October 12, 2006 at 09:09:42
By Joan Brunwasser
A Glance Backward as We Gaze Forward: Review of No Umbrella: Election Day in the City
I watched No Umbrella: Election Day in the City for the second time tonight. It was hard enough to watch the first time around, before I knew what I was getting into. I attended a screening a few weeks ago at the We Count 2006 Conference on Fair Elections. It was fitting to see this documentary in the city where it was shot a little less than two years ago. No Umbrella takes us inside Ward 7, a poor, minority district of Cleveland, on Election Day 2004. While we never leave that particular polling place, what we see is a microcosm of what went on in urban centers all over Ohio, and in other battleground states as well.
Long lines in urban areas characterized November 2004. While we don't see much forward movement at this polling place, there is lots of emotion – frustration, anger, disgust, cynicism, resignation, exasperation, determination, and even humor. As time drags, tempers flare. We meet a number of memorable characters:
• A young woman who is happy to be standing in line to vote. "We're going to stand here 'til things get better" she says defiantly.
• Another young woman is asked how the waiting went. "Not too bad," she jokes, "just two hours. Vote for Kerry. When Clinton lied, nobody died."
• A man talks about candidates making promises and then reneging once they get voted in.
• A weary middle-aged woman takes it for granted that this is just a ploy to discourage black voters. She patiently explains this to a member of the press who seems skeptical.
• A man standing outside in a rain poncho expounds on the Iraq war in the context of W's father's actions while president.
• "Right is right. I don't care. Right is right" a woman mutters at the beginning of the film. With her screwed up face, at first I thought this woman was pouting. She was actually crying. It was painful to watch her anguish and frustration and I found her an apt symbol for November 2004.
It is clear that these voters are on their own. This scenario reminds me of a play I read many years ago that takes place entirely in one room where people sat, endlessly. There was no real action, and if my memory serves me correctly, they were unable to sleep because they had no eyelids. They were forced to live in limbo, forever waiting, and never arriving – a perfect description of hell. The image is seared in my mind; it made a huge impression on me. These voters, so willing to wait indefinitely in order to exercise their right to vote, are defenseless against a system that has badly failed them.
The only bright spot in this picture is Councilwoman Fannie Lewis in her yellow slicker. This ward's rep since 1980, she camps out in the polling place all day long. She never even gets a chance to take off her slicker. Working the phone, sometimes two at once, this feisty and dedicated octogenarian tries to get more voting machines, more poll workers and the missing inserts which need to travel fifteen minutes and yet inexplicably don't show up until the voting day is more than half over. "What are they comin' on" she asks, " a snail?" Good question, and well put.
Councilwoman Lewis is calm and insistent, repeating the same story again and again with her post-its at the ready, writing down various phone numbers and contacts, essentially getting nowhere. She doesn't give up. She keeps her cool, but she is clearly exasperated. We have the sense that this is not a new game for her.
In a country where the political leadership can't disavow responsibility quickly enough and the buck stops nowhere, Fannie Lewis refuses to abandon ship. She is supposed to leave to meet Jesse Jackson, but chooses to stays put. Mayor Campbell comes and gets the line rearranged so that people are more comfortable and drier, encouraging everyone to stay and vote, but she accomplishes nothing meaningful. The line looks exactly the same when she leaves as it did when she arrived. Various "unidentified politicians from DC" come and smile, mouth platitudes, give a thumbs up, chant "help is on the way" and leave. Talk about empty words. No wonder these folks are cynical. I wanted to wipe the smug smiles off the politicians' faces. I hated their unhelpfulness, and their ability to escape to somewhere else where everything worked better.
Does anyone remember those filmstrips from the '50s that attempted to make the dry past come alive? They would recreate some moment in history, each episode starting with a disembodied voice intoning something like this: "The date is x and you are there!"
The date was November, 2004, and I want to rush out of the theatre as if somehow not watching can change the outcome. It's like the horror movie and you know the scary part is coming and so you squinch your eyes tight and cover them with both hands and hunker down in your seat to try to avert what's about to happen, but you can't. The difference is that this isn't a made-up story; these are real people, this happened to them, it happened to all of us, and there's every reason to believe that we will see No Umbrella-type scenes at polling places across the country in a very few weeks. We can't run out of the theatre. We are there.
In a no-win situation, at least Fannie Lewis has the best lines. Commenting on the insufficient number of voting machines and poll workers to deal with the large (and expected) turnout, she says the city was "like a man praying for rain and don't take an umbrella." On the phone with everyone on up the line, Fannie finally gets to Michael Vu, Cuyahoga County elections director. She tells him, "You do your job then I won't have to do it." In response to a query from the press about how things are going, she retorts, "They aint goin'."
