Q&A: Jeff Deutchman Follows Fellow Voting Americans in ’11/8/16′

On the day of the 2016 presidential election, filmmaker Jeff Deutchman surveys the thoughts and feelings of ordinary Americans as they head to the ballot box. Told in brief vignettes from across the country and focusing on voters from every side of the political spectrum—ranging from a Sikh man and his family in New York City to a coal miner in West Virginia—the film humanizes the electorate in an age of sweeping generalizations. In its panoramic form and disparate viewpoints, 11/8/16 provides a necessary counterpoint that finds moments of common humanity within a seemingly unbridgeable divide.

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What a dynamic and incredible piece of history. Please describe 11/8/16 in your own words.

Jeff Deutchman: The film is an invitation for people to stare directly into the chaotic, messy nature of American democracy. The film is about how we often pay lip service to democratic values without confronting or acknowledging the darker aspects of what living in a democracy means: namely, that we must live under an enormous tent, full of a broad spectrum of different types of people with vastly different experiences, including people who are confused, ill-informed or unstable. And this system, as Churchill famously stated, is better than all the other ones. The film is a portrait of this system in action.

You also worked on a film called 11/4/08. How did the two projects differ for you? Was there one thing in particular you brought with you from the first film to the second?

Jeff Deutchman: The first film was an experiment that only occurred to me two weeks before the election. So there was no real pre-production. It cost nothing to make and I had no idea what to expect. As a result, the footage was very insular to supporters of Barack Obama in major cities, most of whom were young and many of whom were white. Frankly, it was a reflection of who was in my rolodex. It was a severe limitation on the film, but I made the most of that limitation by focusing on a question that was a central theme within the Left in that moment, and one that would bear out in interesting ways over the course of Obama’s presidency: Does the election of Barack Obama represent significant change to America, or not?

One thing I noticed after making the film was that its resonance shifts and deepens over time. Watching 11/4/08 at the SXSW Film Festival in 2010, right after Obamacare had passed, it felt as though Obama’s presidency had been cemented as one of the most consequential presidencies in modern history. Watching the film in 2012, as the Left was becoming disenchanted by some of Obama’s choices overseas and as a new generation who hadn’t been “awake” through the Bush years became politically active, the film’s central question seemed to be answered in new ways. From our vantage point in 2016, the hipsters who are seen singing and dancing on the streets of Williamsburg at the end of the film seem naïve. Or that is certainly how the hipsters of today, largely supporters of Bernie Sanders’s movement for “revolution” rather than simple “change,” would see them, even though in some cases I suspect these are one and the same individuals. Time changes our perception of the film and of ourselves.

This was my primary impetus to make a second film. If time adds value to the film itself, imagine what a series of films could achieve by comparison to one another. It could be BOYHOOD for America.

What were you looking for in the directors you pulled together to collaborate on this project?

Jeff Deutchman:  I started by approaching filmmakers who I know and love. I wanted to take a more professional route this time around, so I focused primarily on documentarians who I knew would have the chops to elicit good material out of subjects in a tight window of time while simultaneously paying attention to craft. As an acquisitions executive and doc-phile, I see a ton of documentaries and have my favorite documentarians. I was very fortunate to get some of them to work on this movie. The other thing we did was focus on regional filmmakers who I was less familiar with, but who know their terrain better than I or any New York or Los Angeles-based filmmaker ever could.

There are so many stories being told throughout America in this film. How difficult was it to find people to openly discuss their political opinion, and to follow them around on that single day?

Jeff Deutchman: The advantage of having many filmmakers involved is that each filmmaker comes with his or her own set of relationships, community ties, and points of access. I worked with each filmmaker to identify subjects who would be valuable to the film, but oftentimes, that process started with the filmmaker pitching ideas to me. And those ideas would often come from relationships that they already had. Relationships of trust are extremely important in making subjects comfortable expressing themselves on camera. 

11/8/16 covers a swath of locations throughout America during one of the most unpredictable moments in American history. Do you have a favorite segment?

Jeff Deutchman: No. It was hard enough to narrow the film down to these stories out of the 50 that were shot. These I love equally.

What surprised you the most about your fellow Americans?

Jeff Deutchman: I was surprised by the degree to which many Americans viewed voting as an expression of their identity rather than simply as math. I understand having nuanced perspectives on candidates that make voting for a Democrat or Republican somewhat troubling for people sometimes. And I understand the desire to create systemic change that would allow less mainstream candidates to have more success.

But in an election cycle that saw a Socialist nearly clinch the Democratic nomination and Donald Trump become the President, I don’t know why people continue to be so despondent on this particular issue. It seems more possible now than ever before for fringe candidates to rise to the top. In the case of Sanders, he didn’t end up winning. But he came very close, and he was very successful in pulling Hillary to the Left during the general election. I was surprised that there were still many people on the Left who couldn’t see the value in having a President who would have been uniquely beholden to a Socialist movement.

What are you hoping Hamptons audiences will take away from your film? I imagine we will have some fantastic Q&As.

Jeff Deutchman: I hope that audiences will agree there is no such thing as “too soon” when it comes to confronting and trying to understand the country that we live in.  If anything, it’s too late. We need this now, for many reasons.

The film is designed to be a mirror. There is hopefully at least one subject who will serve as a surrogate entry-point for any viewer, and seeing a mirror image of oneself on screen living through a stressful moment can be illuminating.

Also, the film offers an opportunity to spend time with people outside of your immediate circle. There has been a lot of discussion since the election about how liberals have done a bad job of empathizing with the white working class. It’s a controversial talking point in the context of recent White Supremacy rallies, not to mention the entire history of racism and sexism in America. The way I see this is that it’s one example out of many examples of Americans failing to empathize with one another.

I do believe there is value in critical empathy. That is: allowing yourself to be humble enough to want to understand other people’s points of view without abandoning your own perspective and accumulated experience. In 11/8/16, we captured a diverse group of Americans who were generous enough to allow us a window into their lives and their ideas. Because of our filmmakers’ vérité approach, there are no filters and very little knee-jerk defensiveness. I hope viewers of the film will see this as an opportunity to observe and listen to their fellow Americans, and then come up with their own critical takeaways. 

We look forward to seeing you next week. What are you looking forward to most at HIFF25?

Jeff Deutchman: The opportunity to have conversations with audiences about the film.

Check out the World Premiere of 11/8/16 in the Documentary section of HIFF25. Find tickets. Follow 11/8/16 on Facebook and Twitter.