The objective of The 11/4/08 Project is to use film and interactive technology to capture a moment in time, and reinvent the process of writing history. By choosing the day of Barack Obama's election - a moment that was expected to be "historic" before it had even occurred - I was able to encourage a group of filmmakers from all over the world to record their experiences of 11/4/08. Now, I am soliciting more footage so that this website can accumulate the most comprehensive library of footage shot that day, and become an experiment in interactive history.
Phase One of The 11/4/08 Project is the feature documentary.
Phase Two of The 11/4/08 Project is the interactive history.
For more information on this project, read my filmmaker statement.
11/4/08: THE FEATURE DOCUMENTARY
Two weeks before the election of Barack Obama, I asked friends of mine around the world to record their experiences of 11/4/08, a day that had become “historic” before it had even taken place. In this feature documentary, we witness a global canvas begin to unfold: in St. Louis and Austin, idealistic volunteers think they can turn their states blue; in Chicago, voter lines are made even longer when Obama shows up to cast his own vote; in Alaska, children seem to be as invested in the election results as their parents; in Paris, an organization discusses whether there could ever be a black President of France; in Dubai, Berlin, Geneva and New Delhi, expatriates express their emotion from a distance; and in Harlem, a felon casts doubt on whether any of this will actually affect his life. As we approach the final announcement of Obama’s victory at 11pm EST, what emerges is a portrait of how people choose to live through “history”: the celebration of a new future remaining entangled with the universally visible tensions of the past.
11/4/08: THE INTERACTIVE HISTORY
Now, I am continuing to accumulate footage shot on 11/4/08. More footage is out there. It does not matter how good or bad you think your footage is. It doesn't matter what format it was shot on; it could have been shot on a cell phone. It doesn't matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, or where on the global map you were that day. The only rule is that it had to have been shot within the waking hours of November 4, 2008.
Whether or not you happened to shoot footage that day, you can still participate! The footage on this website is a resource for students and historians to study, and also for filmmakers to download, remix, mash-up, and edit their own versions of events. In this way, filmmakers can become historians, and this website can become an interactive history textbook.
The ability to construct, circulate and popularize the narrative of how a historical event unfolded is a massively powerful political tool, and one that became of particular interest to me during Barack Obama’s presidential election. Here was a candidate explicitly well-versed in American and global history, and actively aware of his place within it. The campaign used this historical literary to construct a desirable narrative of what Obama’s election would represent: here could be the beginning of the end of the tragic and brutal tale of American racism, here could be the beginning of the end of destructive and anti-intellectual political partisanship.
Obama supporters were thus presented with, embraced, and internalized the notion that through supporting Obama, through canvassing on the weekends, through encouraging Republican elders to switch party alliances, through spending a sleepless week before the election volunteering in a small town in Pennsylvania, they were creating a new, better history.
I wondered: how would we process this notion that we were creating history? What behavior, emotions, and associations would it bring out in us? To what extent were these reactions genuine, and to what extent were they, if unconsciously, manufactured and rehearsed for the sake of posterity?
Throughout my life I’ve been a devoted fan of the film medium, and engaged with its relationship to recording and creating history. One of the medium’s most specific ambitions, as embodied by the documentary genre (and more precisely, by cinema vérité), is to record reality as is. Filmmakers from Robert Flaherty to Frederick Wiseman have shown how moving images can function in a similar fashion to written histories, in some ways offering something even closer to a “true” historical re-telling: allowing us to see and to hear an event as it unfolded, albeit with the ever present caveat of editorial/authorial choice.
It was with these two thoughts in mind – the Obama campaign’s insistence that his election would be historical, and the ability of film above other mediums to capture history – that I set out to encourage friends of mine around the world to film on the day of the election.
I did not know what kind of footage I would be able to collect. I just wanted to record the reactions of the Obama supporters who believed that on that day, after months of anticipation, they were witnessing historical change happen before their eyes.
Sprinkled throughout the film, there are interviews that reflect “the other side.” It was less important to me to include McCain supporters – a group less likely to have been shooting footage that day – than to include voices of cynicism, whether Republican or Democrat. As this project is not about the election per se, but rather about history, the crucial tension that emerges is between those who believe Obama’s election represents significant historical change and those who are less certain of this assessment.
Having said that, I am completely open to the inclusion of footage shot by and depicting McCain supporters. If a significant amount of such footage were to surface here, I imagine the nature of this project might shift into something else entirely, which could be very interesting.
There is a sense in which this film will always be incomplete; it will always be a limited representation of one day in history. Ultimately, the recording of history, whether by written word or through film, is an impossible task. There is no way to be exhaustive, even when focusing on a single day. Like the writer of a history textbook, a filmmaker must choose to focus on moments deemed “important” and neglect the infinite minutia.
However, in choosing a day that is likely one of the most filmed of all time, I feel there is an opportunity to experiment with the way in which we write history; to incorporate new technologies in the service of democratizing the history-“writing” process. Napoleon Bonaparte wrote that “history is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” Typically, histories are “agreed upon” by a select group of experts who research primary sources to create narratives. My ambition in this project is to present another kind of recorded history, one that goes straight to these disparate sources and allows a plurality of first-person narrations without the omniscient “master narrator.”
In the year since 11/4/08, cynicism has replaced much of the idealism that initially surrounded Obama. No doubt a large segment of the audience will see this project through the prism of what Obama has not accomplished and the expectations that he has inevitably failed to satisfy. It was never my goal to be cynical, optimistic or explicitly political. The goal of this project is to make raw historical footage available in a way that is open to interpretation, and will no doubt be seen under different lights depending on the moment in which the viewer is situated. The student of history has the luxury of hindsight. However, by eliminating the distance between author and student, by allowing us all to become historians, I hope we can look into the mirror of our own recent past and reflect.