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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.”

(Page 2)

Anderson: Do you think that the fact that it’s such a high-energy, high-attention race at this point—do you think that might help the chances of keeping any kind of potential fraud or difficulties in check—the fact that the whole world will be watching, in a sense?

Chevigny: Right, I mean, you hope so. I think the watching does help. In “Election Day” we film an international monitor from Australia who’s watching a bunch of polling places in St. Louis, and she actually sees some really egregious disparities in access. And one of the things she says is that she thinks that part of the reason why it’s good to have lots of eyes on the process is that it helps the voter have greater faith in the system to know that other people are watching it.

So, I think that that can be the case, but also the fact that there’s going to be a lot of people there and that the race is going to be so close, there’s going to be a lot of temptation and opportunity for people to manipulate an election that’s manipulatable, and some of them are, some of the voting processes are. But yeah, I’m of the opinion that the more people we have watching and the more scrutiny there is, the harder it is to steal an election, and the more likely people are going to go the extra mile to make sure that the votes are counted properly. So yes, I think it’s helpful.

Anderson: Do you think that a project like yours running on PBS and on the Internet—do you think that that might prime people to be aware, as they’re heading towards November, of their own voting circumstances and how to get around any possible issues ... ?


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Chevigny: Yes, sure. We were really delighted that PBS’ “P.O.V.” wanted to show it—in particular wanted to show it this summer—and they’re showing it early in the season, they’re showing it July 1. The idea behind that is that allows some time for people who see this film, if they ... if the film drives them to the desire to take action in some form. There’s still time to be trained to be a poll worker. You really can make a difference, you know.

I’d like to see a real overhaul of the system with a real mind towards full enfranchisement of the electorate, but in the meantime, individuals are doing amazing things on the local—the very highly localized—level to make the voting experience less fraught, more pleasant, their votes more likely to be counted. So yes, that’s my hope, that people can get mobilized between now and November. And, you know, the campaign itself is so exciting that we can forget, we just kind of want to forget what happened in 2000 and in 2004. It wasn’t as close in 2004, but there were huge problems at the polls, you know, Congress reviewed it—it could affect this coming election.

Anderson: We ran a story a couple weeks ago about how out-of-state student populations and also lower-income populations might still [encounter] some challenges this fall. Do you have a sense for other types of demographics that would be more prone to encountering issues at the polls?

Chevigny: Those groups were big problems, especially in Ohio, in 2004. Well, first of all, we still have the problem of disenfranchised felons; there have been some improvements there, so those people are going to continue to have problems at the polls, as in, they’re not able to register. And then in addition, I think one of the main problems are going to see is when there’s unexpectedly high voter turnout. That’s part of the problem that happens. In “Election Day” we show this in St. Louis, poor neighborhoods in St. Louis, and so many people showing up, and then they don’t have the capacity to handle them, so people are waiting in line for three hours. But that’s all preventable; you anticipate, OK, it’s not going to be 30 percent of the electorate, it’s going to be closer to 80. So let’s triple the number of polling machines and polling people we’re going to have. You can anticipate that. So that would be the kind of population I think is likely to have trouble unless there is a real revision of practices.

Anderson: Can you talk a little bit about Arts Engine and the Media That Matters Festival ... ?

Chevigny: Sure. We make feature-length documentary films like “Election Day” at Arts Engine. But in addition, we do a bunch of online Web-based programs that are specifically designed around increasing the impact of social-issue documentary films, and one of the things we do which is one of the most fun is we have something called the Media That Matters Film Festival, which is a curated set of online shorts. We get over 500 submissions, and we pick the 12 best ones, all eight minutes and under. They’re on a whole range of topics; some of them are made by young people, some of them are funny, they’re serious, they’re documentary, they’re animation. This is our eighth annual Media That Matters Film Festival [an edition of the festival] that we just launched last month, and they’re all viewable online.

Anderson: What do you make of the new kinds of forms of activism that are available and possible through the Internet? There are some camps who think that, you know, and those types of groups are just noise, and the real action happens on the streets with people marching, but I tend to think that the Internet and new forms of technology can lend themselves to different types of political processes in a very valid sense.

Chevigny: I definitely feel like Web-based efforts to organize people are fantastic. Even people who criticize—I mean, they sure were effective in raising a lot of money in 2000. And for a lot of people, the Internet is their window into a political activism that they don’t really have the opportunity for in their community for number of reasons. So I’m all about the power of the Internet to really galvanize people in ways they couldn’t really be galvanized without it.

That said, we’ve been doing stuff on the Internet at Arts Engine for eight years, and one of things we learned is that it’s really complemented by having an off-line presence. So, marching in the streets and all kinds of conventional or traditional types of demonstration and activism are part and parcel of the work that needs to get done. So, I don’t think you can just have all of us getting active on the Web and that’s going to solve all the world’s problems. There still is the need for that face-to-face, and there still is a reason to have a bunch of people get together—the same way, in my experience, there are still people who want to get in a room and watch a movie together. It’s different than watching it online. So, we’re philosophically at Arts Engine, a very multiplatform organization in the sense of, they’re all good, use whatever tools are at your disposal and link with others using other tools.

Anderson: They complement each other.

Chevigny: They totally do.

Anderson: So, what do you have coming up next in all of these various ventures?

Chevigny: Well, we have a couple of things. We’re getting the DVD out of the Media That Matters Film Festival, speaking of off-line, as well as “Election Day”—so that’s actually going to be available on our Web site starting tomorrow [July 1]. We’re selling a preview version of it off the site in hopes that people will watch it over the summer. In addition, there’s another film we’re starting to work on now about Congolese refugees. It’s a mother-and-daughter reunion story; they were separated for 12 years during the conflict, and the daughter just got resettled in the U.S. with her mother a year ago. So we’re following that story.

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