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Portrait of an American Election

Posted on Jul 1, 2008
Election Day
Arts Engine Inc.

Fourteen ways of looking at an election: A still from Arts Engine’s “Election Day.”

“Election Day” isn’t a film that highlights the horse-race aspect of American politics, nor is it about red or blue states. Instead, director Katy Chevigny and her colleagues from Arts Engine Inc. aimed to capture a much more complex story—or rather, a multilayered and interconnecting set of stories—about an array of Americans from different states, backgrounds and political positions, all taking part in some way in the 2004 presidential election.

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Orchestrating the shoot was no small feat: Chevigny and her team sent out 14 crews around the country to gather footage from dawn until midnight on Nov. 2, 2004. The end result, pulled together from over 100 hours of footage, is an unpredictable and engrossing documentary that offers inspiration and caution in equal doses. This kind of story can serve as a timely call for election reform—that is, if both voters and politicians can learn from what didn’t work at the polls in 2000 and 2004 and build on what did. PBS is helping out by screening “Election Day” as part of its “P.O.V.” series Tuesday (July 1), giving voting viewers plenty of time to prepare for this year’s trip to the polls.

On the eve of the documentary’s debut on PBS, Chevigny took a moment to talk to Truthdig’s Kasia Anderson about “Election Day,” as well as about online activism, Arts Engine projects in the works, and the Media That Matters Film Festival.

Kasia Anderson: So, “Election Day” is definitely in keeping with stories we’ve run with a kind of cautionary tone about some of the shenanigans and difficulties people can encounter when it comes to engaging in the political process. Can you, just for a little background, talk about how you came to making the film and some of the things you saw when you sent your crews around the country to different communities and their different experiences about voting?

Katy Chevigny: Sure. The idea behind the film came out of our wondering how voters would be approaching the polls in the aftermath of the 2000 election. There had been so much controversy over vote-counting in particular. And so we were asking ourselves in the summer of 2004: Are voters going to be approaching this election with a different feeling—either trepidation or determination or disgust and outrage—what are we going to see? And so, we thought, one way to make a film like that would be to actually make an observational documentary about the experience of regular Americans who are going to the polls or working at the polls. It’s not about the campaign; it’s just about what it’s like for people who are regular Americans, as they say.


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So we dispatched 14 different crews to different parts of the country who all followed one character, one person or one location from dawn until midnight, and part of what we were looking for ... I mean, we didn’t know what we were going to get, right? You don’t know what’s going to happen in front of the camera. But we were hoping to show both some commonalities and some contrasts in the experience of voters going to the polls. And we certainly found that.

Anderson: Did you have any criteria for what types of people you wanted to follow, or was it, go to these types of communities and see who was willing to be followed?

Chevigny: Oh no, we had ... we did some very specific almost “casting” of the different characters in advance. And one of the things we were looking for were stories that aren’t necessarily covered much in the mainstream media, as well as things that played against stereotypes. One of the things that we were trying to fight against is just this way that the mainstream media puts everybody into a camp—a blue state or a red state—and you know, a state just goes all red, like in Texas, when the networks do that graphic on the air, and what about all those other people in Texas, and what are they feeling about going to the polls? And what’s the nuance behind that story of that state going red or blue?

So, for example, we had somebody working in Chicago looking at different story leads for us, and they said, “There’s a Republican poll worker here who’s trying to make sure that Republicans’ votes don’t get stolen by the Democrats.” And I said, “Well, that’s not every day we hear a Republican underdog story—let’s cover that!” And then we heard from somebody else in Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota—in 2000, there was a lot of harassment and problems for Native Americans going to the polls there [where] they have to travel vast distances. And so we did a bunch of research until we found somebody who we thought was interesting and was interested in being part of the film. So, we did that process 14 times over.

Anderson: What are some of the things that you discovered in this last round of elections that you think might still impact voters in 2008?

Chevigny: Well, you know, when we made the film in 2004, we thought we might be documenting a set of processes that would just be true in that election, but the sad part is that a lot of the problems we saw in 2004 are likely to exist in 2008, because there actually hasn’t been substantial reform, certainly at the national level, since then. And a lot of the problems, they’re always there, but they become particularly apparent to the average American and to the press when there’s high voter turnout or when an election is close. And we can assume it’s going to be close in some states, and we know there’s going to be high voter turnout. And there haven’t been really new plans put in place nationwide to ensure that there is better training of poll workers, better resources for polling machines, you know, any of the things that would improve the circumstance[s] for people going to the polls.

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