Swiss filmmaker Lionel Rupp and producer Michael David Mitchell followed the campaign of Bernie Sanders during the last U.S. election, fascinated by the people's movement behind the Democratic Party candidate.
A Campaign of Their Own does not serve as an extended promo for Sanders but doubles as a report on unprecedented enthusiasm and the push people were willing to engage in what Noam Chomsky called “the most remarkable thing about the 2016 election.”
Rupp follows Sanders' rallies in New York and Philadelphia, witnessing the zeal but heartbreak as well, and above all the need for change organized in people's activism.
ScreenAnarchy caught up with Lionel Rupp to talk about the circumstances of the documentary, the method of capturing the events marrying journalistic and fiction filmmaking, and A Campaign of Their Own being a love story.
ScreenAnarchy: How come a Swiss filmmaker got to make a documentary about the U.S. election?
Lionel Rupp: Michael David Mitchell is a U.S. citizen who moved to Switzerland 15 years ago and I was interested in the U.S. election since I was a child. I followed each election since Clinton until Trump and in January 2016, we were discussing the upcoming election. I was very curious about it and Mike too, who was infatuated with Bernie Sanders. He kept talking about him and I also became intrigued by this outsider.
The more I was becoming interested, the more it was getting frustrating for us, due to Bernie´s representation on media or rather lack thereof. A week before the actual shooting, we decided to go to the U.S.A. We knew Bernie was at his momentum, he won the seven previous primaries and we knew if he won New York, he had a chance to win the primaries. We talked about it and the day after, we bought tickets to see what the campaign looks like.
Why did you zoom in on Sanders? There were also other odd figures in the running, such as the transhumanist István Zoltán.
Sanders had the chance to last until the convention and had a really interesting message. We liked his ideas, but we really wanted to know it works today and this was the first candidate with such ideas since the 60s.
There was also a lot of enthusiasm behind this candidate, so there was no other candidate we would like to follow. We knew about a lot of Republican candidates but were not really interested in their candidacies. If I am making a documentary, I want to shoot people I would like to pass several months in the editing room with.
I will return to your previous effort on the omnibus film WONDERLAND, where you contributed one story along other emerging Swiss filmmakers. I cannot help but think the film had a strong political charge.
It was very, very, very political. It was the decision we made. At the time of writing the script, we really did not like the situation created by the political majority. We did not feel rightfully represented in the decision they were taking.
It was more like an angry film about what the country had decided to do. We did not want to hide it. And I believe it was a great way to make the film. I personally love these kind of strange Carpenter films from the 80s against Reagan policy, and Wonderland is the same about our country.
Despite making a documentary about an election, A CAMPAIGN OF THEIR OWN is not so much political.
It is political but I think it is subtle in Sanders, even though if you do not consider it that subtle since I am following only his campaign. It is not solely about Bernie Sanders' candidacy but about people’s feelings about politics.
And what happens if your candidate does not go further and you feel abandoned and this strange feeling you can feel in a love story, falling in love with a politician and having a heartbreaking story.
Did you face some dilemmas on the project?
I have made a choice to retard the dramaturgy and make it happen in the last moment. Everybody in Philadelphia knew that Bernie will give up but people in Philadelphia wanted to believe that there will be some chance, a kind of miracle.
But that was impossible. I really want to show the strange hope of people while we knew that Bernie will give up. At this point, when he made the speech at the convention, it is really the central point because we can see that it is impossible for people following the campaign to accept the situation as they are emotionally invested in it.
It is political for Bernie but for his followers, it is more emotional. They perceive it as a betrayal from his side. The gap between Sanders and Clinton is so wide that they cannot follow him. We can see it when Jonathan Katz, one of the film´s protagonists, speaks, and I agree most of the time with him, but sometime he says too much and too harsh things about Clinton. And that is the point of no return.
Did you have a sort of script or at least bullet-points regarding the dramaturgy?
Most of the time we were following various people to a certain point, then we heard about others elsewhere and went there, so were jumping from one group to another. The time was really short, the film was shot in 11 days so we had to shoot 12 hours a day.
Most of my decisions were to go there and have that instead of something else. Just one thing, I believe it was only once, when there was Bernie´s speech on the TV when I talked a little bit with Toby before the scene. I do not think it was conscious but I talked to Toby about the position of Bernie and I said to him that maybe he had no choice, that if you are on the Democratic roster you sign up for, that you had to support the nominee and that you do not have other choice.
And after that, when we shot the scene, I noticed that Toby played the role regarding the understanding of Bernie ,where she is trying to convince a little bit Jonathan, even though there was no chance of convincing him. She was a little bit more balanced and I believe it helped the film because it created a conflict between both and Jonathan could really argue.
Were you thinking about other elements besides what the campaigners were saying?
I was alone with my camera and I am always thinking about editing and I have more of a fiction filmmaking vocabulary in my mind so I knew I will need this shot, that angle and I moved a lot to capture all the material I know I might need once I get into the editing room.
