“In the United States of America, it’s ‘one man, one vote,’” says Laverne Berry, a legal observer and voting-rights advocate in Anne de Mare’s documentary, Capturing the Flag. “If that’s our definition of democracy, and then we don’t give the one man the vote, it’s a big fat lie.” Tracking the work of four friends who travel to Cumberland County, North Carolina to do voter-protection work during the 2016 presidential election, the film shows in intimate detail how democracy can be defended through small acts by individual citizens. Before taking to the stage for Thursday’s Walker screening and post-film discussion, de Mare and Berry, who also serves as the film’s producer, took time to offer timely tips for voters in next month’s election and discuss the role of art in tackling thorny issues around voter suppression, race, and democracy in times of sharp political polarization.
On Monday, the group Black Voters Matter reported that a bus set to carry 40 black residents of a Georgia senior living center to a polling place was stopped by a Jefferson County clerk on the grounds that the ride was “political activity” and thus forbidden for county-sponsored events. Then on October 11, a coalition of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the Georgia secretary of state (who is currently running for governor), alleging that he used a racially biased method to purge thousands of voters from the rolls. Then on October 9, the US Supreme Court denied a motion to overturn North Dakota’s voter ID law, which requires that citizens register to vote using an ID card with a street address; an estimated 70,000 residents—many of them Native American—lack qualifying ID cards. All of which is a long-winded way of saying: today’s visit to the Walker to discuss voter suppression and your documentary Capturing the Flag couldn’t be more urgent and timely.
Let’s start out with the basics: when the polls open on November 6, how can voters make sure their vote is accurately counted?
The first thing is: you can’t make any assumptions. Even though you voted before and you’ve been on the rolls before, you always have to check. Because lots of things happen and the rules change. And even if the rules don’t change, the way the rules are applied changes.
For instance, I had a situation that was not the same as the bus situation of this week but a different situation where a busload of seniors, mostly poor and minority, came to a poll in 2012 when I was working in Virginia. The state had a rule on the books that stated that if you were of a certain age, you could have curbside voting so that you wouldn’t have to stand in the line for two hours, which is what was happening there. The judge in my polling place decided to interpret being of a certain age—or being handicapped, which was the other rationale you could use—as having handicap plates on your car. Now, because they came in a bus, they didn’t have any handicap plates, so the judge in this polling place was going to say none of these people could vote that way. Well, that’s not what the law said. That was just the interpretation of the law.
So I think that the first thing that you need to do is just to make sure that you’re registered, make sure where your polling place is, make sure that even though you’ve done this before that you’re current. Then if something comes up that seems to be going against everything that you know to be true, you just have to scream. You just have to challenge it right then.
We’ve learned, working with the Brennan Center For Justice in New York, that most of the time when people are denied the right to vote, they feel that they’ve done something wrong. They’re not on the rolls and they think, “Oh, I had to fill out some form and I didn’t do it,” or “Something came to my house and I didn’t look at it,” or something like that. But oftentimes it’s not your fault. So at that moment just complain.
Anne de Mare
I’ll just add that there are some amazing resources available to voters. Anyone can check their registration at Vote.org. Anyone can plug in their ZIP code and understand what the deadlines and the laws are at Vote411.org, which is a website that the League of Women Voters runs. And on election day, if you find yourself in trouble, call 1-866-OUR-VOTE, which is run by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. You can call that number nationwide and can get help day-of.
So if you’re at the polls and somebody challenges you, don’t leave, but get your cell phone and call right on the spot and you can have assistance?
Right on the spot.
I’m curious: from the perspective of an artist, and from the perspective of—how would you describe yourself, Laverne? Organizer, activist?
I’m just a plain old gal that helps people out every once in a while.
How do each of you see the role of art—in this case, documentary film—in educating, inspiring, changing policy? What do you see as the impact of art in particular in telling these stories?
I feel like, especially in this highly divided time, where you have people trying to place things on one side or the other of a very partisan universe, what long-form documentary film does that is really interesting is it allows you to watch people experience something over time. It allows you to have a more complicated and nuanced look at any given issue. It’s not simple sometimes, and it’s messy sometimes. And these are times where people have really passionate feelings. I believe that what art can do, and what documentary film can do, is ask people to look deeper. To look at things in a more nuanced way and to understand the situations not based on the sensationalistic attitude of our modern media but from a more human experience standpoint.
One of the things that’s been interesting about this film is that it’s a story that’s about people who are engaged in trying to protect democracy, inside of the framework of the 2016 presidential election, which, as we all know, was so contentious and so divided. And we haven’t really come back from that since the election. In fact, we’ve taken it another step further, where we have this hyper-open partisanship, in a way, in the highest office in the land. In order to come back from that in a way where we can begin to talk with each other again, we have to be able to look at individuals and their involvement in our democracy with a little bit more nuance than just if they stand on the left or the right.
So with this film, which is a portrait of four people whose personal views are on the left but who place the survival of democratic institutions in the forefront, I hope that dynamic and that conversation can help us look at how we have to deal with voting differently and not as a political issue. Not as a partisan issue, but as a structural issue to our democracy that we really need to fix.
When it’s not election time, my regular job is as an entertainment lawyer who mostly deals with documentary filmmakers. So my clients are really trying to give context and texture and depth to things that usually get, at most, 30 seconds on a news broadcast. And, especially now, people think 30 seconds on a news broadcast or a few characters on a Twitter post actually is all that there is. That’s not all that there is. To be able to really understand some of these things that are very complicated, you need more time, and as Anne says, you need to be able to watch individuals involved in those things. So this particular art form allows people space to be able to test what they think that they’ve learned from those 30-second news bites.
