Documenting Donald: A Trans-Media Post-Mortem about Documentary-Making during the 2016 Presidential Election

Media Coverage and the Presidential Election of 2016

By Darren R. Reid and Brett Sanders

‘Documenting Donald’ is a trans-media article which combines the written word with short films and interactive elements.  Media elements are embedded into the article and should be activated by the reader at the appropriate place in the text.  Embedded elements can be viewed within the article or as full-screen presentations.


In May 2016, we travelled to New York with ten of our students to create a short documentary –- really, a type of oral history -– about the unfolding presidential election. As outsiders we wanted to capture a snapshot of the city’s mood, a sort of portrait of how people were feeling about the divisive election and, in particular, Donald Trump’s spectacular rise to prominence. Our core concept was simple.  Ask the residents of the city what would happen if he won – and to create a short film that reflected the mood we captured on film. We saw ourselves as observers, not provocateurs.

Plans for an immediate release were put on hold, however, when it became clear that Trump would almost certainly secure the Republican nomination. Instead we made the decision to hold off on cutting the film until the election-proper was underway, to allow the developing discourse of the process to inform the emphasis within the film. A litany of issues feed into the narrative of any documentary film. The documentarian, whatever their intentions, necessarily creates a fiction out of reality. Ethical questions abound. The camera captures reality, but the filmmaker creates -fabricates, even- the truth.  Structure is born out of the structure-less.[1]  Creativity and intellectual honesty are in constant conflict.[2]  The latter was our north-star, the former a constant concern.

Activate Media Element: ‘Documenting Donald’, a short film about the response of Trump supporters to this project. Created for this article.  ‘Documenting Donald’ (2017), Directed by Brett Sanders and Darren R. Reid.

As the presidential debates got underway, the weight of expectation seemed to shift. Trump’s chances of victory seemed to plunge on the back of his erratic performances.[3] More shocking still was the release of the now-infamous ‘grab them by the p—y’ tape – our initial concept, imagining what America would look like if Trump won, seemed increasingly irrelevant. Laughable though it seems now, we cut our film under the impression that our subject might quit the race before we had an opportunity to release our film.[4]  So we became reactive.

The original title, ‘If He Wins’, was thrown out in favour of something more abstract: ‘Aftermath: A Portrait of a Nation Divided’. And even that title did not feel entirely appropriate – we could not precisely define the aftermath to which we were referring: the aftermath of Trump’s divisive language; his candidacy; or maybe his failure to prove himself even vaguely capable of winning? The change in title was a reflection of the confusion of the moment and our own misreading of the political temperature in America – not any foresight into how a trump victory could give our film renewed meaning.

We had met Trump supporters but, with only one exception, heard in the film’s opening, none agreed to appear on camera – and even that subject said little more about the candidate than the few words of theirs which appear at the starts of the final cut. As Trump’s credible chances of victory appeared to approach zero, that lack of balance felt somehow appropriate.[5] We had been unable to convince the Trump supporters we met to appear on camera, so we chose to reflect that in a final piece of text which explicitly dealt with the imbalance. We kept the tone of our final comment neutral, a piece of text which simply reads: ‘Although we met supporters of Donald Trump, they refused to speak to us on camera’.

To our mind, the silence of the Trump supporters we met gave them a unique voice in our film. The silence said something – though we did not know what. Now, it echoes loudly. At a recent screening, our first since the election, the audience laughed aloud as our final subject, in her charismatic manner, decried Trump and his policies. The expletive comment thrown in by a passerby (‘F— Donald Trump!’) seemed to amplify their amusement. But the final text drew audible gasps. There was a sense of palatable shock, or realisation, perhaps, in the screening room. There had never been a reaction like this in a live screening before. 

Activate Media Element: ‘Aftermath: A Portrait of a Nation Divided’, the original film released in October 2016.  ‘Aftermath: A Portrait of a Nation Divided’ (2016), Directed by Brett Sanders and Darren R. Reid.

Previously, audience members had laughed, but they had never recoiled or shown visible signs of shock at this final reveal. Now, it has the power to completely reframe practically all the footage which preceded it.  Before the election, the film had been a comfort to audience members critical of the candidate’s policies and rhetoric. After the election, however, the echo chamber was broken.  Context, it seems, is everything. A new truth -not to be confused with reality- has emerged in the film. Or rather, the weight of interpretation seems to have shifted.  The film itself has not changed, but its meaning has.  An imbalance which seemed to annoy some audiences before the election now appears telling, foreboding even.[6]  The hint of an electoral sleeping giant has transformed into a rebuke.  It lands upon the filmmakers – and upon Trump-critical members of the film’s audience.

There are certainly lessons to be learned. Context changes meaning, and perhaps even the worth of a film. Prior to the election, the film was fairly criticised for not offering balance.  In a post-election world, that imbalance, forced on us by the silence of Trump supporters, now appears to be the most important thing we could have captured.  In the light of the anti-Trump protests which unfolded in parts of the United States, particularly those which marked his inauguration, it is conceivable that the words of Trump’s critics may, once again, take on new meaning as the political climate in the country continues to evolve and develop.[7]  So much for the role of the filmmaker.

