently haunted by the past. I like that about film (or video, as the case may be). And it affords documentarians the opportunity to perform the role of an historian. Imagine if we had had this technology for the American Revolution – history classes would be different. The problem is that there aren’t that many “historic moments” you can anticipate. Elections are unique, in that sense.
I saw Obama’s election as an opportunity to experiment with this. But it only works if you involve multiple filmmakers. It’s not like 9/11 or the BP Oil Spill, where it’s conceivable that one filmmaker might be in the right place at the right time and capture the full essence of the event. This election had reverberations everywhere, so it was necessary to use social networking as a means for collaborative production. And it also became necessary to launch a website, www.11-4-08.com, so I could continue collecting footage. The website is the ultimate end-goal of the project. I want it to become an interactive history textbook.
MM: To shoot material for the film, you enlisted both passionate amateurs as well as acclaimed independent moviemakers. Why did you decide to bring on such a wide range of filmmakers? How do you think it affects the finished film?
JD: This was really just a function of who was in my rolodex. I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible. The more footage, the more successful the experiment. It was lucky that I ended up receiving footage from people as talented as Henry Joost, Margaret Brown, Joe and Kris Swanberg, and Benh Zeitlin. They each brought their unique approaches to the eclectic collage of experiences. But the idea wasn’t to carefully choose professional filmmakers. The amateurs who submitted footage captured some of the most emotionally raw material, and the film wouldn’t have worked without them.
MM: Have you gotten any feedback from President Obama or his staff about the film? How do you think he feels about it?
JD: I’ve tried to get the film to the President through a few different avenues. I haven’t heard back. My guess is that he or someone close to him knows about it, but the White House probably doesn’t have the luxury of associating themselves with something that contains ambiguity.
MM: One would imagine the editing process was fairly difficult, since the film completely consists of separately shot material. What was the biggest challenge in editing the film? How long did it take to edit, and what was your workflow on the film?
JD: The biggest challenge was figuring out how to deal with the multiple formats, aspect ratios, frame-rates, etc. Fortunately, Final Cut allows you to edit multiple formats in a single timeline, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It was also difficult to have to cut footage that was very strong in terms of content, but ultimately so technically damaged as to be unwatchable. That’s one of the perils of a user-generated documentary – you have access to so much great stuff, but no control over how well it’s captured or delivered.
It took about 6 months to edit. I watched everything I received once all the way through, then captured most of it into Final Cut. I then watched it all a second time in Final Cut, dropping anything I thought was remotely compelling into an assembly. That first assembly ended up being 5 hours, cut down from approximately 50. Then it became about detecting the chronology of events, and taking some creative license to find the emotional arc of the film.
MM: Ultimately, what do you hope viewers gain from watching 11/4/08—to remember that historic night, or is there something more?
JD: I hope there is something more than nostalgia. I encourage people to feel emotional while watching it, especially if it’s going to inspire them to vote again in less popular elections. But for me, it is a Rorschach. Some people watch the film and feel embarrassed or disturbed by the naivete of that moment. I think it’s interesting and important to confront how we handle these seizmic moments. It’s not like the people in the film are acting completely uniquely. Many of us allowed our cynical guards down that day, and I’m sure there have been other historic moments which have done this for conservatives. What interests me is enthusiasm itself, and the way it inevitably goes away. This is how history works–made up of moments big and small. Now we can look closely at those moments and reflect on them.