As the St. Louis volunteers waited to hear CNNs prediction for the next state to turn blue, they shared with one another what working on the Obama campaign had meant for them. "You dont know how much this means to someone who looks like me," said a 60-year-old woman. One of her strongest childhood memories, she explained, was staring at the photograph of Emmett Till, brutally murdered at age 14 on a visit to the South for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Now, she had participated in the election of the first African American President. "It's hard to believe that we could really come this far in my lifetime."
Many of her fellow volunteers broke down and cried. Several of us in the theater did too. The documentary 11/4/08, which played at 20 select theaters around the country last night and will soon be available for digital rental, erupts again and again with moments of joy, hope, heartache, feelings of destiny, and a powerful sense of community.
11/4/08 is compiled entirely of footage shot on the day that America elected Barack Obama to the Oval Office. Thanks to video submitted from over 20 different participants, we see glimpses of peoples experience of the election in cities as varied as Brooklyn, Austin, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin, and Dubai (to name a few). Director Jeff Deutchman calls 11/4/08 a participatory documentary, and the project lives up to this description on multiple levels.
Deutchman crafted the film from a large pool of footage shot by scattered participants around the world. In many ways, the film I saw last night was 11-4-08 Version 1.0. The final text we see on screen reads, This film is not finished, and directs viewers to the films website where they can go to post their own footage: http://www.11-4-08.com/ The website itself provides a valuable user experience that serves as an extension of the film as much as a promotion of it. The dynamism and vitality of this projectnever fully finished, but never so unfinished that it merely stands in a state of suspended animationprovides an outstanding model for those of us working in the digital humanities.
11/4/08 is also a participatory documentary on the level of content. In city after city, we see people coming together to volunteer on the campaign, go out together to vote, or simply share in a historic moment. We see people exuberantly dancing on the streets of Brooklyn at 2:00 AM. We also see footage taken at Obamas victory speech in Chicagos Grant Park. Remember that night? Oprah used the guy in front of her as a piece of furniture. And tens of thousands of people swelled in the heart of the city to participate in history and just to be near Obama.
After I returned from watching 11/4/08, I opened my e-mail and saw that Obama is visiting Los Angeles tomorrow. The effect hes having is quite the opposite of that night in Grant Park. Angelenos are collaborating and sharing information in order to avoid Obama at all costs. We have good reason. It has nothing to do with his policies. Instead, we remember how rudely disruptive his last visit was to something we take very seriouslytraffic.
On an August afternoon that will go down in infamy, we got in our cars to head home only to discover that the central East-West thoroughfare of Olympic Blvd. had been shut down. There had been no warning. As we waited for Obamas motorcade to pass, people sat on top of their motionless cars like a scene from one of those disaster movies where an asteroid is about to hit earth, the freeways are clogged, and the only thing left to do is try to get a good view of whats to come. The motorcade of police motorcycles, vans, cop cars, and tinted suburbans eventually passed, however, the police still wouldnt let anyone cross Olympicnot even on foot. We waited. And waited. And kept waiting as the August sun gradually faded into the horizon.
It wound up taking me an extra four hours to get home that night. Irritating, but I could live with it. What made me far angrier, though, was seeing the effect this was having on the others detained on the parking lot that had become La Cienega Blvd. A single mother near me calculated her growing losses (both monetary and emotional) as a result of not being able to reach the day care center less than a mile away. Many others made telephone calls to apologize for missing that date, ballgame, or dinner that had been planned. What made it all harder to stomach was knowing where the President was headedto a fundraising party in Hancock Park to clink cocktail glasses with some richy rich industry types. That night, many of us who supported Obama felt like his team had prioritized the pocketbooks of the Hollywood elite over the middle and working class families he had pledged to support. Obama succeeded in raising a cool million on his visit, but he alienated thousands of Angelenos in the process.
This time, we ordinary folks are collaborating to avoid Obamas motorcade like the plague. We know there will be street closures, but like last time, the Secret Service and City wont disclose in advance exact which streets will be shut down. So we have to share the little pieces of information that we have and try to build a wider base of knowledge from there. Through Facebook posts and listserv e-mails, I know that there is a big fundraising event at USC at 1:30 PM on Friday. By tomorrow, Ill be able to consult Twitter and Facebook to learn more about the exact street closures. I have to travel from the Westside to downtown Los Angeles tomorrow evening for a cousins rehearsal dinner. If I make it, it will be thanks to the community of Angelenos who are using some of the same collaborative processes we used to elect Obama in order to avoid him.
I hope Obama will be able to spark some of the participatory excitement about the 2012 election as he did in 2008. And I hope I get to see many more participatory documentaries like 11/4/08. But in the meantime, Ill settle for a form of community participation that gets me and everyone else in the city to their families on Friday night in under an hour.