What kind crew was there on the ground covering the events?
It was only me, Mike and a sound engineer and it was really more of a sprint work, six days in New York, six days in Philadelphia. Each night, I backed up the material. It was really light material so there were no problems with storing the footage.
Was it more of a journalistic approach in the documentary or did your filmmaking instincts also kick in?
It was a really small crew. I am coming from a fiction filmmaking background and in the last 10 years, I have mostly done short films. I cannot change myself so I am almost always thinking and working in terms of fiction filmmaking. It was journalistic in approach to the material, the content, but the way of shooting and editing comes from fiction filmmaking methods, in terms of composition and space.
Were there any difficult situations, some run-ins, during rallies?
Not so much. Most of the time, people were arguing and most of the time it was really strange because in the streets of New York and Philadelphia, you could encounter only Sanders' supporters, hardly any Clinton voters. It was like the streets were reserved for Bernie's supporters and the convention for Hillary's.
How did you pick people to appear in the film?
It was a choice during the shooting and during the editing. During the shooting, it was more of an instinct choice when I put on my headphones and heard what Jonathan was talking about. Almost immediately I liked him.
I really enjoyed his comic personality and his way of seeing things, I like his Jewish sense of humor. I felt like being in a Woody Allen film. He makes me laugh so much so I knew I like him like a character.
Each time I chose somebody in the editing room or during shooting, it was in this spirit that I knew she or he can be a character. What we discussed with Mike was to have a wide range of characters. It is a film about political movement and it does not need to be politically correct but we had to show the variety of people.
The majority were white but there were Native Americans; African-Americans were more for Hillary but there were some behind Bernie as well. There is this senator, Nina Turner, when she was speaking at people's convention, I really liked this kind of energy. It brought a balance into the film.
Did you work undercover?
Most of the time we were undercover but occasionally, we needed passes, like in a rally in Brooklyn. We talked a lot with Bernie´s campaign so we got some passes. In Philadelphia, we received access to some delegations to see Bernie closer with delegates but that did not make the final cut. But we had some discussions with Bernie´s campaign.
Have you been in contact with Sanders' campaign?
No, we never asked them. We only got releases from people that are in front of the camera. We did not show anything to Bernie.
I have to add, though, that we are planning to do a kind of follow-up in the form of a short film, something like Bernie and Me. We would like to organize a discussion between Bernie Sanders, Jonathan Katz and Toby. Right now, we are in negotiations with Bernie. It is really interesting, not only from sociological point-of-view but for Jonathan, it would be a great encounter.
What was the feedback on the film by people appearing in it?
We had shown the film to all our characters. Jonathan gets always emotional and cries but apart that, our characters like the film and they feel well represented.
Did you have any goal or ambition on your mind while making A CAMPAIGN OF THEIR OWN?
For me, the most important thing is to have the approval of people that are appearing in the film. I was very nervous from Jonathan and Toby's reaction when we showed them the film for the first time. Otherwise, I did not intend to make this film as an expansion of Bernie´s voice.
The film does not feel like a promo for Sanders but more of a portrayal of people´s activism.
Exactly, it does not lie in Bernie's portrayal but more in the notion that if we really want to live in a democracy, we need to be adequately represented in the government. If you believe in democracy, you have to be committed to it, go vote, discuss with people around you. If you do not believe in democracy, you try to change the system into another system. All in all, A Campaign of Their Own is a film against cynicism.
I read this book, A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, during the editing of A Campaign of Their Own and my next project will be a fiction film shot in Switzerland. However, after this project, I would really like to return to the U.S. to shoot a documentary because there is this relation between Americans, a camera and their own representation.
I am interested in their history, their politics. I was thinking a lot about Native Americans in North Dakota. If you remember, there is one in A Campaign of Their Own, the one that says he is also a millennial, and he says something interesting that I edited out in rush. He says that Native Americans are invisible and this is the sentiment I had about Sanders and his media representation.
The same about Native Americans, they appear from time to time but they are mostly invisible to the mainstream. I have to think hard about the project since it won´t be easy for me to make that kind of documentary as a white dude. I am not sure what the subject will be but I know I would like to make a film about Native Americans.
Did the U.S. contribute to the project financially, somehow?
We made a little crowdfunding between New York and Philadelphia because at that time, we did not have money from the state's subvention. However, most of the funding came from our art collective Zooscope, there is a kind of financial solidarity among the members.
So, our collective decided to support the project A Campaign of Their Own. Aside that, towards the end, we received some financial support from the French part of Switzerland to finish the project. But no money from U.S. went into the project, just the individual contributions via crowdfunding.
Why would Switzerland support a documentary about political events in another country?
We sent them the rough cut but at that point they knew a several festivals became interested in our project. It was really a last minute support.
Before that, we never asked for money. We knew the film will have a career on the festival circuit, some people became interested in it, so they decided to support it.