If our authorial voice was challenged and altered by the electoral process, our role as lecturers was enhanced. Traditionally the teaching of history, and more broadly that of the humanities, has involved the inculcation of critical thinking through the production, and criticism, of written texts. The assessment and dissemination of knowledge, and the demonstration of newly acquired skills of cognation, were primarily in a written form; essays, reviews and so on.[8] However, with the democratisation of film making technologies and the advent of smartphones with their increasingly capable cameras and powers of recording, historians, humanist scholars, and their students have been confronted with new challenges and opportunities. The usability of technology, its wider availability and mobility, allow new voices to be seen and heard in previously inaccessible spaces. The open-access nature of the online environment has destroyed previous barriers to distribution and dissemination.  The possibilities, and implications, for scholars are startling.[9]

‘Aftermath: A Portrait of a Nation Divided’ was an experiment in the pedagogic practices of historians. It allowed us as lecturers to involve our students in the creating oral histories by conducting interviews, and the construction of the narrative that those sources informed. Our students were not the traditional synthesisers of content, but the producers of it – employing a trans-disciplinary method in the disruption of a traditional subject.

As technologies evolve and change the way we live and communicate it is imperative that post-digital era graduates embrace new skills, and are capable of producing content across multiple platforms.  On location in New York, our students were immersed in the making of history, learning to take the pulse of the city’s electorate, collaborate with their lecturers in research, and shape the voice that informed the public debate.  Understanding the language of film, and the rules that govern the interest and aesthetic preferences of the human eye were new avenues of discovery for our crew.  Experiencing film production in Harlem, for instance, and engaging with its diverse and culturally textured people allowed our students to grow. They engaged with (and documented) the rich tapestry of that society; new technology was married with older methodologies; it was a digital humanist process in the sense that it was facilitated by new technologies; and it was post-digital in the sense that such technology serviced the pursuit of familiar intellectual and narratives goals.

In a post-truth world, humanities graduates must increasingly understand the construction of narrative, the ‘truth’ that permeates the political and social cultures, and which defined the campaigns of Donald Trump and Brexit.  In a year when opinion polls, on both sides of the Atlantic, were left wanting, failing to take account of a simmering nation-wide desire for change, our film has become more relevant in the aftermath of Trump’s unexpected victory. Instead of being a reassuring snap shot of a nation (un)divided when it was released, the film’s inadvertent and renewed relevance stems from our failing to offer a voice to one side of the debate. Whilst the lack of balance initially drew criticism about our portrayal of New York’s voters, in retrospect the silence of Trump’s supporters in our film has become its most powerful feature – a deafening silence has changed the political landscape of the western world.


Activate Media Element: Digital Appendix.

‘Aftermath: A Portrait of a Nation Divided’ was shot on location in New York City in May 2016 and released in October of that same year. It was directed by British historian-filmmakers Brett Sanders and Darren R. Reid of Coventry University. It has received official selection laurels for the Los Angeles Cinefest (semi-finalist), Roma Cinema DOC (Official Selection), TMFF (Official Selection), and IndustryBOOST (finalist). ‘Documenting Donald’ revisited the material from ‘Aftermath’ in the context of Trump’s victory and the response of his supporters to the original film. It was released as a part of this article in March 2017 as a part of a larger oral history project aimed at documenting the Trump era from a global, ground-up perspective.

Footnotes

[1] Susan Sontag On Photography (New York and London: Penguin, 1977), pp. 105-111

[2] Barry Hampe Making Documentary Films and Reality Videos (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), pp. 23-35

[3] Reena Flores ‘Gallup: Clinton Beats Trump in First Debate by a Large Margin’ CBS News, September 30th, 2016/

[4] Lauren Gamino ‘What Happens if Donald Trump Pulls Out of the U.S. Election?’, The Guardian, October 9th, 2016

[5] Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake ‘Donald Trump’s Chances of Winning are Approaching Zero’, The Washington Post, October 24th, 2016 and Dan Roberts ‘Donald Trump Lends Name to New Hotel so Near –and so far from– White House’, The Guardian, October 26th, 2016

[6] See the Comment Section on Brett Sanders and Darren R. Reid ‘Aftermath: A Portrait of a Nation Divided’ YouTube, 6:08.  Posted [October 11, 2016]: https://youtu.be/bU1wf4UIt-o

[7] Evan Osnos ‘The Gathering Storm of Protest against Trump’, The New Yorker, November 17th, 2016.

[8] For a discussion on this issue see David Theo Goldberg ‘The Afterlife of the Humanities’ (Irvine: University of California Humanities Research Institute, 2014): https://humafterlife.uchri.org/

[9] Don Boyd ‘We’re All Filmmakers Now – and the Smith Review Must Acknowledge That’ The Guardian, September 25th, 2012

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About Darren Reid

Darren Reid's core research has been concerned with the role played by violence in the shaping of early American society and its role in the creation of Native American ‘Otherness’. Darren is currently in the process of turning his PhD thesis into a monograph for publication. His secondary research concerns the evolution of American popular culture and he has recently co-directed 'Looking for Charlie', a documentary about Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton & the suicidal clowns who inspired them.
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