Antioch College film students learn their craft at RNC
- Published: August 4, 2016
Last week’s Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland, Ohio, drew thousands of visitors, delegates, demonstrators and members of the media. Given the contentious and untraditional nature of the 2016 presidential race and the tense social climate, the RNC was more than just a political forum — it was a reflection of a pivotal point in American politics, and therefore American history. And this is exactly why Professor Charles Fairbanks, a media arts instructor at Antioch College, wanted his students to experience such a monumental event.
Inspired by “Four More Years,” a documentary about the 1972 RNC, Fairbanks took a number of students to the convention in order to document it. The Antioch film crew, comprised of Fairbanks, adjunct professor and studio arts coordinator Forest Bright and media arts students Lillian Burke, Charlotte Norman, David Blakeslee, Odette Chavez-Mayo and Ellie Burck spent two days interviewing, filming and trying to understand the event.
“I wanted to do something memorable for this [media arts] class,” Fairbanks said. “It’s a really great opportunity to practice media arts and engage with the political process.”
Although the documentarians were excited about the project, they were unsure what they were getting themselves into. Burck said she wasn’t sure if it was going to be dangerous or banal or both, while Chavez-Mayo wasn’t sure if she would be able to relate to anyone there because she doesn’t share their political leanings.
Upon arrival, the sheer scope of the convention both underscored and challenged the ways students were thinking about it before they arrived
The public square, where many attendees gathered, was cordoned off from protestors, Blakeslee said. There was a place for speakers, and further away were groups of protestors representing all sides of the political spectrum. Demonstrators ran the gamut from armed open carry activists to people wearing Trump masks to a group of doctors protesting the ill-treatment of their Muslim colleagues, Burck said.
Monitoring it all were police from all over the country, Burck said, noting that she saw badges from Georgia, Virginia and California. However, Chavez-Mayo thought the police were remarkably nice and engaged with attendees, going so far as to check on people’s wellbeing and asking if they were staying hydrated.
But one group seemed to outnumber everyone else there — the media, Fairbanks said. There were lots of people yelling and demonstrating, Blakeslee said, and each time even one person was making a lot of noise, even if it was just someone yelling into a bullhorn, “15 or 20 cameras would be focused on that person within 30 seconds,” to make sure they weren’t missing some kind of spectacle.
But the Antioch students weren’t there to document spectacles or highlight the troublemakers. Inspired by the 1972 documentary, the idea was to focus on the average person at the convention and the “everyday” environment of political activism, Fairbanks said. The students spoke with everyone from people carrying flags to the children of demonstrators.
The students made a point to simply listen to the people they were talking to, Chavez-Mayo said. The idea was to get at the personal reasons for supporting their respective candidates instead of engaging them in debate. To do this, the students worked in teams of two, interviewing people for an average 30 minutes per person.
“Being in a position of listening versus arguing is a different approach,” said Chavez-Mayo. “You get to hear more.”
The excitement of being there and the fervor of being among like-minded people, on either side, inspired an effusiveness among interviewees that the film students weren’t expecting. Most people were very willing to talk, said Blakeslee.
Spending so much one-on-one time with Trump supporters, for example, made her change her perspective on who they are, said Chavez-Mayo. Although she found some of their views illogical, she said she could understand why Trump’s rhetoric could be appealing. They were real people attempting to make sense of the world, and they found someone who resonates with their experience, she came to believe.
Bright and Burck, however, were a little less forgiving of what they perceived to be gaps in logic or lack of genuine analysis. So many people believed in odd conspiracy theories, Bright said.
“Everyone was just spitting out something someone else said,” Burck added. “There was no real human connection to their beliefs.”
Blakeslee said what he saw at the convention didn’t bode well for the nature of the two-party system, as the country is stuck with whomever the Republicans and Democrats pick as their nominees, even if members of that party don’t have much in common with their chosen candidate. Noting the intra-party squabbling over an outsider like Trump, lifelong Republicans are nonetheless going to support the Republican candidate no matter what, he said.
As the students spent more time at the convention, they grew more comfortable speaking with people, said Burke. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to go up and engage with total strangers, but the project gave her a sense of confidence and purpose in approaching the people she wanted to talk to.
“I want to do this all the time now,” Chavez-Mayo said.
Exploring the convention on such a personal and in-depth level exposed the group to some very powerful scenes.
Bright described the prompt and incredibly efficient police response to a scuffle. The police ran into the crowd, immediately created a circle around the subjects in the middle, and expanded outward to push people away. They brought in bikes to continue expanding the perimeter. There was also a Muslim man who had a prayer rug set up and was praying all day in the middle of the crowd, Chavez-Mayo said. He had video cameras attached to his body in order to film his own reactions, so he could show how politely Muslims conduct themselves in the face of snickering or misunderstanding. Burke described how another group had explained that Cleveland hosting the RNC was a second sign that a curse over Cleveland had been lifted, before handing out Christian tracts. The first sign was Cleveland winning the NBA championship.
“There was a lot of Cleveland pride,” Fairbanks said.
The raw emotion on display was incredibly moving to several students. One family had pictures of people killed by “illegal aliens” to inspire support for restrictive immigration policies. While the argument made little logical sense, Fairbanks said, learning that one of the demonstrator’s children had been killed by someone from another country gave a little more perspective to their anger. Another man, there with his young son, was advocating for justice for Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was killed by Cleveland police for holding a pellet gun. The man prostrated himself in front of police, yelling at them, his voice choking with emotion.
“He was giving all he could,” Fairbanks said. “It was the only way to express the extreme emotions he felt.”
However, the outright displays of emotion from both sides left a few of the students questioning the efficacy of such vociferous protests and the motivations of the people behind them. “[The protestors] aren’t interested in building a bridge,” Burck said. “They’re just there.” She noted that she didn’t feel any connection with Trump supporters, but she also felt alienated from the liberals there as well. It’s like a real life Internet comments section, she said.
“Does this change anything?” she asked. “Does anyone really shift?”
The approach makes for a “savage democracy,” Bright said.
But Chavez-Mayo disagreed, noting that she was willing to listen to more opposing views than she thought she would before going to the convention.
After spending all day immersed in such powerful emotions and arguments, the students had to unwind as a way to process the intensity of their surroundings, Blakeslee said. Whenever they got back together, they got pretty silly, he said.
“I had to go sing and dance with the street performers,” Burke said. “It just didn’t feel real.”
All in all, the group filled up well over a dozen 32-gigabyte memory cards, Blakeslee said. There is a ton of video and audio to go through.
The class will be editing for much of the next quarter, Fairbanks said, though the form their footage will take isn’t quite decided upon yet. Possible options include a feature-length documentary, a series, podcasts or some combination of all of these. Whatever format their project takes, Fairbanks said that crossing the political divide and talking to people has the potential to inspire empathy and understanding.
After a few days’ reflection about what they saw and how they will present it, the members of the group all agreed that it was an incredibly worthwhile experience.
“It really, really changed my outlook on protests, politics and filmmaking,” Blakeslee said.