Here is little old Fannie Lewis in her yellow slicker, doing her job, trying to make things work, a Sisyphus with a hill too steep and a rock too large and unwieldy. The unceasing rain and the ever-present digital clock in the lower left hand corner of the screen echo her struggle – a constant reminder that time is running out for them and for us.
So now we find ourselves, two years later, on the eve of another critical election. For those interested enough to know, there have been almost non-stop stories about the train wrecks that characterized the nation's primaries. Read BradBlog, http://www.bradblog.com subscribe to the Daily Voting News, http://www.votersunite.org and read OpEdNews. There is absolutely no reason to anticipate anything better any time soon. We have far more insecure, inaccurate voting machines in use now then we did in 2004, despite all of the massive documentation of their fatal flaws: the Conyers Report; the GAO Report; the Hursti/Black Box Voting Hack in Leon County, Florida; the Carter-Baker Commission; and the Princeton Center Report, to name a few. The evidence is piling up, yet almost four billion tax dollars have hemorrhaged from our budget to prop up a horridly flawed system. Would you put your money in a bank whose vault door stood open? Las Vegas gambling machines have far tighter, stricter security. What does it mean that we accept this state of affairs? Is democracy worth less than the money in our bank balances? Does everyone realize exactly what's at stake here?
Laura Paglin has packed a lot of angst and bureaucratic unresponsiveness in a small package. One of her earlier works, The Shadow of the Swan, deals with the struggles and triumphs of a composer who travels to Russia to premier one of his works. Here, we see the struggles of a poor, black ward trying to overcome a system that is set against them and will ultimately defeat them. The only triumph in No Umbrella is their indomitable spirit. Yes, they are frustrated and angry and cynical, but, they are there. Whether they will be there in subsequent elections remains to be seen. But, they are well served by their Councilwoman, Fannie Lewis. She is the heroine of this story. Every voter across the country deserves a dedicated representative like her. Ultimately, she is not able to prevail, but she shows courage and fortitude and gives dignity to staying the course.
I promised Laura that I would write a review. But, she doesn't need me to tell her that she's struck a chord. No Umbrella was one of 50 entries chosen from 4,000 for the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. It's been shown all over the US as well as in Europe and Australia. That silent but ever present digital clock at the bottom left of the screen was a poignant symbol. I could feel time slipping away. Without a word or a sound, Paglin captured our desperation and the enormity of our challenge. For, make no mistake, while these were poor, minority voters, we were all losers when some of us are treated so shabbily. If poor blacks voted Republican, it's a safe bet that they would not have been harassed. It's not their color but their political persuasion that is perceived as a threat. Who's pushing Voter IDs, a measure sure to disenfranchise millions of poor, urban minorities? It's not the Democrats.
Ariella, my daughter/editor lives abroad. After finishing the rough draft of the review, I sent it off to her, frustrated with my inability to adequately convey the power of this film. This was her response, "I want to see the movie. It makes me want to cry too. I have this feeling inside me of such anger at people for oppressing these poor black voters. And my heart goes out to them, so steadfast and dignified in their plight. I just want to give them all hugs and encourage them and apologize to them that they have to go through this." That's what I was feeling during the screening. If only apologies and hugs would suffice.
Paglin is masterful with the footage from Ohio SOS Ken Blackwell's public service announcements about the upcoming elections. Knowing what we do about the various guises, subtle and blatant, used to keep minority voters away from the polls, it is with the greatest irony that we hear him say, "Make sure there are no Florida hanging chads." What HAVA and Blackwell created in Ohio was a perfect storm for vote suppression that makes me positively nostalgic for hanging chads. They were never as problematic as they were portrayed; and they provided the rationale to usher in the nightmare that is HAVA and which has insidiously poisoned the election process for all of us, wherever we live and vote.
An exception to the corporate media blackout, CNN's Lou Dobbs has done a gallant job exposing the problems of electronic voting. A Robin Williams movie, Man of the Year, with the premise of an electronic voting machine affecting the elections, is due to open this week. "Hacking Democracy", the HBO blockbuster three years in the making, is scheduled to air a few days before the elections and guaranteed to give many people nightmares. In July, I asked "Can we really afford to sit back and wait for someone else to 'fix' our democracy?" While it won't be easy to turn this iceberg around, do we really have a choice but to try? We all need an 'aha' moment to jolt us into rethinking, reframing, and changing direction. If this isn't that moment, I don't know what is.
Contact Laura Paglin: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.noumbrella.org about getting a copy of her movie or to see the screening schedule. Tell her I sent you.
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