A CAMPAIGN OF THEIR OWN
Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States of America on November 8th, 2016 came as a surprise to many, especially for the media that had been predicting a Clinton win for months. What happened? Most political analysts blame Trump’s election on the rise of populism in turbulent times and a growing skepticism towards the ruling elite.
A Campaign of Their Own tells a different history. By focusing on the defeat of Bernie Sanders from the point of view of his most fervent supporters, the film is a deep immersion into a populist-political movement that was neglected and even ignored by the media, and especially in Europe. By plunging into the subject, the filmmakers discovered an ever-widening fault line within the Democratic Party and the beginning of a nationwide resistance movement that continues today.
Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States was an important source of inspiration for the film. It tells the political history of the U.S. from the point of view of political movements and everyday citizens—not of their leaders. It tells of the struggles of Native Americans, unions, feminists, African Americans, and all oppressed groups who have tried, and sometimes succeeded, to improve their lives through uphill battles.
Bernie’s campaign is in line with a movement that came too late to be included in another of Zinn’s book: Occupy Wall Street. The core principles of the 99%ers resonate throughout Sanders’ campaign, especially with Sanders’ focus on reducing the gender, race, and economic inequalities in America. Bernie always spoke using the third-person plural “us” instead of the “I” used by most presidential candidates. But as the events of 2016 unrolled, his campaign eventually found itself hijacked by this “us” as his supporters virulently protested his endorsement of Hilary Clinton in Philadelphia. Herein lies the meaning of the title A Campaign of Their Own. Bernie’s people ended up going further than Bernie himself, becoming a sort of monstrosity campaign without structure or leader that pulled itself apart and in every different direction.
A Campaign of Their Own shows a different campaign than the one told by the mainstream media and gives a voice to the activists on the historical stage instead of the politicians in the spotlight. The film shows how Sanders’ activists lived the campaign, reappropriated it, and spoke about the Democratic Party. We learn through their own words what their hope is for the country and how they felt about Bernie’s defeat.
We didn’t hold any casting before arriving in New York, preferring to meet activists in meetings, at campaign headquarters, and at rallies. I made a point to film as close-up as possible, creating the tightest possible relationship between spectator and protagonist. And instead of directly approaching Bernie Sanders, we decided to film the campaign from the reverse angle, taking the point of view of the crowd instead of the candidate behind the podium. Bernie appears in the background, behind the activists.
The film allows for a reevaluation of the United State’s democratic system as well as the failure of the European left to implement its agenda. The U.S. Democratic Party is similar in many ways to the centrist left parties in Europe who are incapable of reform from within, do not have a substantial platform, and systematically lose terrain in every election.
The film also approaches the much larger question of the role of citizens in modern democracy. Is the way in which the U.S. Democratic primaries played out symptomatic of the aging of Europe’s leftist parties? Can a political movement survive the loss of its leader? Are elections an opportunity for veritable democratic participation or blind adherence to a system that gives the illusion of choice?
In April 2016, I had been working on an idea for a film about my father and the American elections, but I couldn’t find the right angle to portray my Trump-leaning father, with whom I was trying to convince to support Bernie. Finally, one evening over drinks with Lionel, I looked at my friend/director and said, “I want to do a film about Bernie Sanders.” Two days later, we were on a plane to New York City for the primary between Clinton and Sanders.
With no production preparation whatsoever, we ran on intuition through 14 to 18 hours of filming per day. Sometimes we’d plan what we were going to film over breakfast and change course before lunch. We talked our way into Sanders’ headquarters in Brooklyn and Harlem, followed activists as they went canvassing door-to-door, filmed huge rallies and small protests. We brought back with us some amazing footage—but the project was just beginning.
A few months later and a couple of days before the Democratic National Convention, we received news from Jonathan Katz, the film’s principle protagonist, that he was going to Philadelphia to show his continued support for Bernie and anger at the Democratic Party. Thanks to a last minute contribution from Zooscope and some funds drummed up with crowdfunding, we were back on a plane to the U.S. within three days, ready to witness a pivotal moment in American politics.
A Campaign of Their Own is a film made from the bottom up. It’s an emotionally charged political drama that follows a handful of activists during a decisive period of time in American history. The film lets the activists speak, offering them—and the world—an artistic rendering of a voice that too often goes unheard. From this voice one can even hear the seeds of the future defeat of Hilary Clinton by Donald Trump—a prophetic message from the American people themselves.
Michael David Mitchell
Zooscope is a production company and artist collective whose members are from a variety of artistic backgrounds. Zooscope is above all a way of working, both together and individually, that focuses on including multiple media platforms and disciplines. Formed in 2008, each member has his or her own artistic activity (film, dance, theater, dramaturgy) and collaborates both formally and informally on each other’s productions. In 2014 the members of Zooscope decided to create collective projects and in 2016 they decided to self-finance certain projects in order to make it easier to quickly launch instinctive and intransigent productions.