My confidence that America is great has never been so shaken as now with the triumph of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” con job. Ironic, right? It’s not just the biggest hustle in human history, it’s also people acting on a mass scale in a way that would suggest a deep disregard for freedom, diversity and kindness. There may be wide swaths of disenfranchised white Americans who could be better served by our government and the media but I question whether Trump will be the one to actually do it. They had a better shot with Bernie.
I grew up with deep mistrust for my president. Between Reagan and the Bush presidencies, and even the Clinton years, it was the norm for me to question authority. And then I got complacent during the Obama years.
But this isn’t just about presidents. It’s about reality as we perceive it; about objective truth, something that the documentary community loves considering and reconsidering. Visionary filmmakers like Werner Herzog have aspired to reveal ecstatic truths rather than journalistic ones.
Now we truly live in an age of truthiness, as Stephen Colbert first called it. But that joke isn’t funny anymore. Trump has harnessed that shift to power his reality-TV personality to the presidency.
I, and I’d guess more than 90% of PBS-watching, documentary-loving, urban America, need to be reeducated about the country we live in.
If you share any of these thoughts with me, you are also trying to put the pieces back together in order to move forward. I think a good place to start is with Lee Hirsch, director of Bully, and the cofounder of the super PAC Local Voices, which created election spots that gave voice to everyday Americans who weren’t voting for Trump.
“I was gutted,” says Hirsch, who watched the election result with his Local Voices team in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “It was an awful, horrible, devastating evening.”
Since then, he has been talking with people in the documentary and anti-bullying communities, “trying to dust off and see where to go next,” he says.
Hirsch is proud that the Local Voices spots addressed the very people — rural, ex-urban, white and conservative — who clearly needed the most convincing. “We had a lot of incredible work that was under-utilized because we weren’t able to attract the mainstream dollars,” he says.
Now, it’s ever more imperative for documentary-friendly financiers to create legal defense funds for filmmakers so that they are safe from attack, says Hirsch. “We don’t yet know what sort of crackdowns we’re going to see. Journalists are going to need protection.”
He believes more filmmakers are going to be coming out of the woodwork, some better known for cinematic non-fiction films, who will make more activist-type films and ones that counterbalance the advent of so-called fake news. He also foresees more interest from filmmakers in outreach and engagement work with communities, especially in rural areas, as opposed to one-off network releases. Non-profit funders like Ford Foundation, The Fledgling Fund and Britdoc and exurban film festivals could play central roles to those ends.
And, as we enter this new world, Hirsch notes it is even more important that local storytellers are empowered.
I asked him how he is coping with the bewildering doublespeak of Trump’s wife, Melania, who says she will be trumpeting the cause of anti-bullying, despite (because of?) her husband having ascended by harassing, belittling and teasing disempowered groups and individuals.
He’s a textbook grade-school bully, and he now literally wields the power of the most powerful bully pulpit.
“A lot of people who work in this field are really nervous,” Hirsch says. “We are tracking incidents of bullying, which are breaking out all over the country. We need more than ever to resurface those stories. We need to get the resources out there and to figure out what is the correct messaging.”
A primary concern is Trump’s threat to dissolve the Department of Education, under which there is the Office of Civil Rights, which is sometimes the only resource for parents who believe their children have had their rights violated. When schools don’t step up, a victim can turn to federal support.
As for our future first lady’s claim to work for victims of bullying, Hirsch takes a diplomatic tone. “The answer is to take her at her word and hold her to it,” he says. “The idea that someone in that White House is going to take this issue seriously is really positive. Let’s say I’m cautiously optimistic.”