By Andrea Meyer
Sundance Film Festival Daily Insider
A lot of journalists and filmmakers went out looking for a story on Election Day, 2004. Only one of them was lucky enough to find Fannie Lewis. The feisty, 80-year-old councilwoman from Cleveland, Ohio – star of Laura Paglin’s short documentary No Umbrella – is all grit and no nonsense, with the determination of Sisyphus and the refusal to understand the word “no.”
When Paglin set out on November 2, she had no game plan. “I thought, it’s this historic day and everyone in the world is in Cleveland watching voting,” she said. “I thought something big could happen and I want to be there.”
With cries of misconduct and conspiracy still resonating from the 2000 election, the country was on edge and waiting to see what would go wrong this time. The director of a feature, Nightowls of Coventry, and another doc, Shadow of the Swan: A Composer’s Story, Paglin was originally hired to be one of a team of filmmakers shooting polling places all over the state. But when that larger project fell apart, she decided to go anyway and chose an inner-city polling location at random. By heading out solo without plan, Paglin set herself up to encounter technical difficulties, from microphone irregularities to tape mangled by her faulty camera. Yet in spite of some distortion and messy footage she would have to fix in post-production, she would not have missed making this film. “It’s about how hard it is to do what should be a simple, basic thing; which is to vote,” she said.
Upon arriving in Cleveland, Paglin discovered that voting, at least in certain parts of the country, is not simple at all. She originally positioned herself on the sidewalk in front of the polls. “I didn’t want to be obnoxious sticking my camera in someone’s face. You don’t want to intimidate voters,” she explained. “But I asked people coming out if anything was going wrong and they said, ‘Oh, it’s terrible’ and they said, ‘Here, come on in.’ It was like being invited into someone’s house.” What she found inside and captured on camera was a roomful of disgruntled people— some in tears, others arguing with one another—who had been waiting for at least an hour and a half to vote.
Then the tiny, white-haired Lewis showed up, outraged, and began to make phone calls demanding more voting machines. When ten primitive-looking devices arrived later that day, the inserts necessary to use them were nowhere to be found. Lewis got back on the phone. “It’s like we prayed for rain and didn’t bring no umbrella,” Lewis says to the camera. “Now we have to stand in the downpour.” While Lewis kissed babies and jumped through bureaucratic hurdles on multiple cellphones, reporters came and went, along with civil rights lawyers, local politicians promising to send help, and even the compassionate mayor, Jane Campbell, wearing a Kerry-Edwards button. At one point, after waiting hours for the promised inserts to arrive, Lewis says, “What are they coming on? A snail? These people can’t wait two to three hours to vote!”
While Paglin acknowledges her good filmic fortune in stumbling upon Lewis, she feels that getting great material involved more than being in the right place at the right time. It was more about staying in the right place for a long time. “Camera crews were coming in after [Fannie] had been there for hours and going, ‘What’s going on?’” she said. “People were darting around from polling place to polling place searching for the big story, and I think that the key was staying there. Bit by bit people got used to me being there.”
So what was that big story just burning to be told? Does Paglin believe that misconduct was intentionally committed in the state of Ohio? “You could say it’s just incompetence at many levels or you could say it’s a conspiracy,” she said. “There was a congressional report made saying it wasn’t just an isolated problem; it was many inner city polling locations. Whether it’s intentional or not is not for me to say, but you could draw that conclusion.” But there is one thing she does know. “There were people that walked away because they just couldn’t wait in line and had to go to work,” she said. “That is a fact.”