Director Dorothy Fadiman’s doc “Stealing America: Vote By Vote” centers on the democratic integrity of the United States in the last two Presidential elections. For more than thirty years, exit polls accurately predicted election results. Over the last ten years that reliability has disappeared. The last two Presidential elections both came down to a relatively small number of votes, and in both elections the integrity of the voting process has been called into question. With the upcoming election looking to be similarly close, the film asks the questions: What happened in 2000 and 2004? What, if anything, has changed since? And what can be done to ensure a fair and honest tabulation of votes in 2008? This film brings together behind-the-scenes perspectives from the U.S Presidential election of 2004 — plus startling stories from key races in 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2006. The film sheds light on a decade of vote counts that don’t match votes cast — uncounted ballots, vote switching, under-votes, an many other examples of election totals that warrant serious investigation. The doc opens in limited release beginning Friday, August 1.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
I was on a retreat by the ocean. During a deep meditative silence, I had the experience of being flooded with light. I felt transformed by a luminous presence. The light was not only visible, but permeated my whole being. I was inspired by the feeling of being “connected to the universe” and decided to try to convey that by writing a book about the light of Spirit in everything! But no matter how diligent I was in doing research and outlining the subject in dozens of ways, I found that I couldn’t communicate, with words on paper, the impact of what I’d seen and felt .
A filmmaker had heard of my efforts, and tracked me down. He suggested that I consider producing a movie, instead of writing a book. That challenge captured my imagination! As a result, I made my first film “Radiance: The Experience of Light.” The filmmaker who appeared was Michael Wiese, who became a publisher of books about filmmaking. My newly released book, “Producing with Passion: Making Films That Change The World” is being published by Michael’s company, thirty years after he suggested I make a movie.
How has this interest evolved during your career?
What struck me about making “Radiance” was the need to allow a film to evolve. The film grew to include a spectrum of cultures and images and reported experiences which span recorded history. The essential message is that each of us has the seed of an experience of light inside us….and that my experience was not unique, but a microcosm. That realization is at the heart of my filmmaking. Most of my films begin from my own experience, which then becomes a springboard for a broad range of related stories.
For example, when I was in college, and became unintentionally pregnant, I was directed by my gynecologist to go to the backalleys for an abortion. I ended up on the intensive care ward for ten days because on a non-sterile procedure. That traumatic experience became the catalyst for my 2 1/2 hour trilogy about abortion rights. It was broadcast on PBS, translated into six languages, and includes includes dozens of different stories from different people about the back alley days, as well as insights and interviews from others describing what is happening today. One story, mine, gave birth to a documentary series, which spans 100 years.
How did the idea for “Stealing America: Vote by Vote” come about?
I had followed the irregularities in the Presidential election in 2000 and was among those who volunteered to go to Florida in 2004. We were prepared to do whatever was needed to make the 2004 election as safe as possible, especially to support previously disenfranchised voter populations. While I was working at the polls on Election Day, I heard reports that troubled me: some citizens who tried to vote for John Kerry were getting a vote for George W. Bush on the screen. This “vote flipping” phenomenon was being reported to election observers at the polls and on voter hotlines. I watched the confusion and the frustration voters felt. I also observed an increasing sense of suspicion as voters realized they could not trust the voting process. Coming back to California on the plane, the attorneys and election protection workers were all reporting similar “irregularities” that they’d seen and heard from voters.
So I decided to make a film about the vote-switching phenomenon in Southern Florida. Soon after I began shooting, I learned that that “glitch” in voting had been happening in at least 13 states. I soon realized that vote switching was just one of many problems which seemed to be corrupting the results of that election. There were exit poll discrepancies, unequal distribution of voting machines with minority communities getting fewer machines per capita, purging of registered votes, widespread machine breakdowns and much more. I was compelled to tell as much of the story as could fit into a feature length film.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
I used the internet heavily. I called strangers who had personal stories, contacted people I’d never met who were doing research, exchanged emails with others who were posting questions and reaching out to connect with activists. One by one, people came forward to be interviewed and suggested others to contact. I spent three years following leads, giving a wide spectrum of interviewees a chance to tell their stories. When it was necessary to get an important story, I traveled. I flew to Georgia to interview Paul Craig Roberts, a man who served in the Reagan administration and had been an editor with the Wall Street Journal. I learned that he felt the mainstream media failed us in 2004, and that facts and figures about the 2004 election were conspicuous by their absence on a subject that demanded critical scrutiny.