At screenings of Capturing the Flag, have you had audience members from across the political spectrum, and if so, how do people on the right (since your film features four people who are more left of center) respond to the film? Do they get the main point of protecting democracy? Or does it just seem like a partisan hit job to them?
My experience with the people that we’ve had in the audience, on all sides of the spectrum, is that they are both moved by the difficulty that people have casting votes, and also by the commitment of the people who are working to protect it.
We haven’t had a lot of pushback in the room, in audiences, where people are pushing back against the subject matter because of partisanship. There was a statistic that came out a while ago that still haunts me, which is that a majority of people when asked what the greatest threat to America was basically said the opposing political party. And this is a really horrifying place to be at when you have a two-party system.
In my own family, we have people across the political spectrum and we are, as individuals, having a harder and harder timehaving conversations in this environment. And we all love each other. There has to be a way to have differences of opinions and to yet have a common goal that means more than those differences. It’s an enormous tragedy that our public discourse has come to the place that it’s at. And it’s an enormous tragedy that who has the right to vote and who we make it difficult to vote, that that has become a partisan political battle. It’s really difficult to have a bipartisan approach to how to fix this. And I think you also can’t say any of this stuff without talking about the racial component of it.
It’s interesting. Yesterday, as part of being here at the Walker, you arranged for me to go and talk to students at a couple of local colleges. And the class that we addressed at Augsburg College was studying political structures. We started talking about voter suppression, and we talked about how contentious some of those things are. And I asked the question of the room: how many people feel like we should have voter ID and how many people feel like it represents a form of voter suppression. And the hands in the room went up completely along racial lines. We have to find ways to discuss that.
We also have to try and find a way to check what our assumptions are about people on the other side of the aisle. When we were working on the film, we would have friends in to screen rough cuts of the film and, invariably, the most left-of-center people who watched the film were the ones that said, “Well, you can’t have this film like this, because people on the right will never watch it.”
And I would have to say, “I’ve had people on the right watch it, and I’ve heard them say that this is a really important issue. Why is it that you’re making that assumption? Why are you telling me that we can’t go forward because you’re assuming what someone who has a set of principles different from yours is going to think?” Hopefully film and other kinds of art can be part of the solution for that. Because you want to break down those assumptions and get all the people in one room experiencing something together.
So the people on the left wanted to alter the film to maybe make it more of a propaganda vehicle? To make it appeal to appeal to people on the right, to change their minds?
They didn’t want to make it more of a propaganda vehicle. They wanted to tamp it down so that people of the right would be more accepting.
Which, in a way, would be making it more of a propaganda piece because it makes it easier to swallow.
This is the first film I’ve made that’s so overtly about politics, and one of the things that I think contributes to the tension around political work is that everyone has their own story about politics right now. They have their own feelings, they see themselves in—and they are, indeed, in—this struggle. So watching someone else’s story, and being empathetic to it, it’s a different set of challenges, because you have to be able to go into that character or that subject’s experience. And the way we deal with politics now, we are always sort of guarding and defending and promoting our own particular political story.
We’ve talked about active cases of voter suppression, but what about the other issue: of the devaluing of voting in our society?
Right. That’s even more insidious, this discouragement of people to vote that has been going on for decades. We have really lousy voter turnout in thiscountry, particularly in local elections and midterm elections, which, interestingly enough, have a much more direct affect on people lives than the presidential election every four years. Capturing the Flag is a film about people struggling to help people with voter suppression in North Carolina in the 2016 presidential election, but to me, at its core, the film is really a love story about democracy. It’s a story about how important it is for people to be invested in the process and how we have neglected to care for ourselves in that process.
We’ve neglected it in a number of ways. We have really crappy civic education. We don’t teach civics in high school the way we used to. A lot of people don’t understand how the government works. We don’t disseminate changes in election law out to the general population in any meaningful way so that the laws change and people aren’t aware that the law has changed. So they’re left out of that loop, they’re not informed. So if I were to say what end point I want with the film, it’s a reinvestment in the ideology of democracy as the best tool we have with which to govern ourselves.
My only little tag on that is that although you have to do some work—you know, make sure you’re registered and all those things—it’s not that hard. A lot of time people don’t do things because they think they have to do some big thing. And people are not helpful because they think: Who am I? What can I do? Well, everyone can do something, even if it’s really small: helping your neighbors figure out registration or taking them to the poll. And if everyone made that kind of commitment, then we would be able to help safeguard the democracy that’s so important to us.
I think one of the things people forget when they talk about advocacy and action is it’s actually fun to do. To be involved in something, to affect change, to set up a carpool with a bunch of people in your neighborhood and drive people; it’s fun to do. I think we need to shift the narrative of it being a big old pain in the neck to it being an exciting thing, a festive thing.
One of my favorite moments in the film, and it’s consistently one of the favorite moments for audiences of the film, is there’s a section where one of the subjects is taking photographs of people who bring their children to vote. You see in those moments parents passing down that involvement, passing down that there is a pride and a joy and a sense of fun and a celebratory nature in the fact that we can go out and elect our leadership. We have that ability. And we need to celebrate it and enjoy it and take advantage of it.