From another direction, I heard that pollster John Zogby had serious questions about the Exit Poll discrepancies in 2004. I flew to Utica, NY to interview him. When I read that Ion Sancho, the Supervisor of Elections for Leon County, Florida had conducted experiments which revealed the vulnerability of voting machines, I flew to Tallahassee to interview him. The result of efforts like these led to a spectrum of voices, a wide range of ages, a racially diverse cast of interviewees from all backgrounds, all trying to understand better what happened in 2004. As a result of various interviewees referring to other elections, the film grew to cover a decade, from 1996 – 2006 during which election irregularities escalated. The narrator does not take a position.
Peter Coyote‘s voice and words invite the viewer to think and reflect.. The music track, scored by recent ASCAP Lifetime Achievement award winner Laurence Rosenthal (“The Miracle Worker,” “Becket,”) is complex and intriguing and supports the investigative journalistic style. The result is a film that is not only about elections, but about threats to our democracy. The viewer is invited to put together the pieces.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The biggest challenge was striking a balance between different elements, such as how to position first person stories of disenfranchisement like votes switching side by side with more technical information such as voting machine vulnerabilities. How do I juxtapose statistics such as exit poll discrepancies with reports of long lines and not enough machines, as well as where and how to interject comic relief? Another challenge was how much narration is too much? When are a few words enough narration, when is narrative explanation essential and when to use no narration at all? All along the way I held feedback screenings. Sometime four people in a living room, sometimes a large group in a classroom. I ask their opnions. As a result of these screenings , I get invaluable input. Being so close to the project, makes it almost impossible for me to be objective. My goal is to create a film that is provocative and evocative, but doesn’t leave viewers feeling confused or defensive.
What is your next project?
We have already shot and will be producing a film on the disenfranchisement of Native Americans and Hispanic voters in New Mexico. These populations have been historically shut out of the electoral process at many levels. In the 2004 election the crescendo of problems in New Mexico — particularly of votes being “miscounted” for certain populations — reached a breaking point. While making “Stealing America,” I had gone to New Mexico to include those stories. However, the situation there was so egregious, I decided that New Mexico needed to be a documentary of its own.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
After thirty years of films that focus on Human Rights and Social Justice, I have a dream of returning to making films more like “Radiance,” poetic images and words that lift the spirit and ignite a sense of connection to the universe.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
When I first started making films, I thought independent meant be the one who had the vision and I raised the money and then I hire other people to make the film. For “Radiance,” the vision was mine, but many of the decisions I handed to other people, including editing decisions, musical decisions, narration choices. I lost track of my own project partly because I was inexperienced and insecure, but also everything had to happen in rented 16 mm editing rooms and expensive film labs, not “in house”. Before the film was done, I took over a large part of the decision making, but that was a struggle. Gradually I learned that being an independent filmmaker involved not only the vision and the money, but I had to stay involved with every step. That is what my book, “Producing With Passion,” is about: continuing to make your film your own throughout the process.
Now I sit side by side with the editor, working in Final Cut Pro in house, and we watch a dissolve together until it feels right. The bottom line to being the kind of “independent filmmaker” I am, is having a collaborative relationship with everyone who is working on my film. From another perspective, until recently, I felt that for me, being an independent filmmaker meant serving the grassroots first and above all, making thousands of DVDs and selling them affordably as soon as the film was done. One of my Executive Producers, Mitchell Block from Direct Cinema Limited has urged me to release the film theatrically first, then make DVDs available. I am following his suggestion and once again, my picture of what an independent filmmaker does is changing.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Trust your intuition. You’ll need feedback and input from others, but you should reaffirm, deep down, that only you will know when your film is on track, and aligned with your vision.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of…
I’ve produced five films on AIDS in Ethiopia. Filming in Ethiopia was the most challenging situation I have ever encountered. Not just the logistics and mechanics, but working with the feelings of the people. At first, there was often suspicion…People wondered, what did we want from them? Were we exploiting their situations? Would their interviews be misused? After two years, and five trips to Ethiopia, the level of goodwill and trust had grown significantly. Again, as with “Stealing America,” we followed threads and gradually built a tapestry of cooperation.